The Feast of the Circumcision (January 1)
Seven days after his birth, Jesus was circumcised and named, in keeping with the Law of Moses:
When the eighth day arrived for his circumcision, the name Jesus was given the child, the name the angel had given him before he was conceived. (Luke 2:21)
The Church remembers and meditates on these events each year on January 1 (seven days after Christmas) - the feast of the Circumcision of our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ. During this feast, we also recall the childhood of our Lord, the "hidden years" from his infancy until the beginning of his public ministry.
January 1 is also the anniversary of the death of Saint Basil the Great, Archbishop of Caesarea, and so this is celebrated as his feast day. He is also commemorated on the feast of the Three Holy Bishops (January 30).
Meaning of the Feast
According to the Law of the Old Testament, as given to Moses, each male child was to be circumcised on the eighth day from birth. This was considered both a mark "in the flesh" of belonging to the covenant that God made with the people of Israel, and also a ritual purification. Among other peoples of the ancient world, circumcision was done at puberty; the circumcision of infants under the Old Covenant made it clear than the entire life of the Jew belonged to God. Even then, it was commonly known that the "inward circumcision" of pure conduct and intent was even more important than the "outward circumcision."
According to the Fathers, Christ underwent circumcision for two reasons. In doing so, He kept the Law given by God perfectly, including this rite that incorporated a child into Israel; by doing this, He also "emptied himself" to become just like one of us, even though He was in need of no purification of any kind. (Consider the parallel with His baptism, which we celebrate a few days later.) This condescension, or "coming down" to us, is sung in the troparion of this feast:
O Jesus, although you are seated on a fiery throne,
with the eternal Father and your divine Spirit,
you were pleased to be born of a virgin maiden,
your Mother who has never known man.
Therefore, as man you were also circumcised when you were eight days old.
Glory to your most noble decision! Glory to your salvation!
Glory to your humility! You alone love us all.
Our covenant with God, the new covenant in Jesus Christ, involves a circumcision even more complete than that of the Old Testament: it requires "the complete submission of our flesh and all its desires to God" (Father Lev Gillet). It is this inward circumcision that is spoken of in the Great Commandment: "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart..."
This day is also a feast of the Name of Jesus, since it was on this day that that name was given to Him - "the name that is above every other name." Believers are encouraged to invoke this name throughout their lives - a name in which so many miracles have been done (Acts 3:6) - and the use of the Jesus Prayer ("Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner") is a precious tradition in the Christian East.
Saint Basil the Great
Saint Basil (330-379) was one of the most distinguished of the Doctors (teachers) of the Church. Chosen bishop of Caesarea in Cappadocia, he was a tireless preacher, a champion of orthodox theology against the Arian heresy, a writer of theological works, and a monastic legislator whose "rules" of monastic life are still followed throughout the Christian East.
The grace flowed from your lips, O holy father Basil.
You were the shepherd of the Church of Christ,
teaching your spiritual sheep to believe in the holy Trinity,
consubstantial in the one Godhead. (from the Litija at Vespers)
He also also credited with an Anaphora (Eucharistic prayer) which is a masterpiece of theology and devotion, recounting the entire history of salvation. This Liturgy of Saint Basil is used on the great baptismal feasts, on the Sundays of the Fast, and on this, his feast day.
Liturgical Services of the Feast
At Vespers on the eve of the feast, the hymns are balanced between those of the Circumcision and those in honor of Saint Basil. One hymn sung at the beginning of Vespers explains condescension of Christ in this manner:
The all-good God was not ashamed to be circumcised in the flesh,
but He offered himself as a symbol and an example of salvation to all.
For the Maker of the Law submitted himself to its commands
and to what the prophets beforehand told of Him.
O our God who hold all things in your hands,
and yet were wrapped in swaddling clothes,
O Lord, glory to you!
The first reading at Vespers (Genesis 17:1-14) recounts God's covenant with Abraham, and the beginning of the ordinance of circumcision, "which shall be the mark of the covenant between you and me." The second and third readings (Proverbs 8:22-31 and Proverbs 10:31-32, 11:1-12) speak of God's wisdom; these readings may fittingly apply to the teaching and theological writings of Saint Basil, which were so inportant in the early Church.
The service of Matins continues both themes. The Gospel at Matins (John 10:9-16) depicts the good shepherd, "who gives up his life for his sheep" - words which apply equally to our Lord, and to a holy bishop.
At the morning Divine Liturgy, which always uses the Anaphora of Saint Basil, there are two sets of readings, one for the Circumcision and one for Saint Basil, though it is easy to miss this fact because the two Epistles are read together, without separate introductions, and the same for the two Gospel readings.
The first Epistle (Colossians 2:8-12) states the connection between circumcision and the life of Grace:
In Christ the fullness of deity resides in bodily form. Yours is a share in this fulness... You were also circumcised with him, not with the circumcision administered by hand but with Christ's circumcision, which strips off the carnal body completely. In baptism you were not only buried with him but also raised to life with him..."
(We will hear more readings about baptism from now till the great baptismal feast of the Theophany on January 6.) The second epistle reading (Hebrews 7:26 - 8:2) describes Jesus as the perfect high priest; it is this role that must also be fulfilled by a Christian bishop, the high priest of God for and among his flock.
The first Gospel at the Divine Liturgy (Luke 2:20-21, 40-52) recounts the events that took place just after our Lord's birth (his circumcision and naming) and his family's pilgrimage to Jerusalem when he was twelve years old. The second Gospel (Luke 6:17-23), for Saint Basil, tells us of Jesus' ministry of healing and preaching, in the course of which he teaches His disciples the Beatitudes:
Blessed are you poor; the reign of God is yours.
Blessed are you who hunger; you shall be filled.
Blessed are you that are weeping; you shall laugh.
Blest shall you be when men hate you, when they ostracize you
and insult you and proscribe your name as evil because of the Son of Man.
On the day they do so, rejoice and exult,
for your reward shall be great in heaven.
For Saint Basil, who encountered much opposition, these words are particularly apt.
New Year's Day
This day is also the civil New Year in most countries, but the hymns of the feast do not take any particular notice of this fact.
The Ruthenian Trebnik does include a blessing of the New Year, with special petitions to be inserted into the Litany of Peace, and a prayer of blessing for use at the dismissal, of the Divine Liturgy; these prayers can be found in English in the Hamtramck Euchologion.
The Ruthenian Molebnik contains a moleben (prayer service) to be used on the occasion of the New Year.
- Father Basil Shereghy. The Liturgical Year of the Byzantine-Slavonic Rite.
(Pittsburgh, PA: Byzantine Seminary Press, 1968), pages 75-77.
- A Monk of the Eastern Church (Father Lev Gilet). The Year of Grace of the Lord.
(Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 2001), pages 75-76.
- Father Thomas Hopko. The
(Crestwoord, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press,1984).
An excellent account of the feasts of the Nativity and Theophany.