The Right Rite to Remember
Rituals help us mark the passage time. This is true even for those who claim to be non-religious; indeed the Cambridge Dictionary defines a ritual as “a set of actions or words performed in a regular way.” New Year’s celebrations are a very common place for secular rites. This includes making a toast, giving a midnight kiss, watching the Times Square Ball drop, shooting fireworks, or blowing noisemakers. These rituals provide closure to the old year and begin the new with a note of excitement.
The Christian Church also begins the New Year with a ritual: circumcision. Thankfully, it’s not a ritual performed but a ritual remembered from the life of Jesus. One the 8th day after his birth (biblical language for one-week later), Mary and Joseph circumcised their baby boy. In Hebrew culture, the procedure was also accompanied by the ritual of naming: 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 1st of January, eight days after Christmas, is therefore known as the Feast of the Circumcision and Name of Jesus.
In the Old Testament, the covenant of circumcision was given to Abraham (Genesis 17:1-14) to mark him and his descendants as set apart by God. This was to prepare the world for Jesus, God’s Son set apart to bear our sin and be our Savior. Jesus kept the law in its entirety and then shed his blood to cover our iniquity. As vulgar as it may sound to our modern sensibilities, the Christian Church rejoices in Jesus’ Circumcision as the first moment when the Lord offered up his atoning blood. Consider one of our New Year’s hymns: “His infant body now begins the cross to feel; those precious drops of blood that flow for death the victim seal” (Lutheran Service Book, 898:3).
Even in the Old Testament the deeper meaning of circumcision was transformation of the human heart. One this side of the cross, the ritual of circumcision has been replaced by that of Holy Baptism (notice how Zion’s baptismal font has eight sides). Paul explains to the Colossians: In Christ Jesus you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead. And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. (Col 2:10-14)
Notice that baptism is not an empty ritual. But through the command and Word of Jesus, baptism transforms the human heart. Baptism marks your life as set apart by God for God. As we sing in the liturgy “Worthy is Christ, the Lamb who was slain, whose blood set us free to be people of God.” When you remember your baptism the Lord gives you power and strength through the blood of Jesus.
Allow me to suggest therefore that Jesus’ circumcision, His blood, and our baptism set the course for our lives this New Year. As St. Paul instructs Colossians, such baptismal living means that we flee from sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, idolatry, covetousness, anger, wrath, malice, slander, obscene talk, and lies (Col 3:5-9). Instead we are called to put on, as God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony (Col 3:11-14). Imagine what that kind of year would be like. In Christ it will!
Remember now the Son of God
And how He shed His infant blood
Rejoice! Rejoice! With thanks embrace
Another year of Grace.
This Jesus came to end sin’s war;
This Name of names for us He bore.
Rejoice! Rejoice! With thanks embrace
Another year of Grace. (Lutheran Service Book, 896: 2-3)
Yours by Jesus’ blood and merit,
Pastor Scott Johnson