Sermon for the Circumcision of the Lord

Today the Russian Orthodox Church celebrates the great Feast of the Circumcision of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. team | 14 January 2019

Today we celebrate the Circumcision of the Lord. It might seem strange to us to commemorate this event; after all, the old covenant has been abrogated, and St. Paul and the New Testament Church took great pains to eradicate the belief that circumcision was required of Christian people of the new covenant. If anything, we might think that the significance of this feast is essentially the fulfillment by Jesus Christ of the Old Testament law. And of course, this is true. But it is all too easy to lapse into the unspoken idea that once something has been fulfilled, it is therefore meaningless. This is a grievous error. Every single moment, every word and every act of our Lord Jesus Christ during His earthly life was absolutely filled with meaning, purpose and significance. And this particular act was so great and contained so much meaning that today’s feast is accounted among the great feasts of the Church.

It is also all to easy to believe that those things which were done for us by Christ were done so that we ourselves need not do them. This is no less a terrible mistake and misunderstanding. Everything that the Lord Jesus Christ did on earth, He did so that we also might do it. “Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that believeth on me, the works that I do shall he do also; and greater works than these shall he do” (John 14:12, KJV). Circumcision, one of the greatest of all the commandments of the old covenant, was—along with the rest of the old covenant—not abolished; rather, it was established, as St. Paul himself wrote: “Do we then make void the law through faith? God forbid: yea, we establish the law” (Romans 3:31, KJV). Indeed, not only was circumcision not abolished, not only was it also established, but it was moreover fulfilled, as the Lord Himself said: “Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil” (Matthew 5:17, KJV).

Because we Christians are also circumcised. And our circumcision is far greater—and far more painful—than the circumcision given to Abraham, which was only a foreshadowing of the true circumcision we ourselves have been given. For Abraham and the old Israel cut off only a small portion of their flesh, while we ourselves must cut off not only our entire flesh but even our very life itself. In the Old Testament the people of God sacrificed first fruits and tithes and offerings; in the New Testament, we offer up everything we own, our whole selves, our entire mind and heart and will, and even every single person that we love. “If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26, KJV). This is the true circumcision, this is the substance of the shadows given to Abraham in a figure and in a promise. This is the life that the Lord Jesus Christ led on earth, and this same life is the life that we ourselves are called to lead: nothing less than the very life of Jesus, “in whom also ye are circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, in putting off the body of the sins of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ: buried with him in baptism, wherein also ye are risen with him through the faith of the operation of God, who hath raised him from the dead” (Colossians 2:11-12, KJV).

To be offered to live the very life of God is a thing so great that the human mind cannot even begin to comprehend it. But so great a gift does not come cheap. And indeed, this is the very nature and heart of sacrifice: to make an offering to God, and then to receive back that which was offered, only now utterly transfigured with divine light. We offer now, in this Liturgy, bread and wine; we receive them back as the Body of Blood of God. We offer our bodies to God, and we receive them back deified, transfigured, vessels of divine grace. We offer our minds to God and receive back the mind of Christ. We offer our hearts to God and receive them back as temples of the Holy Spirit.

But mark it well: what we do not offer to God is not transfigured. It is not healed. It is not deified, and so it will perish like dust and ashes. “He that loveth his life shall lose it; and he that hateth his life in this world shall keep it unto life eternal” (John 12:25, KJV).

In the Anaphora of St. Basil’s Liturgy which we are now celebrating, the priestly prayers conclude: “for all things hast Thou given unto us.” Truly the Lord has given us all things, even His very life. But we cannot receive what we have not first offered. Let us then offer Him everything that we have, holding nothing back. And if we look at our lives honestly, we see that we have and we do hold so much back from God. We cling to this dust and to these ashes as though are lives depended on them, as though they were our very life itself. We have failed to give ourselves up to God in that true circumcision of the heart to which we are called today. But let us take courage. Today is the first day of the new year; let us resolve “to make a good beginning, though we have done nothing good in this life.”

And we are given today all the weapons that we need to prevail in this life and death battle which we are waging. In this very hour we will be vouchsafed the Holy and Lifegiving Mysteries of Christ, the spiritual coal from the heavenly altar which has the power to purge away our sins. And just as Christ was given today His name, the “name which is above every name” (Philippians 2:9, KJV), so too He gives us His name today as a sword and a shield, and a fire to purify our hearts and souls and bodies. Today is the feast of the Jesus Prayer, the prayer that has the power to put to flight the demons and to drive far from us every sin and every passion. With the Jesus Prayer, every moment of our life can be an offering to God. Even the simplest act, performed with the Jesus Prayer, is a sacrifice. Every temptation which is fought off with the Jesus Prayer is a spiritual holocaust, a whole burnt offering pleasing unto God. And even our very failures and falls into sin can be offered to God along with the Jesus Prayer, and He will by no means despise such an offering from a humble heart and a broken spirit; on the contrary, such offerings are among the greatest of all offerings, sacrifices truly pleasing in His sight.

But we must not deceive ourselves: this offering up of everything will cost us everything. Even on this eighth day of the Lord’s life, He was already moving inexorably toward the Cross. But through the Cross joy has come to all the world. Let it be this joy, the joy of the Cross, the divine and unsurpassed joy of Pascha, that fills these festive days for us now. Let us not allow the paltry and passing pleasures of earth to take the place of such heavenly joy. And may God grant to us sinners and unworthy ones to partake also of this same joy throughout all eternity in His Heavenly Kingdom in His grace and compassion and love for mankind, through the intercessions of His Most Pure Mother and of all the saints. Amen.

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