The Circumcision & Holy Name of Jesus: A Rookie Anglican Guide

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The best way to begin a new year is with the Holy Name of Jesus. Thanks be to God, that is precisely what the church gives us on January 1st, with the annual Feast of the Circumcision & Holy Name of Our Lord Jesus Christ.

The Collect (from BCP 2019)

Almighty God, your blessed Son fulfilled the covenant of circumcision for our sake, and was give the Name that is above every name: Give us grace faithfully to bear his Name, and to worship him with pure hearts according to the New Covenant; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Do we really have to discuss the circumcision?

Before we get to the Holy Name, we should discuss Jesus’ circumcision. Yes, it seems weird to talk about, let alone celebrate on the first day of the year!

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But it is actually because of the circumcision that we celebrate this feast on January 1st. Luke explains that “it was at the end of eight days” that Jesus “was circumcised” (Luke 2:20). In this way, Jesus fulfilled the Jewish law, which required that all sons be circumcised on the eighth day after their birth (see Leviticus 12:1-3). If we commemorate the birth of Jesus on December 25th, then the eighth day after the birth is January 1st—every year!

Circumcision & Baptism

Because Christ fulfilled the law of circumcision, God no longer requires it of Christians. However, many do receive the surgery for health or cultural reasons. But we do have a ritual analogous to circumcision: the sacrament of baptism. Paul makes the analogy in Colossians 2:

In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead (Colossians 2:11-12).

Like circumcision, baptism is an objective sign of inclusion in God’s covenant people. This exists not on the premise of perfect faith of the one being baptized but upon the perfect faithfulness of God. Baptism is, therefore, a sign of God’s grace to sinners, whereby we are united with Christ, buried with him in his death, and raised with him in his resurrection.

Faithful Parents

To fulfill the law, Christ had to be circumcised. But notice that he was a baby and could not do it himself. Thus, the circumcision reminds us that the faithful parenting of Mary & Joseph was an essential part of God’s plan. And their faithful parenting was not only in presenting Jesus for circumcision. It was also in teaching him to pray and read scripture, attend weekly synagogue services, and celebrate the annual festivals. It is telling that the only story from Jesus’ childhood in the Bible is of Mary and Joseph taking Jesus to Jerusalem for Passover, and Luke notes that they did this every year (Luke 2:41-52).

Similarly, Christians are also called to faithful parenting, which involves not only presenting their children for baptism but also teaching them to pray and read scripture, attend church weekly, and celebrate the great annual festivals of the faith, especially Advent & Christmas, Lent & Easter.

The Holy Name of Jesus

At the circumcision, Mary & Joseph named the child Jesus. They did so out of obedience to the message of the angel; in fact, both Mary and Joseph had been given this message: Gabriel had told Mary, “Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus” (Luke 1:31); and an unnamed “angel of the Lord” had told Joseph “you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21).

The meaning of Jesus, as Joseph’s angel hinted, is “salvation” or “God saves.” The English “Jesus” comes from the Greek “Iesus,” which derives from the Aramaic “Yeshua,” a contracted form of the Hebrew “Joshua.” Like his cousin John (which means God is gracious), Jesus is named not for his human lineage but rather for his providential purpose. He comes to bring salvation to his people, to be the one through whom God saves.

When we understand that Jesus means salvation, other scripture passages suddenly come alive in a new way. Consider Simeon, for example, in the next part of Luke 2. When he says, “mine eyes have seen thy salvation,” he is not only speaking about Jesus’ future work but about this Jesus, who is God’s salvation. Or consider Psalm 98. This is one of the great psalms of the Christmas season because it references salvation (i.e., Jesus) in the first three verses:

1 Oh sing to the LORD a new song, for he has done marvelous things!
His right hand and his holy arm have worked salvation for him.
2 The LORD has made known his salvation; he has revealed his righteousness in the sight of the nations.
3 He has remembered his steadfast love and faithfulness to the house of Israel. All the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God (Psalm 98:1-3).

The Jesus Prayer

One way to meditate more deeply on the name of Jesus is the ancient Jesus Prayer. It combines the titles of Jesus from Luke 1 with the publican’s petition from Luke 18 to produce a short, simple, and powerful prayer:

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

We often repeat the Jesus Prayer, not out of concern that God does not hear it (he knows our prayers even before we ask!), but to enter a contemplative mode. The purpose of such contemplation is a deeper reliance upon Jesus and a stronger relationship with him.

One way that Anglicans use the Jesus prayer is by combining it with prayer beads. These Anglican Prayer Beads have an external resemblance to the Roman Catholic Rosary, but where the Rosary centers on the extra-biblical “Hail Mary,” Anglican Prayer Beads focus on the biblical Jesus Prayer.

Jesus Bleeding for our Salvation

As we contemplate the name of Jesus on the occasion of his circumcision, we recognize that this was the first time Jesus bled. The blood of the infant Jesus points forward to the cross, where naked again, he would finally fulfill the meaning of his name by bleeding for our salvation. As John Milton put it in his profound poem, Upon the Circumcision, Jesus:

…seals obedience first with wounding smart
This day, but O ere long
     Huge pangs and strong
Will pierce more near his heart.

Published on

January 1, 2023

Author

Peter Johnston

The Ven. Dr. Peter Johnston is the Ministry President of Anglican Compass. He is a priest and archdeacon in the Anglican Diocese of All Nations and the rector of Trinity Lafayette. He lives with his wife, Carla, and their seven children near Lafayette, Louisiana.

View more from Peter Johnston

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