A Sermon for the Octave Day of Christmas
January 1, 2023 at Holy Communion
Romans 4:8–14, Luke 2:15–21
From the Letter to the Romans: “The purpose of circumcision was to make Abraham the father of all who believe.” In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. ☩ Amen.
Merry Christmas! In the church, today is not New Year’s Day; it is the much older celebration of Jesus’ circumcision. We heard about that in the Gospel reading: “at the end of eight days, when the baby was circumcised, he was called Jesus” (Luke 2:21).
The question is, “Why?” We heard on Christmas that Jesus is the Eternal Word, the true God and Light of the World. Why would God, coming into the world as a human being, choose to be circumcised? Well, Jesus was a Jew, so of course he was circumcised. But that just pushes back the question. Why did Jesus choose to become a Jew, and why did the Jews practice circumcision, and what does any of that have to do with us?
In short, the answer is this: the Jewish people used circumcision to signify that they were all a part of the relationship that their father Abraham had to God. That relationship was one of faith: just as Abraham believed in God, so his descendants showed that they participated in the same belief by the custom of circumcision. By submitting to circumcision, God the Word chose to share everything that belonged to humanity, including our sacramental relationship to God the Father.
St Paul explains this in our Epistle. In the Book of Romans, one of Paul’s most important goals is to show that everyone is made right with God by faith, both Jews who followed the Old Testament Law and non-Jews who did not. For both ancient and modern Jewish men, being circumcised meant being part of the Jewish community and the Jewish religion. So when Paul says that having a relationship with God is all about faith, his Jewish audience responded that they thought that having a relationship with God also required following the law of circumcision which God gave to Abraham.
Paul’s responds to them this way: He points out that, before God ever commanded Abraham to be circumcised, God already considered him righteous because of his faith. Genesis tells us that. God gave the law of circumcision to Abraham and his descends not to make the Jews righteous, as if obedience to that command could earn God’s favour, but to give them a ritual way of showing and enacting that every one of them participate in Abraham’s faith. Receiving a circumcision like Abraham’s, they share a faith like Abraham’s. They are Abraham’s children by faith.
But let’s get back to Jesus, and back to us. When Jesus is circumcised, he shows and enacts that he is a child of Abraham by faith in God, just like all of his fellow Jews. The relationship that the Jews have to God, Jesus has too.
This is the story of Christmas—remember, today is still Christmas, the eighth day of Christmas. By coming to us as Jesus, God took on himself what belongs us. He takes on our humanity: our weakness, our limitedness, our darkness. Now he takes on our faith, identifying with us in our trust in God. The Christmas gospel is that, in everything, God chose to be right here with us.
Of course, we do not practice circumcision; we are not Jews. But we do practice baptism. Circumcision is a sacrament of the Old Covenant, just like baptism is a sacrament of the New Covenant. When a Jewish boy was circumcised, a new relationship with God through the community of faith was conferred on him, one which would blossom as he grew into maturity in that relationship. This is what happens to us in baptism.
In this season immediately after Christmas, we will be thinking a lot about the sacraments, because the sacraments are all about how we participate in God’s presence among us. A simple definition of a sacrament is “a means of participation in God.” Today we hear about the Old Covenant sacrament of circumcision. Next week we will hear about the baptism of Christ and we will renew our baptismal vows. And the week after that we will hear a Gospel reading with a eucharistic theme, the Wedding at Cana.
But the Christmas message is the same in each case: God came to be near us, to share with us what we share. He shares our flesh. He is washed with the water we use to wash. He drinks the water and the wine that we drink. These things draw us near to him, and he to us, and make us participants in everything that he is: true God and perfect man.
What do we do with that Christmas gospel? We return to the sacraments. Where do you seek nearness to Jesus? What about this altar? What about that font?