Homily for January 1
Octave of the Nativity and the Solemnity of Mary the Mother of God
When eight days were completed for his circumcision,
he was named Jesus, the name given him by the angel
before he was conceived in the womb.
The traditional name of today’s feast is the Circumcision of Our Lord. The other names we use today are also traditional: it is the octave of Christmas, and this octave commemorates the Maternity of Mary, the Mother of God. More delicately, one choice was to call the feast “the Most Holy Name of Jesus.” This makes sense, since the name of the newborn son was given on the day of his circumcision. (We now celebrate the Holy Name, thanks to St. John Paul II, on the third of January.)
Although God himself decreed circumcision in his covenant with Abraham, and God the Son himself chose to undergo circumcision, the whole matter is regarded nowadays as a bit unsavory. Strange that in a culture so explicit about the human body in its most private aspects we should be squeamish about this, when in earlier ages, which were very modest and careful about the human body, they had no problem celebrating a feast that commemorates the cutting of the Savior’s foreskin. Indeed, the relic of the foreskin of the circumcision was venerated every year with a procession (with bands and fireworks, mind you!) in a town near Rome, for centuries literally, until touchy officials ended the practice in the eighties of the last century.
Jews and Muslims celebrate the circumcision of their sons with great festivity. Both of them see the rite as coming from God’s command to Abraham, and some Jews even teach that the rite goes back to Adam, to the very origin of the human race. Mary and Joseph did the same to be sure; there were congratulatory visits and a festive meal. Christians do the same at the baptism of their little ones. And here is the point of contact between the old law and the Christian law. Baptism is a new birth, a regeneration from the womb of the font. There is thus in the Christian liturgy the fulfillment of the old rite of circumcision. This time there is not a birth by physical descent by human intercourse, but a birth from above, “by water and the spirit,” but no less touched by the symbolism of the womb, and the procreative power of the divine Son, symbolized in the paschal candle.
I once consulted an ultra-orthodox rabbi about the meaning of circumcision in his tradition. I was not disappointed. He said that the rite was meant to symbolize the love that unites a man’s heart, the principal organ of love that moves the life-blood through the body, with his power to bestow new life. The blood of the circumcision is an expression of this love, a kind of sacrifice. It was even called “the blood of the covenant,” and a man’s keeping himself in chastity called “keeping the covenant.”
So circumcision is about the giving of life in devoted love, and baptism is about the giving of the supernatural life of Christ’s body, being born again and from above. And this life is fed by the blood of the covenant, offered up and received in the most holy sacrament of the altar. Our lives as Catholic Christians would be much richer if we were more aware of the concrete symbols we use by God’s direction, and the continuity they offer us with the types and symbols of the old covenant.
The world wants us to view the human body and the organs of procreation only in a pornographic and exploitative way. But God gave us our human nature as male and female in order to make us like himself, in his own image, as those who give and receive love and life as men and women. May the newly circumcised Savior save us by the merits of his life-giving blood shed for us today for the first time in Bethlehem of Judea!