January 1, 2010

On the Circumcision of our Lord Jesus Christ

With Special Reference to the oration of Andrew, Archbishop of Crete, the Jerusalemite, On the Feast of the Circumcision of Christ (PG 97, 913-929)

By Fr. George Dion Dragas, PhD, DD, DTh., Protopresbyter

“And when the eight days were fulfilled
for His circumcision, He was given the name JESUS,
as He had been already named by the angels,
before He was conceived in the womb of His mother (Luke 2:21)!”

“When Christ was circumcised, the Law was incised.
And when the Law was incised, Grace was inserted!”

1. Preamble

The 1st of January is primarily The Despotic Feast of the Circumcision of Christ, whereby we commemorate an event which took place eight days after Christ’s birth in the flesh at which Christ received his name Jesus (=Savior). This Feast conjoins The Despotic Feast of Christmas, i.e. of the Birth of Christ (25th of December) with The Despotic Feast of the Theophanies or Lights, i.e. of the Baptism of Christ (6th of January), and constitutes with them the so-called festal period of The Dodekaemeron (The Twelve Days). Initially these three Despotic Feasts of The Dodekaemeron were included in one ancient feast, The Feast of the Theophanies (6th of January), the theme of which was the revelation of the One God in Trinity in the Person of the Lord Jesus Christ. The selection of the 6th of January for this Feast seems to have been caused by the fact that it was already a festal day in the old Roman calendar as the day of the winter solstice (equal day and night) when the duration of the day began to increase and against that of the night which began to diminish proportionately. The Roman idol worshipers celebrated on that day the birth of the invincible sun as the god of the physical light which supports the physical life of the world. The Christians responded to this challenge by celebrating the coming of Christ into the world and putting forth Christ as the sun of righteousness who grants the uncreated Light of the One true God in Holy Trinity which enlightens every human being that comes into the world. Later on the 25th of December was established as the day of the winter solstice and of the birthday feast of the visible sun. The response of the Christians to this new challenge of the idol worshipers was the transference of The Feast of the Birth of Christ (Christmas) to this date,[1] while the 6th of January was retained ever after as The Feast of the Baptism of Christ. It was inevitable that The Feast of the Circumcision of Christ would eventually follow The Feast of Christmas eight days afterwards.

The oration On the Feast of the Circumcision of Christ by St. Andrew of Crete (660-740), who is known from his amazing hymns and sermons, explains to us the meaning of this Despotic Feast, which belongs to the entire work of the revelation of God and our salvation, accomplished by the incarnate Son and Word of God, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Because this oration is too dense, we present it here in a more analytical and exegetical way.

2. The Despotic Feats and the Events of the Life of Christ

St. Andrew begins by noting “that it is good and God-pleasing that we glorify God and celebrate all those things which Christ our Savior accomplished in His earthly life, because He accomplished them not as a mere man but as a God-man.” Whatever Christ did, says the holy father, “constitute amazing miracles, because they have a divine-human (theanthropic) basis and a divine-human character. This is why they are unique and saving. Indeed, they could not have been anything else (!), because Christ is truly God who became truly man.” And He did all these things, because He wanted “to reveal himself to us human beings who had been alienated from Him and were ignorant of him; and also to endure as true man all that is human so as to fulfill all the commandments of the divine law which had been given to us by God, with the ultimate aim of exchanging these things with better and more perfect ones.” The verb “exchanging,” which St Andrew uses here, characterizes the entire work (the incarnate economy) of Christ, which is a saving exchange. By his incarnation God assumed all that we have and exchanged them all with others, full of grace and truth. He wanted to do and did so out of love for humanity and because only in this way He could restore to our humanity its real and natural condition, as He had originally designed it Himself as true God. God’s becoming man was God’s antidote to man’s apostasy which made him loose his way in life and become alienated from the divine grace. God became man in order to deify us human beings with His divine-human person.

3. The Despotic Feast of the Circumcision of Christ

The circumcision which Christ underwent eight days after his birth in the flesh and His seedless coming forth from the Virgin Mary, reveals this exchange which leads to the deification of humanity. We celebrate this event by means of a special feast, because it truly constitutes, as St. Andrew says, “a supreme miracle.” Why? Because through this the divine-human Christ “not only fulfilled the law, but also revealed simultaneously the way of surpassing it, as He revealed the true dimensions of our salvation.” In his oration St. Andrew of Crete gives us in a synoptic way these dimensions of salvation which the incarnate God offers us.

4. The Meaning of the Circumcision of Christ

True man and True God! By undergoing circumcision and receiving a human name, according to the Jewish context within which He was born, Christ proved that He was true man, although He preexisted as true God, infinite and incomparable as He always was. He became man within a specific space-time conditioned, religious anthropological context and followed the path and prescriptions pertaining to the human nature and its relation to God its creator. His circumcision, says St. Andrew, “reveals that He is no longer only Son of God but also Son of the Virgin. He is and remains literally Son of God, just as the Father is literally Father because He begets the Son, and the Holy Spirit is literally Spirit because He proceeds from the Father, and so these three divine persons, the Father, the Son and the Spirit constitute one God and there is in them one Godhead.” Christ, however, “is the Son of the Virgin and exactly for this reason He is also comprehensible and accessible to us human beings.” His becoming man does not mean that He ceased being God. It rather means, that “He became our man, authentic, true and perfect man, whom we can now approach with courage not only as Master and Creator but also as our Savior because He is with us. He assumed our nature, followed its true path, and led it to its perfection. And now He offers it to us as an exchange and antidote so that we too may become true, authentic and perfect human beings as He is.” This is how Luke presents Him in his Gospel narrative, which St. Andrew recalls, because he wants to show this divine-human (theanthropic) miracle which Christ presents, i.e. God’s becoming man (inhumination) and man’s deification (theosis) in Christ.

5. The Birth and Circumcision of Christ in the Gospel according to Luke

“And it came to pass, immediately after the departure of the angels to heaven, that the men, i.e. the shepherds, said among themselves: let us go as far as Bethlehem to see what this event is about which we heard, and which was made known to us by the Lord. They hurried, then, and came and found Mary and Joseph and the infant laying in a manger. Seeing this then, they understood the meaning of the words which had been announced to them in relation to this child. But also all the others who heard remained stunned by what the shepherds announced to them. Mary, however, kept these words inside her, because she placed them deep into her heart. Then the shepherds returned to their place, glorifying and praising God for all the things which they heard and saw, as they had been told before. And when the eight days were fulfilled for His circumcision, He was given the name Jesus, as He had been already named by the angels before He was conceived in the womb of his mother!”[2]

6. The Great Importance of the Gospel Narrative of Luke

“Luke is great indeed,” says St. Andrew, “because he explains to us the great and wonderful mysteries which are related to the person, the life and the work of Christ!” In the last analysis, St. Andrews says, on the basis of the ancient ecclesiastical and patristic tradition, that “the Gospel of Luke actually originates with the Apostle Paul, who speaks with pride about this when he writes according to my Gospel in his epistles.”[3] And the holy father continues: “If we did not have this Gospel, we would not have known that the Virgin received the Good news,” i.e. she learned the amazing news concerning the identity of her son;[4] “that John the Baptist, the greatest of the prophets, was born a little before Christ so that he might become the Forerunner of Christ” according to the divine plan of the salvation of humanity;[5] “that our Savior Christ was registered civilly as a man” along with his mother and Joseph who testified to His birth;[6] “that Christ was born in a cave of Bethlehem;”[7] “that the shepherds who happened to be present at that specific area also heard the good news of the gospel, i.e. were informed about the miracle of the incarnation,” and declared it as first eye-witnesses;[8] “that the hymn,” which is the typical feature of Christmas, “Glory to God in the Highest and on earth peace, good-will, was first sung by the angels;”[9] “that this peace was demonstrated through the census that was carried out by the edict of Augustus;”[10] “that Symeon the High Priest declared the gospel of the coming of Christ and that Anna the prophetess confessed it and confirmed its significance;”[11] “that as a specific man traced his ancestry, through Joseph, the betrothed spouse of the Virgin Mary, and by virtue of affinity, to David and finally to Adam and to God himself.”[12] The same also applies to “most of the events of His life, including especially those of the suffering, those that refer to Herod and Pilate, to the thieves and all the rest which are mentioned by the Evangelists.”

7. The Circumcision of Christ and the Name which He received then

The circumcision of the newly born Christ does not only denote His true humanity, but also His divine-human person. This is revealed especially in the Name, which was given to the newly born Christ and was already predetermined by God. “To what Name,” asks the holy father, ”does Luke refer, when he says, 'that he was named by the angel before he was even conceived in the womb of his mother?'”[13] “The same Evangelist,” says the Saint, "explains this when he presents the angel to Mary 'You will give birth to a son and you will call His name Jesus. And he will be great and will called Son of the Most High.'”[14] The same says Matthew at the point where he refers to the faithless Joseph and how he was persuaded by the angelic vision which he saw in his dream: “Because, when his mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph, and before they slept together, she was found to be pregnant from the Holy Spirit. Joseph, however, her spouse, who was just and did not wish to expose her, wanted to expel her secretly. But as he was contemplating this, an angel of the Lord appeared in his dream and said to him: 'Joseph, son of David, do not hesitate to take your wife, because her child that she will birth to, is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you will name Him Jesus, because He will save His people from their sins.'”[15] And immediately he adds the following: “And all this took place so that the word of the prophet might be fulfilled: 'Behold the Virgin shall conceive and will give birth to a son, and you shall call Him Emmanuel, which means God is with us.'”[16] “Do you see,” says the saint, “how the words of the prophet agree with the words of the evangelist?” Because the interpretation of the phrase “God is with us implies the salvation of the people – i.e., that the Master comes to live with the servants? The name Jesus also says the same with the angelic oracle; because Jesus means the person who out of sympathy does everything ion order to save on the basis of the economy.“

8. The name Jesus as the main Message of the Feast of the Circumcision of Christ

What the present Feast, then, primarily offers us is the revelation of the true identity of Christ. As St Andrew tells us, “The Feast gives us its deeper meaning because it shows us that the one grace (of the incarnation) presents to us another (that of the economy of salvation) and unites them with the knowledge (of the Savior), enlightening us with the special brightness and glory of His person.” “Already,” says the holy father, “we celebrated the event of His birth, and came to realize that it was ineffable, and to recognize that the Virgin mother gave birth to her son in a seedless manner. But now we are called to turn to the Son who was born without hesitation or fear. Today’s Feast calls us to understand Him from the Name which He took for our sake.” This is the name Jesus which means Savior, Emmanuel, God with us, i.e. He who came to reconcile, to familiarize and to assimilate us, human beings, with God, and so to grant to us eternal salvation.

“This is exactly,” says the saint, “what the shepherds understood when they drew near the newly born infant of Bethlehem, because they were prompted by what was revealed to them by the angels. At the beginning they were seized with fear, although the angel reassured them by saying, 'Do not be afraid.'”[17] And yet they were afraid, because “with the presence of the angel, the glory of the Lord shone around them,” and as Luke points out, “they were seized by a great fear.”[18] But then, the angel revealed to them the identity of the newly born infant and alleviated their fear. “I bring you good news of great joy which the entire people will receive, because today in the city of David your Savior was born, who is called Christ the Lord.”[19]

9. The Power of the Name of Jesus

The power of the Name of Jesus which Christ received at His circumcision is what St. Andrew stresses through a dialogue which he conducts with the angel of the Gospel!

“What are you saying, O Angel? Has the Name Jesus such power?"

"Yes," says he "because the Name Jesus denotes the Savior, who is Christ the Lord, God and man, Ruler and Merciful. This is why I ordered the shepherds to have courage, and to Joseph to give Him this Name on the Eighth Day, and so I made Him accessible to all human beings. I received this order from the newly born who wanted me to present Him in appropriate language. Joseph too, would not have stood by the side of the mother of the infant fearlessly and with yearnings, had I not given him the order to look after his woman as a man. I did the same in the case of the shepherds. I made them run to him as to a Master and Benefactor and Lord, and I persuaded them to glorify Him and approach Him as the Jesus who underwent circumcision on the Eighth Day and was pleased to received this Name. So then, seeing Him identifying Himself with you naturally and essentially, you must have the courage to approach Him without hesitation. And because you realize the magnitude of His condescension to you, you are bound to glorify Him for the grace of this Day.”

It is significant that in this dialogue the Name Jesus is conjoined to the Eighth Day. This is why the saint goes on to explain synoptically but carefully the deeper soteriological meaning of this Day in his last and most dense paragraph.

10. The Eight Day is a transition from an infantile state to personal perfection

The Eight Day is a transition from an infantile state to personal perfection because on this Day, according to the Jewish religious prescriptions, an infant becomes a child, comes of age, acquires a specific personality. The holy father distinguishes the first 7 days following the birth of an infant from the 8th, saying that “the 8th is a complement to the 7 and the beginning of the future.” Why? Because, according to the Jewish religious context, the eight day constitutes an important milestone for each newly born human existence, inasmuch as it completes the infantile age and opens the age of maturity which leads to completion (perfection). “The 7 days complete the infant, but the 8th day perfects it by including it among the perfect human beings.” And how is this done? “It is done,” says the holy father, “by means of the Name which is given on the eighth day.” The naming, in other words, offers an infant a specific personal identity; it makes it from an anonymous infant, an eponymous human being. It recognizes solemnly its natural right to be a specific name-bearing (personal) existence, a wholesome, perfect, i.e. perfectly constituted human being amongst other specific human beings. In the formulation provided by St. Andrew, “the 8th Day is the starting point or coming of age, because the infant, which has completed its (physical) constitution in the seven days (of its creation), is now registered (by its personal name) as a pupil who is to take mentoring lessons,” and thereby be molded into a particular personality. The Eight Day, then, is most significant because it changes all that belongs to infancy. The week of the 7 days (of creation) brings with it the infantile growth. The Eighth Day, however, brings in the perspective of (personal) perfection. It is clear that perfection refers here to the personal identity, which every infant acquires when it receives its name. But why should naming be connected with circumcision on the eighth day?

11. The Circumcision of the Eighth Day denotes transposition from a carnal to a spiritual condition

The sacramental, liturgical act of circumcision (cutting) of a small particle of the body entails the rejection of a carnal (idolatrous) condition into which every human being is born, while its replacement by the naming entails a human being’s entrance into another spiritual condition which leads to perfection. St. Andrew refers to Abraham and his father Thara in order to clarify these two conditions. Thara represents the carnal condition of idolatry which views the material carnal world within which man is born as the main point of reference for his life and for this reason it turns it into his god. Abraham represents the spiritual condition which regards the Maker of the world as the main and crucial point of reference for man’s life and makes man a member of the people of God and prepares him for his final completion and perfection. So the holy father says: “Because nature was going to be kneaded with idols by Thara, the father of Abraham, it was necessary that a people from Abraham should be set apart for the Maker by means of a seal, until His coming, which man needed in order to be renewed. Circumcision rejects a residue of the flesh and provides a seal of the eight day which refers to the future things.”

12. The replacement of the circumcision of the eighth day by baptism and the eternal life which Christ granted to man through his resurrection on the eighth day

It is crystal clear that the eighth day and the future things refer to the coming (Incarnation and Inhumination) of the Maker, which marks the final phase of the restoration and salvation of humanity according to His will, i.e. the coming of Christ. As the holy father says, “Circumcision denotes that the Presence of Christ will supplant and replace the circumcision of the flesh by the regeneration which is granted by the Holy Spirit (through Baptism). The seal of the circumcision of the flesh was given in order to specify a people of God (Israel) because of the presence of idolatry and in order to abolish the idol worship. After the abolition of the idols, however, circumcision itself will also be abolished.”

This is exactly what Christ did, as the holy father goes on to explain: "He gave us on the Eighth Day (of his resurrection), God’s eternal covenant (lawgiving) to humanity, replacing the previous seven covenants (or instances of lawgiving) which were preparatory, by this one." As he says expressly, “The old things were symbols of the new ones.” What are these “old things”? The seven covenants are those connected with the following lawgivers: 1) Adam, 2) Noah, 3) Abraham, 4) Moses, 5) David, 6 Ezra, and 7) John the Baptizer. “Christ is the eighth lawgiver after Adam,” who marks the last transposition of man from the temporary cases of lawgiving to the last and perfect one which leads to man’s perfection and enjoyment of eternal life. Here are the words of the saintly father, “Adam is the first to receive a law. Noah was the second, and Abraham, the third. Moses was fourth, and David, the fifth, because he legislated about the doxologies for the kings and the tabernacles. Ezra was the sixth because he gave the Deuteronomy and settled various customs. Then, John the Baptizer appeared as the seventh, because he preached the baptism of repentance to the people and the cleansing of sins by means of the water. Jesus Christ is the eighth, last and greatest lawgiver, as Moses says: 'The Lord God will raise among you a Prophet from your brethren like me, and you shall listen to Him, because whichever soul fails to obey this Prophet will be extinguished.'[20] Only He is able to fulfill all that has been legislated through me because they were taken from Him and He will be fully anointed with the Holy Spirit and legislate all that is divine and spiritual pertaining to the spirit (mind) as Lord and Creator, although he is also from us (according to the flesh).”

Being God and man, Christ has “kept Sabbath,” i.e. fulfilled and abolished all those things which the ancient law specified for the flesh. On the Eight Day of His Resurrection he became the universal legislator of the entire world. Not only of the Jews, but also of the nations, offering to all without distinction the anointment and perfection of the Holy Spirit and thereby calling them all with His own name, Christs (i.e. Christians). He replaced the circumcision of the flesh by the rejection of all the carnal and passionate thoughts and also by the enlivenment of every good work and good act which lead to the kingdom of heaven. He is truly “the Angel of the Great Counsel of the Father, the mighty God, the Ruler, the Leader of Peace, the Father of the age to come,” whom we commemorate, exalt and worship with the Despotic Feast of the Circumcision of Christ.[21]

Apolytikion of the Feast of the Circumcision of our Lord Jesus Christ (Tone 1)
Without change you took a human form, by nature being God, O most compassionate Lord; and fulfilling the Law, you willingly accepted circumcision in the flesh, that you might banish shadows, and strip away the covering of our passions. Glory to your goodness; glory to your compassion; glory to your ineffable condescension, O Word!


[1] According to the ever-memorable Greek liturgist Ioannes Fountoules, the Feast of Christmas was first introduced in Rome in 330 and afterwards in the East in 376. This is confirmed by St. John Chrysostom, who says in his “Oration on the Birthday of the Savior” on December 25, 386, that this Feast was introduced in the list of feasts of the Church 10 years earlier.

[2] Luke 2:15-21.

[3] Rom. 2:16, 16:25, I Cor. 15:1, Gal. 1:11, 2 Tim. 2:8., etc.

[4] Luke 1:26-38.

[5] Luke 1:57-80.

[6] Luke 2:1ff.

[7] Luke 2:7,12,16.

[8] Luke 2:8-18.

[9] Luke 2:13.

[10] Luke 1:79.

[11] Luke 2:25-36, 37-38.

[12] Cf. «του Θεού» in Luke 3:38 and also the entire genealogy of Christ in 3:23-38.

[13] Luke 2:21.

[14] Luke 1:31-32.

[15] Matth. 1:18-22.

[16] Is. 7:14, Μatth. 1:22-23.

[17] Luke 2:10.

[18] Luke 2:9.

[19] Luke 2:11.

[20] Deut. 18:15,19.

[21] Is. 9:6.

(I have edited some grammar and structure from the original. And with regard to the day for the celebration of Christmas, I want to refer the reader to this link which helps to expose some of the mythology promoted in this article that Christmas replaced a pagan celebration. - J.S.)