Last year at this time, the Revd Canon W Gordon Reid blogged:

After Thursday’s High Mass, as the congregation leave, I will wish them a Happy Circumcision – well, some of them – those with a sense of humour (which is almost all)! The modern Church has gone all prissy about the name of this Feast, calling it the Naming of Jesus or even changing it to Mary, Mother of God. I prefer the earthiness of the Circumcision, which rams home the fact that Jesus was fully human, fully Jewish and fully helpless. All three of these attributes are vital in comprehending what God was doing through his Son in the Incarnation.

And if you are ever on Mastermind or any such quiz game, and you are asked: “When did Jesus first shed his blood for mankind?” the answer is not “On the Cross” but “When he was circumcised”. It may astonish the quiz-master, but the Catholic Faith is often astonishing.

One of his readers refers us to The New Liturgical Movement for the history of this feast commemorated on New Year’s Day in the Catholic Church (emphases mine throughout):

It is historically known as the feast of the Circumcision; the Gospel, St. Luke 2, 21, recounts that the infant Jesus, in fulfillment of the ancient covenant given to Abraham, was circumcised on the eighth day after His birth. Likewise, following the custom of the Jewish people, He was named on the same day, with the holy name given to Him by the Angel before He was conceived …

The first of January is, of course, the octave day of Christmas, and the circumcision and naming of Christ are set by the Mass as the consummation of the feast of His Nativity … In the Missal of the St. Pius V, however, the prayers of the Mass refer neither to the Circumcision, nor to the octave of Christmas. It was formerly the custom of the church of Rome to celebrate the last day of the Christmas octave as a feast of the Virgin Mary, much as the Byzantine Rite keeps December 26th as the “Synaxis of the Most Holy Mother of God” …

The medieval liturgist Sicard of Cremona, writing in about 1200 A.D., explains the tradition of the two observances which were later united into a single feast:

On Christmas Day, two feasts come together,… (one) of the Mother and (one) of the Son; but because of the festival of the Son, we cannot fully celebrate the Mother … therefore also two Masses are celebrated, the first of the Mother, Vultum tuum (now the votive Mass of the Virgin in the Christmas season), and another of the Son, Puer natus est nobis; but if anyone wishes to omit one of them, let him not omit the one that regards the Virgin, so that he may say the prayer Deus, qui salutis æternæ.

There is, however, a fourth element to the day’s observance, which was formerly of the greatest importance. In the ancient Roman world, as in our own, New Year’s was generally celebrated with a great deal of raucous behavior, dancing and drinking of a sort not in keeping with Christian morals. In many places, therefore the liturgy of the day was celebrated as a day of fasting and penance, against the excesses of the pagan world. A few traces of this survive in various places; for example, the Mass of the Circumcision repeats the epistle of the first Mass of Christmas because of the words “…instructing us that, denying ungodliness and worldly desires, we should live soberly and justly, and godly in this world.”

The station of New Year’s Day was originally assigned to the Pantheon, the “temple of all the gods”, which was dedicated as a church in honor of the Virgin Mary and all the martyrs in the year 609 by Pope Boniface IV. The choice was clearly made so that the commemoration of the Mother of God could be celebrated in a place which also symbolizes the victory of the Christian faith and the one God over all of the many gods of the pagan world.

The readings in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer clearly reflect the notion of turning away from the ungodly via a spiritual circumcision:

The Collect. Almighty God, who madest thy blessed Son to be circumcised, and obedient to the law for 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. Amen.

The Epistle. Rom. 4. 8. Blessed is the man to whom the Lord will not impute sin. Cometh this blessedness then upon the circumcision only, or upon the uncircumcision also? for we say that faith was reckoned to Abraham for righteousness. How was it then reckoned? when he was in circumcision, or in uncircumcision? Not in circumcision, but in uncircumcision. And he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had yet being uncircumcised: that he might be the father of all them that believe, though they be not circumcised; that righteousness might be imputed unto them also: And the father of circumcision to them who are not of the circumcision only, but who also walk in the steps of that faith of our father Abraham, which he had being yet uncircumcised. For the promise, that he should be the heir of the world, was not to Abraham, or to his seed, through the law, but through the righteousness of faith. For if they which are of the law be heirs, faith is made void, and the promise made of none effect.

The Gospel. St. Luke 2. 15. And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us. And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger. And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child. And all they that heard it wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds. But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart. And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told unto them. 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.
The same Collect, Epistle, and Gospel shall serve for every day after unto the Epiphany.

Unlike Canon Reid, I won’t be wishing you a happy circumcision but a happy New Year in the hopes that 2011 will be ‘new’ as we make continued and more concerted efforts to turn from sin towards newness of life.

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