Why the Circumcision?
Christ had to be circumcised in order to redeem God's chosen ones from the curse of the Deuteronomic Law that made figurative mules of the multitudes because of their stubbornness. Our Lord came to fulfill the Old Law and establish the New Covenant. The Circumcision was the first shedding of blood to carry out redemption.
"Thus, the image we have before us now is that of Our Lady, carrying up to the temple - the place of sacrifice - her firstborn Son Who is 'Holy to the Lord,' and who is also the firstborn lamb, Who alone can redeem the broken-necked donkey that Israel has become. Only by receiving this Jewish rite of circumcision can Jesus become a viable candidate to redeem Israel - and in shedding His blood here, for the first time, He begins that redemption process already."
Last Saturday, we celebrated the Feast of the Circumcision of Our Lord. Has it ever occured to you that this is a strange feast to celebrate? That is, circumcision is a particularly Jewish ritual, so why is the Catholic Church making a big deal out of it?
Obviously, part of the answer lies in the fact that it is at His circumcision that Our Lord receives His Holy Name - and this is certainly why the Church instructs us to celebrate the Feast of the Holy Name immediately after the Feast of the Circumcision. But might there be a deeper reason why this feast is so important?
The story, as it is presented in Sacred Scripture, is deceptively simple on the surface - but loaded with significance the further we dig into it:
"And after eight days were accomplished, that the child should be circumcised, his name was called JESUS, which was called by the angel before he was conceived in the womb. And after the days of her purification, according to the law of Moses, were accomplished, they carried him to Jerusalem, to present him to the Lord: As it is written in the law of the Lord: Every male opening the womb shall be called holy to the Lord: And to offer a sacrifice, according as it is written in the law of the Lord, a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons" (Luke 2:21-24).
This is the significance of the circumcision: as He receives the Old Covenant, Abrahamic rite of circumcision, something important happens - Jesus officially becomes a Jew, and officially becomes bound under the curse of the Deuteronomic Law.
By way of brief excursion, we must recall the state of Jerusalem/Israel at the time of Jesus' circumcision. It was not the Abrahamic Covenant which was their ruling oath, nor was it the Mosaic Covenant sworn at Sinai after the Exodus that bound them. These covenants were still valid, but they had been temporarily suspended for a season, while Israel - God's rebellious firstborn son (c.f. Ex. 4:22, compared with Ex. 32:9) - had been put under the probationary covenant of Deuteronomy, the "pedagogue" that St. Paul speaks of in Galatians 4:1-7.
This probationary covenant of Deuteronomy changed the relationship between God and Israel - they now related to each other as a Master to a Slave, as a Suzerain to a Vassal. This covenant is unique in all of Israel's history, for it is the only covenant that not only threatened, but guaranteed that Israel would come under the curses of the covenant.
The covenant of Sinai certainly threatened curses, but only "if" Israel violated the covenant oath; Deuteronomy went further, no longer speaking of "if" Israel would violate the covenant, but speaking of "when" that violation would occur:
Now when all these things shall be come upon thee, the blessing or the curse, which I have set forth before thee, and thou shalt be touched with repentance of thy heart among all the nations, into which the Lord thy God shall have scattered thee, and shalt return to Him, and obey His commandments, as I command thee this day, thou and thy children, with all thy heart, and with all thy soul: The Lord thy God will bring back again thy captivity, and will have mercy on thee, and gather thee again out of all the nations, into which He scattered thee before" (Dt. 30:1-3).
The penultimate curse that Deuteronomy guaranteed for Israel was the curse of exile:
The Lord will bring upon thee a nation from afar ... whose tongue thou canst not understand, a most insolent nation, that will shew no regard to the ancients, nor have pity on the infant ... [they shall] consume thee in all thy cities ... and thou shalt eat the fruit of thy womb, and the flesh of thy sons and of thy daughters, which the Lord thy God shall give thee, in the distress and extremity wherewith thy enemy shall oppress thee" (Dt. 28:49-53).
All of these curses did, in fact, come upon Israel, and in the year that Jesus was born, Jerusalem and Israel were still living under the punishment of that curse: Israel in the north had been scattered to the nations and had never returned; Jerusalem in the south was under Roman rule.
But God had bound Himself to bless the nations, and to do so specifically through Israel: "By My Own self have I sworn ... I will bless thee ... and in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because thou hast obeyed My voice" (Gen. 22:16-18).
In other words, the situation that Jesus into which was born was a particularly difficult conundrum: God swore by Himself to bless all the nations through Israel; but Israel was currently under the covenant curse of Deuteronomy. They were currently functioning, not as a conduit of blessing to the nations, but as an obstacle between God and the nations, effectively blocking any flow of grace from God to the Gentiles.
In order to remove this blockage, Israel would have to atone for the covenant violation - the curse would have to be expiated. Therefore, it would have to be someone of Israel's seed who would stand as Israel's redemptive representative.
This, in sum, is why Jesus was born, not as a Roman, not as a Greek, not as a Canaanite or an Amorite or a Philistine, not as anything else but a Jew. And He was born as the Divine Son of God, and not as a mere human being, because it was God Himself Who promised to Abraham that He - and no one else - would take upon Himself the covenant curses when Israel would violate their oath.
Now, imagine for a moment: there is a family in your town that is marked for destruction. They've gotten themselves in trouble with the Mafia, and you know - because you've overheard - that in two weeks, the gangsters are going to ransack the house and kill every member of that family. How likely is it that you would volunteer to become a part of that family through legal adoption? You would know that the minute you signed the legal papers, you'd just signed your own death warrant.
That's what Jesus did. By being born into the line of Israel, He joined up with a family that was under a curse and marked for destruction. And how did He become a Jew? What was the one ritual act that made you forever and irreversibly a part of Judaism? Circumcision.
So in this Mystery, we recall that Our Lord, Who for eight days was only a son of Mary, received the rite of circumcision that made Him also a son of Judaism. This is what St. Paul means when he says, "But when the fullness of the time was come, God sent His Son, made of a woman, made under the law: that He might redeem them who were under the law." (Gal. 4:4-5)
This is the gold mine of significance that lies under the surface of this simple statement, that Jesus was circumcised according to the Law.
The next thing we see is that Jesus was brought to Jerusalem "the after the days of her purification, according to the law of Moses, were accomplished," a reference to the Law of Leviticus.
There we read that "If If a woman ... shall bear a man child, she shall be unclean seven days," and that "she shall remain three and thirty days in the blood of her purification ... until the days of her purification, be fulfilled." (Lev. 12:1-4) Thus, we add the seven days of uncleanness to the thirty-three days of purification, and we arrive at the scene of Our Lord and Our Lady in the temple on the fortieth day.
If we had the time and space, we could delve into the numerological significance contained here, but for now suffice it to say that forty days evokes for us the image of Israel wandering in the wilderness.
Then we read why Mary "carried Him to Jerusalem, to present Him to the Lord" - precisely because "it is written in the law of the Lord: Every male opening the womb shall be called holy to the Lord" (Luke 2:23).
That precise phrase, "Every male opening the womb shall be called holy to the Lord," is not found in the Old Testament. St. Luke has here conjoined parts of several texts, and with good reason.
At the beginning of the Exodus, God said, "Sanctify unto Me every firstborn that openeth the womb among the children of Israel, as well of men as of beasts: for they are all Mine" (Ex. 13:2).
But then, rather curiously, He seemingly reverses Himself by embedding a time-conditioned modification to this command:
And when the Lord shall have brought thee into the land of the Chanaanite, as He swore to thee and thy fathers, and shall give it thee: Thou shalt set apart all that openeth the womb for the Lord, and all that is first brought forth of thy cattle: whatsoever thou shalt have of the male sex, thou shalt consecrate to the Lord. The firstborn of an ass thou shalt change for a sheep: and if thou do not redeem it, thou shalt kill it. And every firstborn of men thou shalt redeem with a price. And when thy son shall ask thee to morrow, saying: What is this? thou shalt answer him: 'With a strong hand did the Lord bring us forth out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. For when Pharao was hardened, and would not let us go, the Lord slew every firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of man to the firstborn of beasts: therefore I sacrifice to the Lord all that openeth the womb of the male sex, and all the firstborn of my sons I redeem" (Ex. 13:11-5.)
Let us sum up the difficulty: at the beginning of the Exodus, God wants all firstborns, both from among man and beast - they belong to Him. But when Israel comes into the Promised Land, He makes two exceptions: in essence, He says, "I want all the firstborns, but your firstborn sons and your firstborn donkeys I want you to purchase back - I don't want them."
The association between firstborn sons (and remember, Israel was God's firstborn son) and donkeys makes a stunning implication: it is as though God says, "when you come into the Promised Land, you're going to be just like donkeys in my sight - stiffnecked and rebellious. And just like you break the necks of those donkeys that you won't redeem, so also will I break your neck when you refuse to be redeemed by Me."
Significantly, Israel came into the Promised Land and became like so many donkeys in God's eyes immediately after they swore the curse-laced covenant of Deuteronomy. From that point on, Israel as a firstborn son is like their literal firstborn sons - they need redemption, and they are not so much a firstborn who is "holy to the Lord" as they are stiffnecked donkeys.
This explains the first part of St. Luke's conflated text: "Every male opening the womb." The second part of his text, "shall be called Holy to the Lord" comes from another source.
In fact, that phrase is used no less than four times in the one place that seems least likely: the book of Deuteronomy. The most poignant reference is the one that appears near the end of the book:
"This day the Lord thy God hath commanded thee to do these commandments and judgments: and to keep and fulfill them with all thy heart, and with all thy soul. Thou hast chosen the Lord this day to be thy God, and to walk in His ways and keep His ceremonies, and precepts, and judgments, and obey His command. And the Lord hath chosen thee this day, to be His peculiar people, as He hath spoken to thee, and to keep all His commandments: and to make thee higher than all nations which He hath created, to His own praise, and name, and glory: that thou mayst be a holy people of the Lord thy God, as He hath spoken"(Dt. 26:16-19).
This was the conditional blessing of Deuteronomy - Israel had promised to serve God, and in return, He said that they would be "holy people of the Lord." Unfortunately, this chapter of Deuteronomy is immediately followed by the account of the covenant curse-swearing ceremony, where Israel placed themselves under the guaranteed curse of the covenant. (cf. Deut. 27:11-26)
Still, this was Israel's vocation, and a vocation to which God had sworn by His Own Name that He would return them - even if it meant bearing the curse for them.
This haunting and painful remembrance of Israel's promised status, a nation "holy to the Lord," is most certainly being read by St. Luke out of Deuteronomy - but it is being read through the interpretive lens of Jeremiah:
"Israel is holy to the Lord, the firstfruits of His increase: all they that devour Him offend: evils shall come upon them, saith the Lord. Hear ye the word of the Lord, O house of Jacob, and all ye families of the house of Israel: Thus saith the Lord: What iniquity have your fathers found in Me, that they are gone far from Me, and have walked after vanity, and are become vain?" (Jer. 2:3-5).
Here the phrase "holy to the Lord" appears again, but this time it is joined to the historical account of Israel's violation of the covenant. Notice when this violation took place: "And I brought you into the land of Carmel, to eat the fruit thereof, and the best things thereof: and when ye entered in, you defiled My land and made My inheritance an abomination" (vs. 7).
Just as God had predicted in Exodus 13, when Israel - a nation "holy to the Lord" - entered into the Promised Land, they violated the covenant and became as stiffnecked donkeys - right after they swore the Deuteronomic Covenant.
As we consider these images of firstborns, donkeys, Israel's holy title and eventual violation of the covenant, listen to the choice of imagery that Jeremiah uses next: "See thy ways in the valley, know what thou hast done: as a swift runner pursuing his course. A wild ass accustomed to the wilderness in the desire of his heart, snuffed up the wind of his love: none shall turn her away: all that seek her shall not fail: in her monthly filth they shall find her" (vs. 23-24).
This further evokes certain "donkey" imagery used by the prophet Ezechiel, whose language is too explicit to quote verbatim here - suffice it to say that Israel's relationship with Egypt (more Exodus imagery) is likened to that of a wanton harlot who lusts after the donkey-like "qualities" of Egypt.
All of this brings us back to Our Lord, who must - as God - bear the curse of Israel's covenant violations. He, playing the perfect firstborn opposite Israel's role as a rebellious firstborn, is given the title that Israel once had, but lost: Holy to the Lord. Israel, the stiffnecked donkey that has had its neck broken by exile, must now be redeemed according to the Law.
And how was the firstborn donkey redeemed, according to the Law? We read it right there in Exodus 13: "The firstborn of an ass thou shalt change [redeem] for a sheep" (vs. 13).
Thus, the image we have before us now is that of Our Lady, carrying up to the temple - the place of sacrifice - her firstborn Son Who is "Holy to the Lord," and who is also the firstborn lamb, Who alone can redeem the broken-necked donkey that Israel has become. Only by receiving this Jewish rite of circumcision can Jesus become a viable candidate to redeem Israel - and in shedding His blood here, for the first time, He begins that redemption process already.
In other words, the Presentation in the Temple is a foreshadowing of the eventual sacrifice of the Lamb of God, on Calvary's mountain. His shedding of blood as the firstborn lamb at the circumcision begins the process; His final shedding of blood as the "Lamb of God" just outside this same temple, at the hands of the same priests who circumcised Him, will complete the process of redemption.
Thus, as we celebrate the Feast of the Circumcision, we are asked to see Our Lord as the Lamb of God going up to the temple to shed His blood; and we are also asked to see Our Lady, who carries the infant up to the temple, as our Mediatrix and Co-Redemptrix, who participates intimately in the Redemption by being the one who offers this Lamb of God - her only son - back to God.
Blessed be the names of Jesus and Mary!
If you want to ask Jacob a question, you can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org and we encourage you to visit his site A Lumen Gentleman - Lumen Gentleman Apologetics.