The Circumcision of our Lord

June 24, 2008

I have been surprised by the interest of some seventeenth-century theologians in the circumcision of Christ. Great significance is placed in this first shedding of his blood. This is a bond to his Father, signed in blood, whereby he put himself under the law on our behalf, binding himself to perform that obedience which we could not perform ourselves. This motif was commonplace, and is reflected in the Collect for New Year’s Day in the Book of Common Prayer. New Year’s Day was the traditional date in the West for the Feast of the Circumcision of our Lord. Some, however, go further, developing an idea found in the Church Fathers that Christ’s circumcision foreshadowed the perfect circumcision of the cross (e.g. Ambrose, Epistola 78.2-4 (PL, 16, cols 1268A-C); Augustine, Epistola 23.4 (PL 33, cols 96-97; cf. Ursinus, Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 27). Christ was not only pledging obedience to the law but also pledging to pay the debt of penalty by which consciences would be made clean. These first drops of Christ’s blood were, for Ussher, ‘a pawn and pledge that all the rest should follow, that all the blood in his veins should be shed for the redemption of his Church’. The blood shed at Christ’s circumcision was thus an obligation for both his active and passive obedience, the fulfilment of the law in his life and the satisfaction of his suffering and death.

Ussher’s one-time secretary Francis Quarles saw fit to devote one of his Divine Poems on the Passion of Christ to this theme:

The seventh day from his birth, he did begin
Obedience to the law and pawnd his skin,
He would fulfil it; when Ziskas houre was come
He should expire, he bad them make a Drum
Of’s skin, conceited it would scare the foe
‘Twas strange antipothie, if it would do soe.
But this small peece of skin was such a spell
It scar’d the sootie Regiments of Hell.
It made the infernall Legions retreit
And did indeed what Zisca but conceit.
The drops this day effused, were but laid
For his Good Frydayes earnest, when he paid
For our Redemption blood in full summes,
Now it but drops, then in a tempest comes,
The circumcision of this infant did
Christen our New-Yeares day: that blood was shed
Did make a double Birth-day to appeare,
One of our happiness, one of the yeare.

[Ziska of course being the Hussite warlord who reputedly urged that a drumhead be made from his skin after he died, believing that the sound would frighten the enemy.]

Don’t see much of this around now, do you?

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