From the Book of Genesis:
God said to Abraham, “As for you, you shall keep my covenant, you and your offspring after you throughout their generations. This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you. Throughout your generations every male among you shall be circumcised when he is eight days old, including the slave born in your house and the one bought with your money from any foreigner who is not of your offspring. Both the slave born in your house and the one bought with your money must be circumcised. So shall my covenant be in your flesh an everlasting covenant. Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.”
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Gen. 17:9-14 (NRSV) – January 1, 2013.)
Today, people all over the world go all sort of crazy making resolutions about how we will improve our lives in the coming year – it is New Year’s Day! But on the calendar of the church it is the Feast of the Holy Name, also known as the Feast of the Circumcision.
The law of Moses (as this bit of Genesis shows) required that newborn boys be circumcised on their eighth day of life. So on this eighth day after Christmas Day, we commemorate Jesus’ early submission to the law as recorded in Luke 2:21: “After eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.” (This verse also explains the first alternative title of this day.)
It seems to me appropriate that this feast day of the beginning of a new covenantal relationship between God and one of God’s children falls on the day the secular world also celebrates a new beginning. It reminds me of Carl Sandburg’s famous statement that “a baby is God’s opinion that life should go on.” The coincidence of New Year’s Day and Holy Name Day reminds us that life in relationship with God should go on. Here’s Sandburg’s full comment:
A baby is God’s opinion that life should go on. A book that does nothing to you is dead. A baby, whether it does anything to you, represents life. If a bad fire should break out in this house and I had my choice of saving the library or the babies, I would save what is alive. Never will a time come when the most marvelous recent invention is as marvelous as a newborn baby. The finest of our precision watches, the most super-colossal of our supercargo plants, don’t compare with a newborn baby in the number and ingenuity of coils and springs, in the flow and change of chemical solutions, in timing devices and interrelated parts that are irreplaceable. A baby is very modern. Yet it is also the oldest of the ancients. A baby doesn’t know he is a hoary and venerable antique – but he is. Before man learned how to make an alphabet, how to make a wheel, how to make a fire, he knew how to make a baby – with the great help of woman, and his God and Maker. (Remembrance Rock, Harcourt Brace:1948)
The coincidence of the Feast of the Circumcision with New Year’s Day is a reminder that, first day of the new year it may be, we know “as of old” how to live the life it presents us. Every year we make resolutions, new covenants perhaps, to do the things we’ve always known how to do, the things we’ve always known we should do. St. Paul wrote to the Romans that “real circumcision is a matter of the heart – it is spiritual and not literal.” (Rom. 2:29) John Wesley taught that this implies humility, faith, hope, and charity. Let us resolve, let us covenant to live out these qualities in the year ahead.
Happy Holy Name Day!
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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.