As I recall, years ago we celebrated the feast of the circumcision of Christ on New Year’s Day. Now we celebrate on that day the feast of Mary, Mother of God. Can you tell me why we celebrated the circumcision and when and why the change was made?
AS you say, on January 1 we used to celebrate the feast of the circumcision of Our Lord. This was an appropriate day for the liturgical celebration of this event because a week after the birth every male Jewish child was circumcised and a name was given him.
St Luke describes it: “And at the end of eight days, when he was circumcised, he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb” (Luke 2:21).
The circumcision of Christ has an interesting origin and symbolism. It dates back to the time of Abraham, around 1900 BC. The book of Genesis records that when Abraham was 99 years old, God made a covenant with him, promising to multiply his offspring and to give them the land of Canaan for an everlasting possession.
At the same time he changed his name from Abram to Abraham (cf. Genesis 17:1-8). God told him: “This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your descendants after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you. He that is eight days old among you shall be circumcised … So shall my covenant be in your flesh an everlasting covenant” (Genesis 17:10-13).
Ever since, as a sign of the covenant, every male child was circumcised on the eighth day after his birth, and this became the means of incorporation into the people of the covenant, just as Baptism is for Christians today.
St Paul himself would boast of having been “circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews” (Philippians 3:5). Circumcision distinguished the Jews from the Gentiles, who were peoples of the uncircumcision.
Our Lord’s circumcision thus manifests that he is truly man, born of a woman into the Jewish nation, whom he had come to redeem. God had chosen his people of the Old Testament to prepare the way for the Incarnation of his Son, who would be their Messiah, their anointed one, who would free them from their sins and establish a new and definitive covenant with them.
Christ’s circumcision also has great symbolic value. It was in his circumcision that he first shed his blood, foreshadowing the piercing of his side by a soldier as he hung on the cross (cf. John 19:34). It prefigured the water of Baptism through which Christians enter the new Covenant.
St Paul writes: “In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of flesh in the circumcision of Christ; and you were buried with him in baptism” (Colossians 2:11-12).
When Christ was circumcised, he was given the name Jesus, which the angel had announced both to Joseph (cf. Matthew 1:2) and to Mary (cf. Luke 1:31). The name Jesus means saviour and so the angel had told Joseph that the child was to be named Jesus “for he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21).
The feast of the Circumcision was celebrated on the eighth day after Christmas, and therefore on January 1, from the very early centuries. Christmas began to be celebrated on December 25 from at least the fourth century (cf. J. Flader, Question Time 1, Connor Court 2012, q. 141).
Since January 1 was the beginning of a new calendar year, the Christian feast had to compete with the pagan festivities celebrated on that day, as it does today. The feast of the Circumcision was celebrated in the Gallican rite from the sixth century and in the Byzantine calendars in the eighth and ninth centuries.
The Octave of Christmas was celebrated at the same time, especially in Rome from the seventh century.
Even though the feast was of the Circumcision, the texts of the Mass and Divine Office came to include many references to Our Lady. Until 1960 the Roman calendar celebrated on January 1 the Circumcision and the Octave of the Nativity. In the revised calendar of 1960 January 1 was called simply the Octave of the Nativity.
Finally, in the Roman calendar of 1969 the feast became the Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God, but is also referred to as the Octave of the Nativity.
It is fitting that we celebrate Mary’s divine maternity on the octave of Christmas, when we celebrate the birth of the Son of God. The feast of the Holy Name of Jesus is celebrated on January 3.
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