This morning’s Gospel is extremely brief, as you have just seen. The passages before it are those which we read on Christmas day, and the ones following it will be read on the feast of our Lord’s Presentation in the Temple on February 2nd. In the breviary readings this morning, Saint Ambrose, the bishop of Milan who brought Saint Augustine into the Faith, treats the Circumcision and the Presentation as a unit. He makes the important point that the various rites of the Old Testament are symbols which point to the realities of the New Testament.[i]
Our Lord was circumcised on the eighth day of His life, shedding a little of His blood, as had all the boy descendents of Abraham, to mark them among the chosen people of God. But more than just an identifying mark, circumcision was said to symbolize the deliverance of Israel (collectively, including the women) from sin. It may seem odd to think of our Lord requiring this rite – certainly no other human being had a greater right to be numbered among God’s people, without any sort of formality at all – and certainly, our Lord was in no need whatsoever of deliverance from sin. Yet the divine plan was that He (and His holy Mother) would undergo all of the symbolic rituals of the Mosaic Law, so that we might be moved to think about the realities which He brought to each of these symbols.
Saint Ambrose points out that the Resurrection also came on the “eighth day” of the week. The symbolic shedding of blood at the Circumcision thus points to the very real forgiveness of sin that would take place in the events of the crucifixion and death of our Lord, and culminate in His Resurrection on the “eighth day.” The little Child who seems so tiny and helpless and dependant on the people of Israel today, would one day take upon Himself, not only the sins of Israel, but of all mankind.
This Sunday we will hear the same Gospel read at Mass, but the emphasis will be on the Holy Name of Jesus. It is not at all a coincidence that the name “Jesus” literally means “the savior” or “the deliverer.” You will recall the Gospel that we read on the vigil of Christmas, in which the angel appeared to Joseph and prepared him to accept Mary as his wife and Jesus as his foster son. The Angel said:
Again, while a name is merely a symbol, it points, in the case of our Lord to the reality that on the “eighth day” He will redeem His people from their sins – even though He received His name only as a helpless babe on the eighth day of His life.
We will have more to say about our Lord’s Holy Name on Sunday, and about His Presentation in the Temple at the beginning of next month on Candlemas. But let me spend just a few minutes more in going over the phrase we just heard: “He shall save His people from their sins.”
On the one hand, it would have seemed scandalous to many of the people who were there for the Circumcision to think of “His people” as anything but the people of Israel. There was among them a strong feeling of “us verses them” – of Israel on the one hand, and the “nations” or the “gentiles” on the other hand. For many of them, when the “deliverer” came, it was to be for the benefit of Israel alone – more of a political and military deliverance from the worldly enemies of the people of God – a deliverance from all of the un-circumcised, who were not the children of Abraham.
It did not matter that some of the prophets had already revealed a broader plan by God to integrate the “nations” into the people who worshipped Him. It would not matter that our Lord Himself would announce that:
Indeed, the idea that gentiles might be among God’s children, while Israelites might be excluded, probably sounded close to blasphemy in their ears. But such was the reality of the New Covenant announced by our Lord Jesus Christ.
Yet, we ought to consider also that while our Lord redeemed all of mankind on the “eighth day,” there are many who refuse to be numbered among “His people.” He was rejected by many of His own, even though they had seen Him and His apostles work great miracles on their behalf. Over the centuries, He has been rejected by any number of people who have heard about Him but still want to have thing “their way” instead of “His way.” There are many who refuse to believe in the things that He has revealed on behalf of the Father, and many who reuse to even try to keep His Commandments.
There are many who tell themselves that His Truth and His Commandments simply do not matter. There are many who will deceive themselves into thinking that one has only to be a good person to be saved, and will further deceive themselves into thinking that it is possible to be “good without God” or that it is possible to embrace God without embracing Jesus Christ.
Today we continue to celebrate the events of Christmas – the events of our Lord’s infancy – events which will continue on through the Epiphany and the Presentation in the Temple. We ought to rejoice in them and share them with others, for they are beautiful not only as the story of the Christ-child; but also as symbols which point to the reality of our Redemption. May we ever strive to make that Redemption profitable for us and for those around us through our good example, believing the Truth of Jesus Christ and keeping His Commandments.