ON New Year’s Day, the Book of Common Prayer commemorates the Circumcision of Christ. This is an important reminder to Christian people that their Lord and Saviour, in his incarnate state, was a male Jew and that therefore they should be in the forefront of the fight against anti-Semitism.
The set Gospel reading for today from Luke chapter 2 records Jesus’s circumcision eight days after his birth as a matter of course in the Jewish religion: ‘And when eight days were accomplished for the circumcising of the child, his name was called JESUS, which was so named of the angel before he was conceived in the womb’ (v21). Jesus’s devoutly Jewish mother, Mary, had received the divine command to give her son a Hebrew name that meant ‘The Lord saves’ from the Angel Gabriel in Roman-occupied Palestine in (probably) 4 BC.
As recorded in Luke chapter 1, Gabriel told her: ‘Fear not, Mary; for thou hast found favour with God. And behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name JESUS. He shall be great and shall be called the Son of the Highest: and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David, and he shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there will be no end’ (Luke 1v30-34 – King James Version).
The angel could not have been clearer that the son born to Mary would be the King of the Jews. He would be the fulfilment of the Lord God’s promise to Israel’s King David a thousand years before that a descendant of his would be the Messiah, a divine promise recorded in the Old Testament (2 Samuel 7).
Mary’s son would be the rightful ruler of the Jewish people, the descendants of Jacob, the grandson of Abraham. Genesis 17 records Abraham receiving the divine command to undergo circumcision as a pattern for his male descendants, a sign that they and their families were God’s chosen people.
Genesis later records God renaming Jacob ‘Israel’ (32v28). Jacob’s 12 sons were thus the patriarchs of the 12 tribes of Israel with the tribe of Judah, which survived the destruction of the Kingdom of Israel by the Assyrians in 722 BC, becoming the source of the Jewish race.
The theological truth flowing from this angelic announcement and Jesus’s subsequent circumcision is unequivocal: take the Jew out of Jesus and there is no Messiah left.
The set Epistle reading for today from chapter 4 of the Apostle Paul’s New Testament letter to the Roman Christians makes clear that in God’s plan of salvation physical circumcision was a temporary ordinance. Because Jesus fulfilled the Jewish law through death and resurrection, uncircumcised Gentiles can receive the forgiveness of sins and be included among God’s people.
What is essential now for the eternal salvation of Jews and Gentiles is not physical circumcision but the spiritual circumcision of the human heart through faith in Jesus Christ. Paul argued from the Genesis narrative that Abraham was put right with God through his faith, which ‘was counted unto him for righteousness’ before he received the divine command to be circumcised.
Being precedent, faith in the Lord God is therefore the prevalent principle in salvation, which means that Gentiles can join God’s people through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. But they must never forget that the Jews were God’s people first. Paul encouraged humility among the Gentile Christians of 1st century Rome in chapter 11 of his letter. A Jewish Christian himself who longed for his fellow Jews to come to salvation, he compared Gentile believers in Jesus Christ to the branches of a wild olive tree which had been grafted into a cultivated tree:
‘For if thou wert cut out of the olive tree which is wild by nature, and wert graffed contrary to nature into a good olive tree: how much more shall these, which be the more natural branches, be graffed into their own olive tree?’ (Romans 11v24 – KJV).
Gentile Christians must realise that the spiritual root that supports the Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church is Jewish. If British democracy were to go the way of the Weimar Republic and State-sponsored persecution of Jewish people were to be unleashed in this country, or in parts of it under a fragmented Balkanised scenario, how would the Christian community react? Would not their resolve to oppose the pogroms depend on whether they had taken the biblical teaching to heart?
The Collect for today beautifully reflects the Gospel and Epistle readings:
‘Almighty God, who madest thy blessed Son to be circumcised, and obedient to the law of man: Grant us the true circumcision of the Spirit; that, our hearts and all our members, being mortified from all worldly and carnal lusts, we may in all things obey thy blessed will; through the same thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord.’