The Liturgical Year: The Circumcision of Our Lord

The Circumcision of Our Lord1 January

Our new-born King and Saviour is eight days old today; the Star that guides the Magi is advancing towards Bethlehem, and five days hence will be standing over the Stable where our Jesus is being nursed by his Mother. Today, the Son of Man is to be circumcised; this first sacrifice of his innocent Flesh must honour the eighth day of his mortal life. Today, also, a Name is to be given him – the Name will be Jesus, and it means Saviour. Mysteries abound on this day: let us not pass one of them over, but honour them with all possible devotion and love.

But this Day is not exclusively devoted to the Circumcision of Jesus. The mystery of this Circumcision forms part of that other great mystery, the Incarnation and Infancy of our Saviour – a mystery on which the Church fixes her heart, not only during this Octave but during the whole forty days of Christmas-Tide. Then, as regards our Lord’s receiving the Name of Jesus, a special Feast is set apart in honour of it. There is another object that shares the love and devotion of the Faithful on this great Solemnity. This object is Mary, the Mother of God. The Church celebrates today the august prerogative of this divine Maternity, which was conferred on a mere creature, and which made her the co-operatrix with Jesus in the great work of man’s salvation.

The holy Church of Rome used formerly to say two Masses on the first of January, one for the Octave of Christmas Day, the other in honour of Mary. She now unites the two intentions in one Sacrifice in the same manner as, in the rest of this Day’s Office, she unites together the acts of her adoration of the Son and the expressions of her admiration for, and confidence in, the Mother.

The Greek Church does not wait for this Eighth Day in order to pay her tribute of homage to Her who has given us our Emmanuel. She consecrates to Mary the first Day after Christmas, that is, the 26th December, and calls it the Synaxis of the Mother of God, making the two Days one continued Feast. She thus defers the Feast of Saint Stephen to 27 December.

But it is today that we, children of the Roman Church, pour forth all the love of our hearts for the Virgin-Mother, and rejoice with her in the exceeding happiness she feels at having given birth to her and our Lord. During Advent, we contemplated her as pregnant with the world’s salvation; we proclaimed the glory of that Ark of the New Covenant, whose chaste womb was the earthly paradise, chosen by the King of Ages for his dwelling-place. Now she has brought him forth, the Infant-God; she adores him, Him who is her Son. She has the right to call him, her Child; and He, God as he is, calls her in strictest truth, his Mother.

Therefore, let us not be surprised at the enthusiasm and profound respect wherewith the Church extols the Blessed Virgin and her prerogatives. Let us, on the contrary, be convinced, that all the praise the Church can give her, and all the devotion she can ever bear towards her, are far below what is due to her as Mother of the Incarnate God. No mortal will ever be able to describe, or even comprehend, how great a glory accrues to her from this sublime dignity. For, as the glory of Mary comes from her being the Mother of God, one would have first to comprehend God himself in order to measure the greatness of her dignity. It is to God that Mary gave our human nature; it is God, whom she had as her Child; it is God, who gloried in rendering himself, inasmuch as he is Man, subject to her: hence, the true value of such a dignity, possessed by a mere creature, can only be appreciated, in proportion to our knowledge of the sovereign perfections of the great God, who thus deigns to make himself dependent upon that favoured creature. Let us bow down in deepest adoration before the Majesty of our God; let us acknowledge that we cannot respect, as it deserves, the extraordinary dignity of Her whom he chose for his Mother.

The same sublime Mystery overpowers the mind from another point of view – what were the feelings of such a Mother towards such a Son? The Child she holds in her arms, and presses to her heart is the Fruit of her virginal womb, and she loves him as her own; she loves him because she is his Mother, and a Mother loves her Child as herself, nay, more than herself; but when she thinks upon the infinite majesty of Him, who has thus given himself to her to be the object of her love and her fond caresses, she trembles in her humility, and her soul has to turn in order to bear up against the overwhelming truth, to the other thought of the nine months she held this Babe in her womb, and of the filial smile he gave her when her eyes first met his. These two deep-rooted feelings – of a creature that adores, and of a Mother that loves – are in Mary’s heart. The being Mother of God implies all this – and may we not well say, that no pure creature could be exalted more than she? And that in order to comprehend her dignity, we should first have to comprehend God himself? And that only God’s infinite wisdom could plan such a work, and only his infinite power accomplish it?

A Mother of God! It is the mystery, whose fulfillment the world, without knowing it, was awaiting for four thousand years. It is the work, which, in God’s eyes, was incomparably greater than that of the creation of a million new worlds, for such a creation would cost him nothing; he has but to speak, and all whatsoever he wills is made. But that a creature should become Mother of God, he has had, not only to suspend the laws of nature by making a Virgin Mother, but also to put himself in a state of dependence upon the happy creature he chose for his Mother. He had to give her rights over himself, and contract the obligation of certain duties towards her. He had to make Her his Mother, and Himself her Son.

It follows from all this, that the blessings of the Incarnation, for which we are indebted to the love wherewith the Divine Word loved us, may and ought to be referred, though in an inferior degree, to Mary herself. If she be the Mother of God, it is because she consented to it, for God vouchsafed, not only to ask her consent, but, moreover, to make the coming of his Son into this world depend upon her giving it. As this his Son, the Eternal Word, spoke his Fiat over chaos, and the answer to his word was creation; so did Mary use the same word Fiat – let it he done unto me, she said. God heard her word, and, immediately, the Son of God descended into her virginal womb. After God, then, it is to Mary, his ever Blessed Mother, that we are indebted for our Emmanuel.

The divine plan for the world’s salvation included there being a Mother of God, and as heresy sought to deny the mystery of the Incarnation, it equally sought to deny the glorious prerogative of Mary. Nestorius asserted that Jesus was only man; Mary, consequently was not Mother of God, but merely Mother of a Man, called Jesus. This impious doctrine roused the indignation of the Catholic world. The East and West united in proclaiming that Jesus was God and Man, in unity of Person, and that Mary, being his Mother, was, in strict truth, “Mother of God.” This victory over Nestorianism was won at the Council of Ephesus. It was hailed by the Christians of those times with an enthusiasm of Faith, which not only proved the tender love they had for the Mother of Jesus, but was sure to result in the setting up of some solemn trophy, that would perpetuate the memory of the victory. It was then that began, in both the Greek and Latin Churches, the pious custom of uniting during Christmas the veneration due to the Mother with the supreme worship given to the Son. The day assigned for the united commemoration varied in the several countries, but the sentiment of religion, which suggested the Feast, was one and the same throughout the entire Church.

The holy Pope Xystus III ordered an immense Mosaic to be worked into the Chancel-Arch of the Church of Saint Mary Major in Rome as a monument to the holy Mother of God. The Mosaic still exists, bearing testimony as to what was the faith held in the 5th Century. It represents the various Scriptural types of our Lady, and the inscription of the holy Pontiff is still legible in its bold letters: Xystus Episcopus plebi Dei, (Xystus Bishop to the People of God) for the Saint had dedicated to the Faithful this his offering to Mary, the Mother of God.

Special Chants were also composed at Rome for the celebration of the great mystery of the Word made Man through Mary. Sublime Responsories and Antiphons, accompanied by appropriate music, were written to serve the Church and her children as the expression of their faith, and they are the ones we now use. The Greek Church makes use of some of these very Antiphons for the Christmas Solemnity; so that, with regard to the mystery of the Incarnation, there is not only unity of faith, there is also oneness of devotional sentiment.

from the Epistle of Saint Paul the Apostle to Titus

Dearly Beloved: The grace of God, our Saviour, has appeared to all men, instructing us, that denying ungodliness and worldly desires, we should live soberly and justly and godly in this world, looking for the blessed hope and coming of the glory of the great God, and our Saviour Jesus Christ: who gave himself for us, that he might redeem us from all iniquity, and might cleanse to himself a people acceptable, a pursuer of good works. These things speak and exhort: in Christ Jesus our Lord.

These counsels of our great Apostle, who warns the Faithful of the obligation they are under of making a good use of the present life, are most appropriate to this first day of January, which is now the beginning of the new Civil Year. Let us, therefore, renounce all worldly desires; let us live soberly, justly, and piously, and permit nothing to distract us from the expectation of that blessedness, which is our hope. The great God and Saviour Jesus Christ, who shows himself to us, in these days of his mercy, in order to instruct us – will come to us, in a second coming, in order to give us our reward. The beginning of a New Year tells us, plainly enough, that this last day is fast approaching – let us cleanse ourselves from all iniquity, and become a people acceptable to our Redeemer, a people doing good works.

from the holy Gospel according to Luke

At that time: 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.

The Child is circumcised: he is, now, not only a member of the human race, he is made, today, a member of God’s chosen People. He subjects himself to this painful ceremony, to this symbol of one devoted to the Divine service, in order that he may fulfill all justice. He receives, at the same time, his Name: the Name is Jesus, and it means a Saviour. A Saviour! Then, he is to save us? Yes, and he is to save us by his Blood. Such is the divine appointment, and he has bowed down his will to it. The Incarnate Word is upon the earth in order to offer a Sacrifice, and the Sacrifice is begun today. This first shedding of the Blood of the Man-God was sufficient to the fullness and perfection of a Sacrifice; but he is come to win the heart of the sinner, and that heart is so hard, that all the streams of that Precious Blood, which flow from the Cross on Calvary, will scarcely make it yield. The drops that were shed today would have been enough to satisfy the justice of the Eternal Father, but not to cure man’s miseries, and the Babe’s Heart would not be satisfied to leave us uncured. He came for man’s sake, and his love for man will go to what looks like excess – he will carry out the whole meaning of his dear name – he will be our “Jesus,” our Saviour.

The Greek Church, on the 26th December, the day she consecrates to the Mother of Jesus, pours forth to Mary her praises with her wonted profusion. We take from the Menaea the two following strophes, the former of which is also the Benedictus-Antiphon for the Feast of the Circumcision in the Roman Breviary.

• An admirable mystery is this day revealed: the two Natures are united in a new way, God is made Man: he remained what he was, and he assumed what he was not, suffering neither confusion nor division.

• When the mystic Vine had produced, without human aid, the Grape-bunch, she carried him in her arms, as the branches their fruit, and she said to him: You are my Fruit, you are my Life, and I know from myself, O my God, that I am what I was: the treasure of my virginity is preserved, and therefore do I confess you to be the Immutable One, the Word made Flesh. Man I know not; but I acknowledge thee as the Redeemer of lost man. Your Birth impaired not the purity you gave me, for what I was when you did enter into my womb, that you did leave me at your Nativity. Therefore is it that every creature sings to me saying: Rejoice, full of grace!

– from the book The Liturgical Year: Christmas, volume 1, by the Very Reverend Dom Prosper Gueranger, Abbot of Solesmes, translated from the French by the Revered Dom Laurence Shepherd, Monk of the English-Benedictine Congregation, 2nd edition; published in Dublin Ireland by James Duffy, 15 Wellington-Quay, 1870