January 1, 2019

The Meaning and Prefigurements of the Circumcision of Christ

The circumcision of our Lord Jesus Christ is commemorated today, brethren, which He condescended to receive in the flesh according to the commandment of the ancient law, "Ye shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskin, and it shall be a sign of a covenant between Me and you" [Gen. 17:11]. From the Old Testament, let us take a look at some of its mystical meanings and prefigurements.

In The Epistle of Barnabas, we read: “Abraham, the first who enjoined circumcision, looking forward in spirit to Jesus, purposed that rite, having received the mysteries of the three letters. For the Scripture saith, ‘And Abraham circumcised ten and eight and three hundred men of his household.’ What, then, was the knowledge given to him in this? Learn the eighteen first, and then the three hundred. The ten and the eight are thus denoted - ten by ‘iota'(I) and eight by ‘eeta’ (H). You have the initials of the name of Jesus. And because the Cross was to express the grace of our redemption by the letter ‘taf’ (T), he says, also, three hundred. He signifies, therefore, Jesus by two letters and the Cross by one. He knows this Who has put within us the engrafted gift of His doctrine.”1

When Israel dwelt among the Egyptians, they kept the custom of circumcising their male infants. However, when they passed through the Red Sea and sojourned in the wilderness forty-two years, without mixing with other tribes, then they discontinued their habit of circumcising. Now when the time arose again for them to have contact with outside nations, the Lord commanded Joshua, the son of Nun, to make stone knives of sharp stone, and circumcise the children of Israel the second time [Josh 5:2]. He then circumcised the children of Israel, as many as were born in the way, at the Hill of Foreskins. The Lord then said, "On this day I removed the reproach of Egypt from you; and he called the name of that place Galgala" [Jos. 5:9].

Saint Justin Martyr (c. 100-c. 165) writes: “Joshua the son of Nun is said to have circumcised the people a second time with knives of stone (which was a sign of this circumcision with which Jesus Christ Himself has circumcised us from the idols made of stone and of other materials), and to have collected together those who were circumcised from the uncircumcision, that is, from the error of the world, in every place by the knives of stone, to wit, the words of our Lord Jesus Christ. For ... Christ was proclaimed by the Prophets in parables as a Stone and a Rock. Accordingly, the knives of stone we shall take to mean His words, by means of uncommunicable which so many who were in error have been circumcised from uncircumcision with the circumcision of the heart, with which God by Jesus commanded those from that time to be circumcised who derived their circumcision from Abraham, saying that Jesus would circumcise a second time with knives of stone those who entered into that holy land.”2

Saint Gregory of Nyssa (c. 335-c. 395) adds, “When time had passed and the people had become more diligent in understanding the Law’s precepts, they understood and accepted the second circumcision instituted by Joshua the son of Nun [Josh. 5:2-9], for the stone knife cut away everything unclean.”3

Blessed Jerome (c. 342-420) comments: “As soon as Joshua the son of Nun reached the Jordan - the waters of marriage, which had ever flowed in the land - it dried up and stood in one heap; and the whole people, barefooted and on dry ground, crossed over, and came to Galgala, and were circumcised a second time. If we take this literally, it cannot possibly stand. For if we had two foreskins, or if another could grow after the first was cut off, there would be room for speaking of a second circumcision. But the meaning is that Jesus circumcised the people who had crossed the desert with the Gospel knife... .Moreover the very foreskins were heaped together and buried, and covered with earth, and the fact that the reproach of Egypt was taken away, and the name of the place, Galgala, which is by interpretation, ‘revelation,’ show that while the people wandered in the desert uncircumcised their eyes were blinded. After this Gospel circumcision and consecration of twelve stones at the place of revelation, the Passover was immediately celebrated, a lamb was slain for them, and they ate the food of the holy land. Joshua went forth, and was met by the Prince of the host, sword in hand, that is either to show that he was ready to fight for the circumcised people.”4

Elsewhere, Blessed Jerome wrote: “Moses died in the desert; Aaron died; Miriam died; and I hear now what is written in the Prophet: 'I will cut off three shepherds in one month' [Zach. 11:8]. They died, for they could not enter the promised land. They merely looked over toward the land of promise, but enter it they could not. The Jews beheld the promised land but could not enter it. They died in the desert and their bodies lie in the wilderness, the corpses of those who died in the desert. We, their children, under the leadership of Joshua, have come to the Jordan and have entered the promised land; we have come to Galgala and have been circumcised with a spiritual circumcision, and have been cleansed of the reproach of Egypt. Even now Jesus Himself, our Leader, holds the sword and always goes before us and fights for us and conquers our adversaries; and for seven days, we march around the city of Jericho, in other words, this world. We sound the priestly trumpets and march around Jericho, this world, and the walls fall and we enter, and consider ourselves victors. Next, we conquer the city of Ai; then go to Jebus, to Azor, to other cities; we conquer the enemies that we were unable to vanquish under Moses.”

“Joshua the son of Nun sent out two messengers on a secret mission to Jericho. Two messengers He sent: one to the circumcised; the other to the nations, that is Peter and Paul. Jericho seeks to kill them; the harlot takes them in, meaning, of course, the Church gathered together of the nations. She believes in Joshua; and those whom Jericho is determined to destroy, she protects in safety on her own roof.”5

Now that the Master Christ is also called rock, the Apostle Paul speaks of "those who were under the cloud, passed through the sea, and got themselves baptized to Moses in the cloud and in the sea, says that they all ate the same spiritual food; and all drank the same spiritual drink; for they used to drink from a spiritual rock which followed them, and the rock was the Christ" [1 Cor. 10:1-4]. And that He is called a knife, again the Apostle says, "For the Word of God is living, and active, and sharper than every two-edged sword, even going through as far as the dividing of both soul and spirit, and of both joints and marrows, and is a discerner of the ponderings and intents of the heart" [Heb. 4:12].

Our Lord submitted to this ritual, in order that He might introduce the spiritual Circumcision made without hands. Saint Paul also says this, "Ye were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, in the putting off of the body of the sins of the flesh in the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with Him in the Baptism, in which also ye were raised with Him through faith in the operation of God Who raised Him from the dead" [Col. 2:11, 12]. Saint Athanasios (296-373), Patriarch of Alexandria, comments upon this saying, “Circumcision expressed nothing more than the despoiling of the old man; by this, that part of the body was circumcised which served as the instrument of corporeal generation. This was then done in sign of the future Baptism in Christ. And so when that which was prefigured had come, the prefigurement became void; for all that was the old man is taken away by Baptism.”6

Saint Cyril of Alexandria († 444) writes that after Christ’s circumcision: “The rite was done away by the introduction of that which had been signified by it-Baptism. Circumcision seems to me to have effected three ends: First, it separated the posterity of Abraham by a sign and seal, and distinguished them from the nations. Second, it prefigured in itself the grace and efficacy of holy Baptism (for as in ancient times, he that was circumcised was counted among the people of God). Thus, also he that is baptized, having formed in himself Christ the seal, is enrolled into God’s adopted family. Third, it is the symbol of the faithful when established in grace, who cut away and mortify the tumultuous rising of carnal pleasures and passions by the sharp surgery of faith, and by ascetic labors; not cutting the body, but purifying the heart, and being circumcised in the spirit, and not in the letter.”7

Circumcision is not the cutting away of a needful part of the body, but that which is superfluous and useless. In the same manner, holy Baptism cuts away sin, because sin is excess desire and not useful desire. There is also a mystical meaning in the number eight when circumcision is performed on the eighth day. At the consummation of the age, the eighth day, then all sin and evil desire shall also be cut away. Moreover, since the circumcision was a symbol of cutting off the desires of the flesh, God wished to show to man that place where sin is activated and operates. Thus when He enjoined circumcision upon the seed of Abraham it was not only as a symbol of their religion, but its deeper meaning was rather the cutting away and deprivation of evil desires.

The Gospel account says that "when eight days were fulfilled to circumcise the little Child, His name was called Jesus," the name which was named by the angel before He was to be conceived in the womb [cf. Lk. 2:20]. Saint Cyril of Alexandria adds, “According to the precept of the Law, on the same day He also received the imposition of His name; hence follows, ‘His name was called Jesus,’ which is interpreted Savior. He was brought forth for the salvation of the Lord.”8

Saint Ambrose of Milan (c. 339-397) on this reading comments, “The cleansing from all guilt, that shall be at the time of the resurrection, was prefigured by the circumcision on the eighth day. This was because of the saying, 'Every male opening a womb shall be called holy to the Lord' [Ex. 13:2, 12; Num. 8:16]. By the words of the Law, the Child of the Virgin was promised. And He was holy .... 'That holy One Who is born of thee shall be called the Son of God' [Lk. 1:35]. He alone of all that are born of woman is Holy: the Lord Jesus .... He alone therefore opened the womb, for Himself.”9

There were two other reasons for the circumcision: Firstly, His circumcision would stop the mouths of the heretics who dared to say that He had not truly taken on flesh, but only in appearance (which is alleged by the God-fighters Mani and the Manicheans). How could He have received circumcision if He truly had not put on flesh? Secondly, the circumcision would bridle the mouths of Jews who accused the Lord not only of breaking the sabbath, but of transgressing the Law. By His submission to circumcision, the Law-giver kept the Law. "When the fullness of time came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law, in order that He might redeem those under the law, that we might receive what is our due, the adoption of sons" [Gal. 4:4,5].

End Notes:

1. “Apostolic Fathers,” Ante-Nicene Fathers, The Apostolic Fathers, Vol. I.

2. “Dialogue with Trypho,” Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. I, Ch. CXIII, 255, 256.

3. Commentary on the Song of Songs.

4. “Against Jovinianus-Book II,” Nicene & Post-Nicene Fathers, 2nd Ser., Vol. VI, 361, 362.

5. “Homily 18,” 1-59 On The Psalms, Vol. 1, Fathers of the Church, 2d, Vol. 48, 137-139.

6. Sermon Omnia mihi tradita sunt.

7. “Homily 5, “Feast of the Circumcision,” Commentary on the Gospel of St. Luke (Studion).

8. “Homily 17.”

9. PL 60:1572.

From The Voice of Orthodoxy, Volume 1, Number 1, Issue Number 1, January-February 1997.