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THE CIRCUMCISION OF OUR LORD*
CIRCUMCISION was a sacrament of the Old Law, and the first legal observance required by Almighty God of that people, which he had choser preferably to all the nations of the earth to be the depositary of his revealed truths.—These were the descendants of Abraham, whom he had enjoined it, under the strictest penalties,1 several hundred years before the giving of the law to Moses on Mount Sinat; and this on two several accounts: First, as a distinguishing mark between them and the rest of mankind. Secondly, as a seal to a covenant between God and that patriarch: whereby it was stipulated on God’s part to bless Abraham and his posterity; while on their part it implied a holy engagement to be his people, by a strict conformity to his laws. It was, therefore, a sacrament of initiation in the service of God, and a promise and engagement to believe and act as he had revealed and directed Circumcision is also looked upon by St. Austin, and by several eminent modern divines,2 to have been the expedient, in the male posterity of Abraham, for removing the guilt of original sin which in those who did not belong to the covenant of Abraham, nor fall under this law was remitted by other means, probably by some external act of faith.
This law of circumcision continued in force till the death of Christ: nence our Saviour being born under the law, it became him, who came to teach mankind obedience to the laws of God, to fulfil all justice, and to submit to it. Therefore, he was made under the law, that is, was circumcised, that he might redeem them that were under the law, by freeing them from the servitude of it; and that those, who were in the condition of servants before, might be set at liberty, and receive the adoption of sons in baptism; which by Christ’s institution, succeeded to circumcision. On the day he was circumcised he received the name of JESUS, the same which had been appointed him by the angel before he was conceived.3 The reason of his being called JESUS is mentioned in the gospel:4 For he shall save his people from their sins. This he effected by the greatest sufferings and humiliations; having humbled himself, as St. Paul says,5 not only unto death, but even to the death of the cross; for which cause God hath exalted him, and hath given him a name which is above all names; that at the name of JESUS every knee should bow: agreeably to what Christ says of himself,6 All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth.*
Christ being not only innocent, but incapable of sin, could stand in no need of circumcision, as an expedient then in use for the remission of sin He was pleased, however, to subject himself to this humbling and painful rite of the Mosaic dispensation for several reasons: as, First, to put an end in an honorable manner to a divine, but temporary, institution, by taking it upon his own person. Secondly, to prove the reality of his human body; which, however evident from this and so many other actions and sufferings of his life, was denied by several ancient heretics. Thirdly, to prove himself not only the son of man, but of that man in particular of whose seed the Messiah was promised to come: thus precluding any future objection that might be raised by the Jews against his divine mission in quality of Messiah, under the pretence of his being an alien; and hereby qualifying himself for free conversation with them for their own spiritual advantage: setting us all a pattern of undergoing voluntarily several hardships and restraints, which, though not necessary on our own account, may be of great use to promote the good of others. Christ not being like other Jewish children, who could not know or fear the pain of circumcision, when they were going to suffer the operation, was perfectly sensible of it beforehand, and with calmness and intrepidity offered himself willingly to suffer the knife, and shed the first-fruits of his sacred blood in this painful manner. Under the smart this divine infant shed tears, but not as other children; for by them, with the most tender love and compassion, he bewailed chiefly our spiritual miseries, and at the same time presented with joy his blood as the price of our redemption to his Father. Fourthly, by thus humbling himself under this painful operation, he would give us an early pledge and earnest of his love for us, of his compassion for our miseries, and of his utter detestation of sin. The charity and zeal which glowed in his divine breast, impatient, as it were, of delay, delighted themselves in these first-fruits of humiliation and suffering for our sakes, till they could fully satiate their thirst by that superabundance of both, in his passion and death. With infinite zeal for his Father’s honor, and charity for us sinners, with invincible patience, and the most profound humility, he now offered himself most cheerfully to his Father to undergo whatever he was pleased to enjoin him. Fifthly, he teaches us by the example of voluntary obedience to a law that could not oblige him, to submit with great punctuality and exactness to laws of divine appointment; and how very far we ought to be from sheltering our disobedience under lame excuses and frivolous pretexts. Sixthly, by this ceremony, he humbled himself to satisfy for our pride, and to teach us the sincere spirit of humility. What greater humiliation can be imagined than for Him who is the eternal Son of God, in all things equal to his Father, to conceal these glorious titles under the appearance of a sinner? What a subject of confusion to us, who, being abominable criminals, are ashamed to pass for what we are, and desire to appear and be esteemed what we are not1 Shall we not learn from this example of Christ to love humiliations, especially as we cannot but acknowledge that we deserve every reproach and all manner of contempt from all creatures? Seventhly, by beginning the great work of our salvation in the manner he was one day to finish it; suffering in his own person the punishment of sin, to deliver us from both sin and its punishment, he confounds the impenitence of sinners who will suffer nothing for their own sins; and inculcates the necessity of a spiritual circumcision, whereof the external was but the type and figure, as the apostle puts us in mind.7
It is manifest, beyond all contradiction, from several texts of the Old Testament,8 that men under that dispensation ought not to have rested in the external act alone, but should have aspired from the letter to the spirit, from the carnal to a spiritual circumcision. These texts, at the same time that they set forth its necessity, describe it as consisting in a readiness and willing disposition to conform to the will of God, and submit to it when known, in every particular. They in consequence require a retrenchment of all inordinate and superfluous desires of the soul, the keeping a strict guard and government over ourselves, a total abstinence from criminal, and a prudent reserve even in the lawful gratifications of sense and appetite. If such instances of spiritual circumcision were required of those under the Old Law, to qualify them for acceptance with God, can any thing less than the same entitle us Christians to the claim of spiritual kindred with faithful Abraham, and to share of that redemption which Christ began this day to purchase for us at the expense of his blood? We must cut off whatever inordinate or superfluous desires of riches, honors, or pleasures reign in our hearts, and renounce whatever holds us wedded to our senses or the world. Though this sacrifice required the last drop of our blood, we ought cheerfully to make it. The example of Christ powerfully excites us not to spare ourselves. A thousand irregular affections reign in our souls, and self-love is master there. This enemy is only to be expelled by compunction, watchfulness over ourselves, perfect obedience, humble submission to correction, voluntary self-denials, and patience under crosses. To these endeavors we must join earnest prayer for the necessary grace to discover, and courageously crucify whatever opposes the reign of the pure love of God in our affections. If we are conscious to ourselves of having taken a contrary course, and are of the unhappy number of the uncircumcised in heart; what more proper time to set about a thorough reformation, by cutting off whatever is inconsistent with or prejudicial to the true Christian spirit, than this very day, the first of the new year? that so it may be a new year to us in the most Christian and beneficial sense of the word.*
Wherefore, after having consecrated its first-fruits to God, by the mos sincere and fervent homage of praise and adoration; after having paid him the just tribute of thanksgiving for all his benefits, and in particular for the mercy by which he vouchsafes us still time to appease his anger, and serve him; it becomes us to allot some part of this day to tears of compunction for our past offences, and to the diving into the source of our spiritual sloth and other irregularities, with a view to the amendment of our lives, and the preventing of relapses: not contenting ourselves with general purposes, which cost self-love so little, the insufficiency of which our own experience has convinced us of; we must lay the axe to the root, and seriously resolve to decline, to the best of our power, the particular occasions which have betrayed us into sin, and embrace the most effectual means of reformation of life and improvement in virtue. Every year ought to find us more fervent in charity; every day ought our soul to augment in strength, and be decked with new flowers of virtue and good works. If the plant ceases to grow, or the fruit to ripen, they decay of course, and are in danger of perishing. By a rule far more sacred, the soul, which makes not a daily progress in virtue loses ground: a dreadful symptom in the spiritual life.
The more intense ought our fervor to be, as we draw the nearer to the end of our course: So much the more, says the apostle, as you perceive the day to approach,9 the day of retribution to each according to his works, which will be that of our death, which may be much nearer than we are willing to imagine. Perhaps we may not live to the end of this very year: it will be the case of thousands, who at this time are as regardless of it as we can be. What security can we have against a surprise, the consequences whereof are infinite and irretrievable, except that of a sincere and speedy conversion, of being upon our guard against temptations, of dedicating effectually this ensuing year and the remainder of our short lives to God, our last end and only good, and frequently imploring his grace and mercy. It is our blessed Saviour’s advice and injunction: Watch ye therefore; praying at all times, . . . that you may be accounted worthy to stand before the Son of man10
The Christian’s devotion on this day ought to consist, first, in the solemn consecration of the first-fruits of the year to God; and secondly, in honoring the mystery of the Incarnation of the Son of God, particularly his birth and circumcision. The church invites us on this day to unite our homages with the seraphic ardors and transports of devotion with which the glorious Mother of God assisted at these wonderful mysteries which we commemorate, but in which she acted herself so great a part. With what sentiments did Mary bear in her womb, bring forth, and serve her adorable son, who was also her God? with what love and awe did she fix her eyes upon him? particularly at his circumcision, who can express in what manner she was affected when she saw him subjected to this painful and humbling ceremony? Filled with astonishment, and teeming affections of love and gratitude, by profound adorations and praise she endeavored to make him all the amends in her power, and the best return and acknowledgment she was able. In amorous complaints that he would begin, in the excess of his love, to suffer for us in so tender an age, and to give this earnest of our redemption, she might say to him: Truly thou art to me a spouse of blood.11 With the early sacrifice Christ here made of himself to his Father, she joined her own offering her divine son, and with and through him herself, to be an eternal victim to his honor and love, with the most ardent desire to suffer all things, even to blood, for the accomplishment of his will. Under her mediation we ought to make him the tender of our homages, and with and through this holy Redeemer, consecrate ourselves to God without reserve.