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January 1, 2014

The Interpretation of an Icon of the Circumcision of Christ

By Hierodeacon Silouan Peponakis

Eight days after the great Despotic feast of Christmas, the capital of feasts according to Saint John Chrysostom, our Church celebrates another great Despotic feast - the Circumcision of Christ.

The icon of the feast we will refer to comes from the Russian Sacred Monastery of Saint Panteleimon on Mount Athos [pictured above]. The eight-day old according to His Mother, and beginning-less One according to His Father, Christ is depicted as an infant lying between the Panagia, Joseph and the Priests of the temple to receive out of love and philanthropy for the human race not only the investiture of swaddling clothes, but also the circumcision of His flesh.

God's command originally given to Abraham foresaw the circumcision of every male child: "This is My covenant which you shall keep, between Me and you and your descendants after you: Every male child among you shall be circumcised; and you shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between Me and you. He who is eight days old among you shall be circumcised, every male child in your generations..." (Gen. 17:10-12).

Circumcision, though a terribly painful and bloody act, was necessary to declare who was a faithful and pure Israelite. But a deeper reason why a circumcision took place is shown by what God said to Abraham: "And it shall be a sign of the covenant between Me and you." In other words, it has to do with an agreement, a covenant, between God and His faithful ones. Besides, circumcision was done by other people, such as pagans and the priests of the Egyptians, the Saracenes, the Ishmaelites and others, but most of them did not do it out of reverence for God, but due to habit. (Metr. Hierotheos of Nafpaktos, The Despotic Feasts)

Circumcision was a foreshadowing of Baptism that was given after the incarnation of Christ. Christ was the One who gave the Law of the Old Testament, and He had to even apply it to Himself. He did this in order to fulfill it and exceed it. Very characteristic is the sticheron of the idiomela of Vespers for the feast, which says: "The Savior was willing to be wrapped in swaddling clothes for the sake of mankind. He did not disdain the circumcision of His flesh." It shows that Christ suffered circumcision for the sake of philanthropy and love for mankind, as well as to show that He received a true human nature, and not as the Docetists claim that Jesus only appeared to have a body. Christ demonstrated with His circumcision that His Body was not consubstantial with divinity. The Body, having been deified by the divinity of the Logos, became identical with God (ομόθεο) but not of the same essence of God (ομοούσιο). This means that the Body of Christ is a source of the uncreated Grace of God, but it does not have the same essence as the divinity. (Metr. Hierotheos of Nafpaktos, The Despotic Feasts)

According to Saint John of Damascus, the circumcision was a type of Baptism, which is a circumcision not done with human hands and where man cuts away sin.

The reverence of the parents and the priests is evident in the icon. One of the priests holds open a book, suggesting the Law was God-given, and the other approaches Jesus with a sharp object. The ceremony takes place in the temple, while in front of Christ is depicted Saint Basil the Great, who is celebrated on the same day. He is attired in an elaborate phelonium as well as the vestments of a priest, together with an embroidered omophorion. A gold Gospel is in one hand, while he blesses with the other.

We must emphasize the importance of this great Despotic feast, because it prefigured the great mystery of Baptism. God gave the Law in the Old Testament to prepare the people for the reception of Christ. Saint John the Evangelist says: "The law was given through Moses, while grace and truth came through Jesus Christ." The deification of man is not achieved by the external observance of the Law, but by communion with the Person of Christ the Savior.

Saint Cyril of Alexandria said that circumcision had no power to abolish death, unlike Baptism by which man becomes part of the resurrected Body of Christ, thus exceeding the Law and becoming a child of God.

The issue of the circumcision of the foreskin became a big issue in the Church, when after Pentecost there was a debate as to whether or not converts to Christianity should be circumcised. The Jews argued that without circumcision "one cannot be saved". The decision of that Apostolic Synod was to not circumcise whoever came from among the nations, but for them to abstain from things sacrificed to idols, blood, meat not properly killed and fornication. They were led to this decision precisely because circumcision was a foreshadowing of Baptism to prepare the people for the coming of the Savior, so now there was no need for its existence.

The entire depiction is distinguished by its simplicity and modesty, as well as the grandeur hidden behind the movements of the persons, while at the center there remains the body of the infant Christ.

Source: Ekklesiastiki Paremvasi, "Η Περιτομή του Χριστού", December 2001. Translated by John Sanidopoulos.