of our Lord.
by H. P. LiddonSermon XXI in
Christmastide in St. Paul's: Sermons Bearing Chiefly on the Birth of Our Lord and
the End of the Year. Longmans, Green, and Co., London, 1898 [Fifth Edition]
ST. LUKE II 21.
Eight days were accomplished for the circumcising of the Child.
ON the eighth day after the Birth of Jesus Christ He was circumcised. On
the octave of, or eighth day after Christmas Day, the Church of Christ keeps
the Feast of His Circumcision.
Our Lord, as you know, is both God and Man. As Man, He underwent in
infancy the rite which was enjoined by the Jewish Law. As God, He willed
to undergo it. He might have ordered things otherwise. But He freely submitted,
as to all the humiliations of His earthly life, and to death itself, so at
the outset of His course, to the painful and humbling rite of circumcision.
In this submission of His, there are three points, among others, to be noticed.
In condescending to be circumcised, our Lord gave His emphatic sanction
to the principle that a feature of heathen practice or religion might be
occasionally consecrated to serve the purposes of religious truth.
For although in later books of the Bible the Jews are contrasted with all
other nations, as the "circumcision " with the "uncircumcision," it is certain
that from early times some heathen peoples did practise circumcision.
This was apparently the case with the ancient Egyptians. [Herod. ii., 36,
37.] When circumcision was enjoined on Abraham, he would not have regarded
it as a new rite; he had been in Egypt, and he must have known that it was
at least common, probably universal, in that country. Circumcision, as practised
by Abraham, was an old rite with a new meaning. The Divine promise is
precise; "it shall be a token of the covenant betwixt Me and you." [Gen. xvii.
11] This is in accordance with God's dealings in other matters. Some
of the' documents embodied in the historical books of the Old Testament are
selections from annals kept by ordinary historians. Some words used
by St. Paul and St. John, as well as others in the Nicene Creed, which describe
truths respecting the Divine Nature of our Lord, had an earlier and a different
value in the market of Greek thought. Some of St. Paul's arguments
were Rabbinical arguments; they were learnt by him in the Rabbinical schools
at Jerusalem, although they appear in his most anti-Jewish writings, such
as the Epistle to the Galatians.
In like manner something like the sign of the Cross is found in certain
pagan religions; and our surplices, in all probability, came originally from
Egypt. All this does not show that the true religion is, after all, only
a conglomerate of false religions under a new form. It does show that a most
important function of true inspiration is selection; that the Holy Spirit
lays under contribution for His high purposes, various words, thoughts, arguments,
customs, symbols, rites, associated before with false religions or with none;
that He invests them with a new and higher meaning, breathes upon them, baptizes
them; and thus enlists them in a holier service. So it was with the
rite of circumcision. And when our Lord submitted to be circumcised, He endorsed
the principle that even a heathen rite might be consecrated to the service
In submitting to circumcision, our Lord became obedient to the whole Mosaic
Law. As St. Paul says, He was "made under the Law." [Gal iv. 4]
This was the meaning of circumcision, so far as man was concerned; it was
an undertaking to be true to everything in the covenant with God, of
which it was the initial rite. Just as in Baptism the infant Christian
is signed "with the sign of the Cross, in token that hereafter he shall not
be ashamed to confess the faith of Christ crucified, and manfully to fight
under His banner, against sin, the world, and the devil; and to continue Christ's
faithful soldier and servant unto his life's end;" [Baptismal Service] so
in circumcision the young Israelite made a profession of entire obedience
and devotion to the whole Law, moral, civil, and ceremonial, which came from
God through Moses. As St. Paul says, "Circumcision verily profiteth,
if thou keep the Law: but if thou be a breaker of the Law, thy circumcision
is made uncircumcision." [Rom. Ii. 25.]
Consider what this must have meant in the case of our Lord. Not only did
He voluntarily submit to ordinances which He Himself had instituted, but to
ordinances which had in reality no purpose or meaning except as referring
to Himself. They were the shadows, He the Reality. They were an
acted prediction, of which He was the Fulfilment. They were but types.
He the Antitype. They were designed to create in the human conscience,
as St. Paul has shown, a sense of moral want which He alone could satisfy.
Yet, as if He had everything to learn respecting Himself, and to feel the
need of everything which He Himself alone could give, He submitted to them.
He could not have done more had He been consciously ignorant, consciously
criminal. And yet He could not have done less, if He was to represent
us, in His Life of perfect obedience, as well as on His Cross of unutterable
pain and shame. As He said to St. John the Baptist, “Thus it becometh us
to fulfil all righteousness." [St. Matt. Iii. 15.] The painful and
humiliating rite by which a Jewish infant was admitted to the covenant between
his forefathers and God befitted One Who came on earth, not to do His own
will, but the Will of Him That sent Him. [St. John vi. 38.]
What a lesson of obedience is here! When do many of us get into trouble
with God? Is it not when we know that God has clearly commanded something
which, however incumbent on others, we do not deem necessary for ourselves?
We would fain know why the Abana and Pharpar of our own native common sense
should not do just as well as the prescribed bath in the waters of Israel?
We make our estimate of our wants, and not God's declared Will, the rule of
our conduct. Of the real nature and extent of our wants we know little;
we know not how far our obedience, if it really were unnecessary for ourselves,
may not be needed as an example or an encouragement to others. Let
us think of the obedience of our Lord to the law of circumcision. He,
everlastingly One with the Father, could have dispensed with the symbol of
covenant with God. He, the absolutely Sinless, needed not a rite which implied
detachment from impurity. Yet He submitted to it, because the Father so ordered;
because we, His brethren, required the bright example and the moral strength
of His submission.
Our Lord underwent this rite of circumcision in order to persuade us of
the necessity of that spiritual circumcision which was prefigured by it.
This, the "true circumcision of the Spirit," is explained in the Collect to
mean, "that, our hearts and all our members being mortified from all worldly
and carnal lusts, we may in all things obey God's Blessed Will." [Collect
for the Feast of Circumcision]
Even the Old Testament teaches a moral and spiritual as well as a literal
circumcision. It teaches that the heart, the lips, the ears, must be
circumcised. [Deut. x. 16; xxx. 6; Exod. vi. 12.; Jer. vi. 10.] And
for us Christians, the literal circumcision, which is outward in the flesh,
is, as St. Paul says, not circumcision; [Rom. ii. 28.] nay, if we were circumcised,
from a belief that the rite is necessary, Christ would profit us nothing.
[Gal. v. 2.] For He has come, and has given us a new nature in Baptism;
[Gal. vi. 15.] and, as the Romans are reminded, the true circumcision is "that
of the heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter; whose praise is not of
men, but of God." [Rom. Ii. 29.] And the really circumcised are Christians,
who worship God in the spirit, and rejoice in Christ Jesus, and have no confidence
in the flesh. [Phil. iii. 3]
What is the essence of this spiritual circumcision? Surely it is the mortification
of earthly desire. The great problem of life, it has been said, is to keep
desire in its proper place. For desire is the strongest of the chariot-horses of the soul; in whatever direction we are being borne, it is love of
some kind that carries us forward. Desire was meant to be the attractive
force which should keep the soul true to that Perfect and Awful Being Who
has a first claim on it; like those Laws which oblige each planet to move,
at whatever distance, round its sun. But, since the Fall, human nature
has resembled a planet that had burst away from its true orbit, and goes crashing
about in space, drawn hither and thither by the attractive force of other
bodies. Desire no longer centres in God, but is lavished upon a hundred
perishing objects, mainly upon objects of sense. And with this degradation
of desire the soul is degraded too. "Where your treasure is, there
will your heart be also." [St. Matt. Vi. 21.] If the soul is drawn
upwards towards God, it becomes gradually like God; if downwards towards
the things of sense, it becomes like the things of sense; it becomes animalized,
materialized, in any case degraded.
Hence the necessity for the circumcision of the Spirit. The mortification
of degraded desire, of desire which no longer centres in God, is not the byplay,
but the most serious business of a true Christian life. This is what
our Lord meant by the searching words, "If thy right eye offend thee, pluck
it out, and cast it from thee; .. . if thy right hand offend thee, cut it
off, and cast it from thee: it is profitable for thee that one of thy members
should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell." [St.
Matt. V. 29, 30.]
Perhaps, on New Year's Day, some of us are looking out for a good resolution
to be acted on, by God's grace, during the next twelve months. Can we do better
than resolve to do every day something which we naturally dislike, as an
act of love and worship to our Lord Jesus Christ, Who was made to be circumcised
and obedient to the Law, for us men? Such a resolution, even tolerably
kept, will leave us at the end of the year happier, because more disciplined
and freer men than we are now. It will have enabled us to make one
good step on the way to our eternal home. To which may He, of His mercy,
bring us, Who was born into the world, and died and rose that we might be
His in life and in death and in the higher life beyond the grave.