Tuesday, January 01, 2019

The Ancient Character of the Feast of the Circumcision

It is a commonplace of pre-Conciliar liturgical scholarship that the title of today’s feast as that of the Circumcision is a later development in the Roman Rite, imported from the Gallican Rite and elsewhere. The revised Butler’s Lives of the Saints states “On the whole it would seem that outside Rome—in Gaul, Germany, Spain, and even at Milan and in the south of Italy—an effort was made to exalt the mystery of the Circumcision in the hope that it might fill the popular mind and win the revelers from their pagan superstitions. In Rome itself, however, there is no trace of any reference to the Circumcision until a relatively late period.” Similar statements are made in the Catholic Encyclopedia article on the feast, in the Bl. Schuster’s The Sacramentary, in Dom Suitbert Bäumer’s History of the Breviary, and in Mons. Pierre Battifol’s History of the Roman Breviary. [1] This assessment is based on a very superficial reading of the day’s original title and liturgical texts; in reality, the Circumcision was a prominent feature of today’s liturgy from the very beginning.

The title “feast of the Circumcision” is first attested in the 540s, in a non-Roman lectionary known as the Lectionary of Victor of Capua. However, it may well be rather older than that. A council held at Tour in France in 567 refers explicitly to the Circumcision as a feast of long-standing: “our fathers established … that on the Calends (of January) the Mass of the Circumcision should be celebrated.” The words cited above from Butler’s Lives about “win(ning) the revelers from their pagan superstitions” refer to a common feature of the liturgies of January 1st, that they were designed at least in part as an answer to and reproof of riotous pagan celebrations of New Year’s Day; the same canon of the Council of Tours speaks of three day of litanies instituted in this season “to trod down the custom of the pagans.”

In the most ancient Roman liturgical books, however, the title is simply “the octave of the Lord”, as we find for example in the Lectionary of Wurzburg and the Gelasian Sacramentary. Nevertheless, even though the word “circumcision” is not used as the title of the liturgical day, or in the prayers, it is not true that “there is no trace of any reference to the Circumcision” in the early Roman liturgy.

Folios 8v and 9r of the Gellone Sacramentary, a sacramentary of the Gelasian type written in 780-800 AD. The Mass of “the Octave of the Lord” begins towards the bottom of the page on the left. (Bibliothèque nationale de France, Département des Manuscrits, Latin 12048)
The Breviary and Missal of St Pius V have as the Collect for the day the prayer “Deus, qui salutis aeternae”, which refers principally to the Virgin Mary as the one “through whom we merited to receive the Author of life.” However, this is not the original Collect, which is attested in the Gelasian Sacramentary in the 8th century, and found in many other Uses of the Roman Rite, (Sarum etc.); it is still used by the Premonstratensians, Dominicans and Carmelites to this day. “O God, who grant us to celebrate the eighth day of the Savior’s Birth; strengthen us (or ‘defend us’ – fac nos muniri) by the everlasting divinity of Him, by whose dealing in the flesh we have been restored (or ‘renewed’ – reparati).” [2]

The verb “reparo”, of which “reparati” is the past participle, is used especially in mercantile language to mean “to procure by exchange; to purchase, obtain.” In the context of this prayer, it is deliberately chosen in reference to the words immediately before it, “dealing (commercio) in the flesh.” This language of commerce and purchase reflects the fact that the Circumcision was the very first shedding of Christ’s blood, the price of our redemption, of which St Paul says, “you are bought with a great price. Glorify and bear God in your body” (1 Cor. 6, 20), and St Peter, “you were not redeemed (literally ‘bought back’) with corruptible things as gold or silver, from your vain conversation of the tradition of your fathers, but with the precious blood of Christ …” (1 Pet. 1, 18-19)

The first antiphon of Lauds on the feast of the Circumcision also refers to this “commerce” or “exchange.” “O wondrous exchange (commercium)! The creator of the human race, taking on a living body, hath deigned to be born of a Virgin; and without seed, coming forth as a man, hath bestowed on us His divinity.” [3] Like the Collect cited above, this is one of the many places where the liturgy of the Christmas season reflects upon the fact that in the process begun with His Incarnation and Birth, and completed in His Passion and Resurrection, Christ does not merely rescue Man from sin and death, but bestows upon him glory and immortality, which the Eastern Fathers call the “divinization” of man.

It is not true, as is too often stated by people who have every reason to know better, that the early Church had to persuade people of the divinity of Christ. The idea of a divine being of some sort descending from heaven and doing something beneficial for the human race was very congenial to the Greco-Roman mind. What the Church had to persuade the world of was not the divinity of Christ, but rather the humanity of God: the idea that the being that took so much interest in the welfare of the human race that He joined it is none other and none less than God Himself. The language of “commerce” and “exchange” between “divinity” (specified as “everlasting” against the teaching of Arians that the Son of God had a beginning) and “the flesh” is eminently appropriate to the Circumcision, not only because it was the first shedding of Christ’s blood, but also because the manner of its shedding demonstrates the reality and fullness of His temporal human nature which He unites to His eternal divine nature.
The Circumcision, by Friedrich Herlin, 1466
The Gelasian Sacramentary has a second collect for the feast which reads as follows: “Almighty and everlasting God, who in Thy only-begotten Son made us to be a new creature; preserve the works of Thy mercy, and cleanse us from every stain of oldness: so that by the help of Thy grace, we may be found in the form of Him in whom our substance is with Thee, Our Lord Jesus Christ, etc.” [4] The words “new creature” in the context of the feast of the Circumcision refer to one of the two places where St Paul uses the same expression, Galatians 6, 15: “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision availeth any thing, nor uncircumcision [5], but a new creature.” This explains, then, that the “oldness” of which we are being cleansed is the rites of both Judaism and paganism, looking forward to the washing of sins in baptism, which is commemorated in a few days time on the feast of the Epiphany.

It is well known that the Roman Rite anciently used far more prefaces than we have in the later medieval Missals, and that of the Gelasian Sacramentary for January 1st is particularly elaborate. “Truly is it worthy… through Christ our Lord: and as we celebrate today the octave of His Birth, we venerate Thy wondrous deeds, o Lord. For * She that bore (Him) was both Mother and Virgin; He that was born was both an infant and God. Rightly did the heavens speak, and the Angels give thanks; the shepherds rejoiced, the wise men were changed, kings were troubled, and the little children crowned in their glorious passion. Suckle, o Mother, (Him that is) our food; suckle the bread that cometh from heaven, and was laid in a manger, as if to feed the devout beasts. For there did the ox know his owner, and the ass his master’s crib, namely, the circumcision and the uncircumcision. * Which also our Savior and Lord, being received by Simeon in the temple, deigned entirely to fulfill. And therefore with the Angels etc.” [6]

The section marked between the stars here is taken from a Christmas sermon by St Augustine [7]; the words “the circumcision and the uncircumcision” stand in apposition to “the ox … and the ass.” This refers to an exegetical tradition of the Church Fathers which goes back to Origen [8], that the ox, a clean animal according to the Law of Moses, represents the Jewish people, the people of the circumcision, while the ass, an unclean animal, represents the gentiles, the people of the uncircumcision. The presence of both at the manger indicates the universality of Christ’s mission as the redeemer and savior of all men, Jew and gentile. He submitted to the Old Law, which He Himself had instituted, but also replaced it with a truly universal rite, since circumcision can only be done to men, but baptism can be done to all, as St Paul teaches: “For as many of you as have been baptized in Christ, have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek: there is neither bond nor free: there is neither male nor female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3, 27-28)

The so-called Sarcophagus of Stilicho, in the Basilica of St. Ambrose in Milan. ca. 400 A.D. The Gospel of St Luke does not say which animals were present in the stable, but an ox and an ass are mentioned in Isaiah 1, 3 in connection with a manger. Once this verse was connected with the Gospel passage, the ox and the ass alone became so indicative of the scene that in a small space, Mary, Joseph, the angels, the shepherds, the Magi, the star, and even the stable could all be omitted, as we see here.
In the Missal of St Pius V, the Gospel of the Circumcision is the shortest of the liturgical year, consisting of a single verse, Luke 2, 21. “After eight days were accomplished, that the Child should be circumcised, His name was called Jesus, which was called by the Angel, before He was conceived in the womb.” Anciently, however, a much longer Gospel was read, and it was because of this that the day was called “the octave of the Lord”, rather than “the feast of the Circumcision.”

In the two oldest lectionaries of the Roman Rite, the Gospel is Luke 2, 21-32, recounting both the Circumcision and the Presentation of Christ in the temple (up to the Nunc dimittis), of which we now celebrate the latter on Candlemas. This explains the reference to the Presentation in the Gelasian preface given above. In the oldest lectionary of the Ambrosian Rite, the same Gospel was read up to verse 40, including also the words of Simeon to the Virgin Mary, and Luke’s account of the prophetess Anna. Although the Ambrosian Office for January 1st makes many explicit references to pagan celebrations of New Year’s Day, as does the first Scriptural reading of the Mass, the original Preface is wholly concerned with the Circumcision and the Presentation. [9] The ancient Gallican and Mozarabic liturgies also read this longer version, and the very lengthy preface of the latter speaks of both the Circumcision and the Presentation.

There is good reason to believe that this conjunction of the Circumcision and Presentation of Christ in a single feast is extremely ancient. St Jerome translated a homily of Origen on Luke 2, 21-23, which appears as the Gospel for January 1 in the Gallican Missal of Bobbio. [10] In his commentary on the Gospel of St Luke, which is collected in part from notes on sermons preached in the churches of Milan ca. 389-90, St Ambrose interrupts his thoughts about the Circumcision to say, “ ‘To present him to the Lord.’ (Luke 2, 22) I would explain what it means for Him to be presented to the Lord in Jerusalem, had I not explained it earlier in my comments on Isaiah.” [11] This indicates that both episodes were read at the same time. In a Christmas sermon different from the one cited above, St Augustine concludes his explanation of Christ’s circumcision by saying “I ask you, dearest brothers, what greatness did the elderly Simeon see in the little one? What he saw was what the Mother carried; what he understood was the ruler of the world.” [12]

The celebration of the Circumcision and the Presentation together would explain why the liturgical title of January 1st was not originally “the feast of the Circumcision”, nor “the octave of the Nativitity”, but rather “the octave of the Lord”, which is to say, a feast that celebrated all the later events of the Lord’s infancy after His Birth. It remains therefore only to note that all Western traditions agree in highlighting the Circumcision by beginning the day’s Gospel at verse 21, without repeating any of the verses from the Nativity itself.

My heartfelt thanks to Nicola de’ Grandi for helping me with the research on this article.


[1] Schuster vol. 1, p. 395: “(The Octave of Our Lord) ... was the original designation of today’s synaxis until, though the influence of the Gallican liturgies, was added to it that of the Circumcision.” Bäumer, vol. 1, p. 270: “En Gaule également, il y eut des additions; on ajouta les fêtes de la Circumcisio Domini (au lieu de l’Octava Domini des livres romains).” Batiffol, p. 251, footnote: “This title is, in fact, the ancient Roman one, while the custom of keeping the festival of Our Lord’s circumcision is of pre-Carolingian Gallican origin.”

[2] Deus, qui nobis nati Salvatóris diem celebráre concédis octávum: fac nos, quaesumus, ejus perpétua divinitáte muníri, cujus sumus carnáli commercio reparáti.

[3] O admirábile commercium! Creátor géneris humáni, animátum corpus sumens, de Vírgine nasci dignátus est; et procédens homo sine sémine, largítus est nobis suam Deitátem.

[4] Omnípotens sempiterne Deus, qui in Unigénito tuo novam creatúram nos tibi esse fecisti; custódi ópera misericordiae tuae, et ab ómnibus nos máculis vetustátis emunda: ut per auxilium gratiae tuae, in illíus inveniámur forma, in quo tecum est nostra substantia, Jesu Christi, Dómini nostri.

[5] The term “uncircumcision” is used by the Douay-Rheims and King James Bibles as a slightly more delicate term for “foreskin.”

[6] VD. Per Christum, Dóminum nostrum. Cujus hodie octávas nati celebrantes, tua, Dómine, mirabilia venerámur; quia quae péperit et mater et virgo est; qui natus est, et infans et deus est. Mérito caeli locúti sunt, Angeli gratuláti, pastóres laetáti, Magi mutáti, reges turbáti, párvuli gloriósa passióne coronáti. Lacta, Mater, cibum nostrum; lacta panem de caelo venientem, et in praesépi pósitum velut piórum cibaria jumentórum. Illic enim agnóvit bos possessórem suum, et ásinus praesépe Dómini sui, circumcisio scílicet et praeputium. * Quod etiam Salvátor et Dóminus noster a Simeóne susceptus in templo pleníssime dignátus est adimplére. Et ídeo.

[7] Sermon 369. Its authenticity as a genuine work of St Augustine was long considered doubtful, and it is listed as such in the Patrologia Latina, but seems to have been vindicated by more recent scholarship.

[8] Homily 13 on the Gospel of Luke.

[9] This Gospel was later shortened to match the older Roman Gospel, and again in 1594, when it was shortened to the single verse of the Missal of St Pius V, and the section of the preface related to the Presentation excised.

[10] PL 26, 246C-251C

[11] Book 2 on chapter 2 of St Luke, read in part as the Homily on the Gospel of the Circumcision in the Roman Breviary (PL 15, 1572B)

[12] Sermon 196/A

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