Melville Scott, The Harmony of the Collects, Epistles, and Gospels, Second Edition, 1903. Public Domain.
The True Circumcision
THE great festivals of the Church year naturally afford less scope for subjective treatment than the lengthened courses of Advent, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, and Trinity, in which the Church teaches so well, since the subject and treatment of each is definitely fixed.
There is, however, manifest in the festivals which concern the life of Christ the general principle that we are to be made like Christ in all things He did and suffered, as expounded in the Baptismal Office. Thus His Birth suggests our Regeneration; His Passion that we should die to sin; His Resurrection that we should live a risen life; His Ascension that we should ascend and dwell with Him in glory. Thus each festival as it comes is rendered of practical service to the spiritual life.
This is obviously the case with the Circumcision, by which we are taught “the true circumcision of the spirit.”
It is, perhaps, to be regretted that the ancient Epistle of the day (Titus 2:11-15) has been changed for one so difficult of comprehension, while that formerly read was most appropriate to the prayer of the Collect, as teaching that the great object of the Incarnation was that “we should deny ungodliness and worldly lusts, and live soberly, righteously, and godly” in the three relations of life, i.e., towards self, towards others, and towards God. It taught also a lesson of great appropriateness to the day, viz., that our covenant position was given us in order that we might be “a peculiar people zealous of good works.”
THE EPISTLE — Romans 4:8-14 — Christian Circumcision
The doctrine of this difficult Epistle may be summarized as follows:—
A. The Circumcision of Abraham.
To Abraham his circumcision was not his entrance into God’s favour, for this he had won long before by the faith which he had, yet being uncircumcised. To him circumcision was the seal and confirmation of blessings already received. He did not obtain grace because he was circumcised, but was circumcised because he had obtained grace. His circumcision was, therefore, essentially different in meaning from that of all who came after him, to whom it marked their entrance into covenant with God. His position is, therefore, comparable to that of Christians, and is adduced by S. Paul for this reason.
B. The Circumcision of The Spirit.
It must be carefully noted that S. Paul never compares Christian baptism to circumcision, nor have we any right to place the two on the same level. Christian circumcision follows after baptism, just as Abraham’s circumcision followed after his faith. It is to be of the heart and of the spirit (Rom. 2:29), inward, and not outward; it is to “mortify our members which are on the earth” (Col. 3:5). It is, in a word, renunciation or conversion, which, so far from being inconsistent with regeneration, is its fitting result and consequent, and the duty of the baptized. Christian circumcision is the inward (the true circumcision) to which outward circumcision pointed, but which it could not effect.
THE GOSPEL — Luke 2:15-21 — The Circumcision of Christ
The ancient Gospel contained the single verse which records the Circumcision. The previous verses were added, probably, in order to bring the Gospel up to the more usual length, and to complete the history of Christmas Day, of which the Circumcision is the octave.
We may, therefore, consider the passage as teaching us how to make good use of Christmas truth for our daily lives. We shall reap the gains of a good Christmas and receive the true Circumcision if we imitate:—
A. The Example of the Shepherds.
The angels of Christmas are “gone away into heaven,” but the new-born Saviour remains. Let us, therefore, “go even unto Bethlehem.” Labour must be put aside for this, for we are not so to labour for the meat which perisheth as to neglect to journey to Bethlehem, the house of the Bread of Life. Like the shepherds, this journey ended, we are to return again to duty, our hearts quickened to new energy of Christian joy.
True religion does not consist in separation from our duties in the world, but in their consecration. Lowly labour is the rule of God, and there is nothing inconsistent between the highest spirituality and the humblest duty. Those who have put work on one side for religion must be careful to take their religion back with them into their work. Religion improves the work, and work improves the religion.
We are also to be ready “to make known abroad concerning this Child,” like the shepherds who became the first Apostles of the saving Name. Even plain shepherds may echo angels’ songs, and do angels’ work.
B. The Example of Mary.
We are to retain the truth of Christmas, pondering it in our hearts. Mary pondered the mystery of her motherhood; we are to ponder that of the Brother Who has united our nature to His own. We are to ponder the dignity of our nature, and to seek to rise to a life worthy of such a connection. We are to remember the mutual respect that there should ever be between man and man. Levelling socialism would abolish all tokens of respect to any, but our common brotherhood in Christ will lead us to tokens of respect to all. We are to ponder the new possibilities, or, rather, certainties, open to men, when this great mystery of grace shall usher in a mystery of glory proportioned to it.
C. The Example of the Saviour.
We are to follow His example in the painful working out of our mission. He entered upon His saving work in the cradle, and bore a saving Name. His outward circumcision was a sign of the true circumcising of the Spirit, which He will bestow who saves His people from their sins.
We pray that He Who made His Son to be circumcised and obedient to the law for our sake would work in us that which Christ’s Circumcision teaches us, even an obedience done for His sake.
A. The Circumcision of Christ.
Christ came to render for us that perfect obedience which God demands, and in order to set us an example of obedience. He obeyed in the letter that we might be able to obey in the spirit.
B. The Christian Circumcision.
As Christ obeyed out of love, so are we to obey from the same motive. God’s law is to be to us not a burden, but “a blessed will.” Not until our wills have become His, and His Will ours, have we received the true Circumcision of the Spirit.