Circumcision, FEAST OF THE.—As Christ wished to fulfil the law and to show His descent according to the flesh from Abraham, He, though not bound by the law, was circumcised on the eighth day (Luke, ii, 21), and received the sublime name expressive of His office, Jesus, i.e. Savior. He was, as St. Paul says, “made under the law”, i.e. He submitted to the Mosaic Dispensation, “that he might redeem them who were under the law: that we might receive the adoption of sons” (Gal., iv, 4, 5). “The Christ, in order to fulfil all justice, was required to endure this humiliation, and bear in His body the stigma of the sins which He had taken upon Himself” (Fouard, A Life of Jesus, tr., I, 54). The circumcision took place, not in the Temple, though painters sometimes so represent it, but in some private house, where the Holy Family had found a rather late hospitality. The public ceremony in the synagogue, which is now the usage, was introduced later. Christmas was celebrated on December 25, even in the early centuries, at least by the Western Church, whence the date was soon adopted in the East also. (See Christmas.) Saint Chrysostom credits the West with the tradition, and St. Augustine speaks of it as well and long established. Consequently the Circumcision fell on the first of January. In the ages of paganism, however, the solemnization of the feast was almost impossible, on account of the orgies connected with the Saturnalian festivities, which were celebrated at the same time. Even in our own day the secular features of the opening of the New Year interfere with the religious observance of the Circumcision, and tend to make a mere holiday of that which should have the sacred character of a Holy Day. St. Augustine points out the difference between the pagan and the Christian manner of celebrating the day: pagan feasting and excesses were to be expiated by Christian fasting and prayer (P.L., XXXVIII, 1024 sqq.; Serm. cxcvii, cxcviii). The Feast of the Circumcision was kept at an early date in the Gallican Rite, as is clearly indicated in a Council of Tours (567), in which the Mass of the Circumcision is prescribed (Con. Tur., II., can. xvii in Labbe, V, 857). The feast celebrated at Rome in the seventh century was not the Circumcision as such, but the octave of Christmas. The Gelasian Sacramentary gives the title “In Octabas Domini”, and prohibits the faithful from idolatry and the profanities of the season (P.L., LXXIV, 1061). The earliest Byzantine calendars (eighth and ninth centuries) give for the first of January both the Circumcision and the anniversary of St. Basil. The Feast of the Circumcision was observed in Spain before the death of St. Isidore (636), for the “Regula Monachorum”, X, reads: “For it bath pleased the Fathers to appoint a holy season from the day of the Lord’s birth to the day of His Circumcision” (P.L., LXXXIII, 880). It seems, therefore, that the octave was more prominent in the early centuries, and the Circumcision later.
It is to be noted also that the Blessed Virgin Mary was not forgotten in the festivities of the holy season, and the Mass in her honor was sometimes said on this day. Today, also, while in both Missal and Breviary the feast bears the title “In Circumcisione Domini et Octave, Nativitatis”, the prayers have special reference to the Blessed Virgin, and in the Office, the responses and antiphons set forth her privileges and extol her wonderful prerogatives. The psalms for Vespers are those appointed for her feasts, and the antiphons and hymn of Lauds keep her constantly in view. As paganism passed away the religious festivities of the Circumcision became more conspicuous and solemn; yet, even in the tenth century. Atto, Bishop of Vercelli, rebuked those who profaned the holy season by pagan dances, songs, and the lighting of lamps (P.L., CXXXIV, 43). (See also New Year’s Day.)
JOHN J. TIERNEY