The feast of the Circumcision of Christ commemorates the Holy Family’s fulfillment of Leviticus 12:3, which required a male child to be circumcised on the eighth day after his birth. The Leviticus passage was a restatement of the commandment God first gave to Abraham in Genesis 17:10-11.
The symbolic significance of circumcision as a sign of the Old Covenant seems to be two-fold. First, it required the shedding of blood, which reminded Israel that sacrifice was required to fulfill the covenant (cf. Exodus 4:26). Second, it marked the organ of reproduction, which reminded Israel that the covenant was with Abraham and his “seed.”
The full significance of this second point is highlighted by St. Paul in Galalatians: “To Abraham and his seed were the promises made. He saith not, And to seeds, as of many; but as of one, And to thy seed, which is Christ” (3:16). The point of circumcision was to mark off the male children until the arrival of the one particular child who would fulfill the covenant.
Baptism is the sign of the New Covenant that replaced circumcision. Colossians says,
In [Christ] you were also circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the sins of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ; buried with Him in baptism, in which you also were raised with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead (2:11-12).
Circumcision was an external sign. Baptism points to an inward renewal. This is the main distinction between the Old Covenant and the New. The Law of Moses was written on tablets of stone. Through the Holy Spirit, the Law is now written on our hearts (Jeremiah 31:33). This fulfills the prophecy of Deuteronomy, which said, “The Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, to love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live” (30:6).
Another distinction between circumcision and baptism is that women were not able to receive the former rite. The covenant with Abraham was with the male child. Women were included in the covenant through their relationship with father and husband. Now that Christ has come as the firstborn Son, as the male who inherits the covenant promises, both male and female inherit the covenant promises by virtue of their relationship with him. This is the meaning of Galatians 3:27-29:
For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus. And if ye be Christ’s, then are ye Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise. (Gal 3:27-29).
This is why the New Testament sometimes refers to women as “sons of God.” The son was the heir. “In Christ” women also inherit the promises of the covenant.
The day of circumcision was also when the Jewish people named their children. Our Lord is named “Jesus,” which means, “God saves.” Baptism is when we “Name this child” (BCP 279). Christians typically name their children in advance of baptism. The significance of naming in baptism is not the meaning of the name. Rather, the Christian name is the name by which God knows us, since we become his adopted children in baptism.
This all gives us some perspective with which to approach the New Year. Today is, after all, also New Year’s Day. In the light of the truth that Jesus has fulfilled the Law for us and that we are sons of God and heirs of the covenant promises through baptism and faith, we ought to resist the temptation to approach the New Year the way the world does, with the pattern of bold resolution destined for failure.
Part of our inheritance “in Christ” is freedom from captivity to the pattern of behavior that characterizes the world. The world resolves to do better; it tries, by human will power, to become what it ought to be. And it fails. The Christian life begins the other way round. Life in Christ begins with success. God makes us his children by grace. He forgives us and accepts us as we are. Then, by grace, God begins to do his will in our lives.
In order to actually live in a new way, we have to experience God’s grace. We have to accept God’s forgiveness, and forgive those who have sinned against us. This the freedom proclaimed in the Jubilee year in the Bible, when all debts were cancelled and all slaves freed. We are free from bondage to sin and guilt. “We have received the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father. The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God” (Romans 8:15-16).
To be sure, there is work to do “in Christ.” But it is not our striving to be what we or others think we must be. It is God working in us to change us into the people he has declared us to be in baptism. It is God making us in reality what we are by faith. For God already sees Easter. God already sees what we will be when his work in us is finished. This is what we are becoming through the daily renewal of the Spirit (Christmas Collect, BCP 96).
Our resolutions for the New Year should focus on what God is doing in our lives. So many New Year’s resolutions deal with external things—lose weight, get in shape or make some other external change. These are all fine and good as far as they go, but God would have us look at the deeper issues. For example, getting thin is often connected with vanity, which is a sin. If weight is an issue, the real question is, why? Why is food our idol? And, how will we let go of it? How will God’s grace set us free through the experience of forgiveness and the power God gives us to live in a new way? How will God’s grace set us free from our cultural preoccupation with how we look? How will we learn to focus on virtue and not appearance, on the circumcision of the heart and not merely the outward appearance of the flesh?
We must also continually remember that our human failures are a means by which God works in our lives. We know that we are likely to fall short of what we boldly resolve to do. We also know that human weakness is not failure “in Christ.” We make real progress through many failures that lead to new experiences of grace and develop new strength in us. “When I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10). We are learning to be new people. Failure is part of the process by which we are re-fashioned into the image of Christ.
This is why every week in church is a new year. We keep coming to the altar to confess our failures, receive God’s grace and remember again that we are God’s children. We keep going back out into life as new people, to once again do the good works God has prepared for us to walk in. The fact is that our sinful bodies are being made clean and our souls are being washed. As we live the life of prayer, as we work, pray and for the spread of his kingdom, we are being changed by God. As Fr. Joe Miller once said to me after the liturgy; “I guess we’ll just keep doing it until we get it right.” We’ll just keep doing it until the new creation is finished and all things are new.
Christ has come. He has fulfilled the Old Covenant. God’s gift to us, given in baptism and received through faith, is that we are now the sons of God of and heirs of all his covenant promises. Thus, for the New Year, resolve, as the epistle says, to “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:12-13).