Feast of the Circumcision
The GOSPEL ACCORDING TO LUKE (2:21) reports that eight days after JESUS was born, JOSEPH and MARY named him and had him circumcised. In doing so, they conformed to an old Jewish custom whereby all male infants are circumcised as a sign of the eternal covenant between God and the Jewish people. The Feast of the Circumcision, observed on January 1, commemorates the Holy Family’s compliance with this custom. It also celebrates the naming of Jesus and, in the Roman Catholic Church, Mary’s role as the Mother of God.
The Feast of the Circumcision received official recognition rather late. Luke’s account clearly states that Jesus was circumcised eight days after his birth. After Church authorities established the celebration of Christmas on DECEMBER 25, the obvious date for the remembrance of the Circumcision would be January 1, which falls eight days after the celebration of the Nativity.
In the first few centuries after Christ’s birth, however, the vast pagan population of the Roman world was still celebrating KALENDS, their new year festival, on that date. Numerous early Christian leaders disapproved of the riotous pagan new year celebrations and urged their Christian followers to observe the day with thoughtfulness, fasting, and sobriety instead. In the fourth century A.D., one such leader, a monk named Almacius (or Telemachus) stormed into a crowded Roman stadium on January 1 crying, “Cease from the superstition of idols and polluted sacrifices. Today is the octave of the Lord!” Some report that the enraged crowd stoned the earnest monk to death; others state that the assembled gladiators dispatched him.
This attitude of vehement opposition to the celebrations already taking place on January 1 may explain the reluctance of Church officials to establish a Christian celebration on that day. In an effort to counteract the still-popular festivities surrounding Kalends, the second provincial Council of Tours (567 A.D.) ordered Christians to fast and do penance during the first few days of the new year.
Nevertheless, over the course of the next several centuries, January 1 became a feast day throughout the Christian world. Around the seventh century the Roman Catholic Church introduced a new observance called the “Octave of the Birth of Our Lord” on January 1. In the language of the Church, an “octave” is an eight-day period that includes any great Church festival and the seven days that follow it. Thus, this name signaled that the new observance was to serve as a completion of the Christmas feast. Before that time, however, Christians from Gaul had observed the day as the “Circumcision of Jesus,” a name reflecting their emphasis on Jesus’ compliance with the Jewish tradition of circumcision. This idea spread from Gaul to SPAIN, and, eventually, to Rome.
The Eastern Churches began to observe January 1 as a commemoration of the circumcision in the eighth century. In the ninth century the Roman Church began to blend its original emphasis on the completion of the octave of Christmas with a commemoration of the Circumcision. Before long the Roman Church incorporated yet another theme into its celebrations. Many observed the feast primarily by expressing gratitude and devotion to Mary, the mother of God. Indeed, some historians recognize the festival as the earliest Catholic feast dedicated to Mary. Eventually, it became the most important Marian feast in the Roman Church.
The Feast of the Circumcision falls in the middle of the TWELVE DAYS OF CHRISTMAS. During the Middle Ages bursts of revelry punctuated this twelve-day period. In spite of the efforts of the early Church to diminish the customary carousing associated with the Roman new year, a new form of riotous display developed around Church celebrations on January 1. From the twelfth to the sixteenth centuries, lower clergy in many parts of EUROPE took part in the Feast of Fools on that date. Scandalized authorities managed to eradicate this observance in most areas by the sixteenth century, although it lingered in FRANCE until the eighteenth century.
The various Christian denominations that observe the feast empha-size different aspects of the events surrounding Jesus’ circumcision. In 1969 the Roman Catholic Church changed the name of the observance to the “Solemnity of Mary,” a name that reflects their emphasis on Mary’s role as mother of the Savior. Orthodox Christians continue to observe the day as the “Feast of the Circumcision of Our Lord.” Episcopalians call the festival the “Feast of the Holy Name of Our Lord Jesus Christ.” They emphasize the significance of Jesus’ name, given to Mary by GABRIEL — the ANGEL of the ANNUNCIATION—which means literally “God saves” or “God helps.” Lutherans compromise by calling the festival the “Feast of the Circumcision and the Name of Jesus.” (See also New Year’s Day).