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Rev. Alban Butler (1711–73). Volume I: January. The Lives of the Saints. 1866.

January 1

The Circumcision of Our Lord

CIRCUMCISION 1 was a sacrament of the Old Law, and the first legal observance required by Almighty God of that people, which he had chosen preferably to all the nations of the earth to be the depositary of his revealed truths.—These were the descendants of Abraham, whom he had enjoined it, under the strictest penalties, 2 several hundred years before the giving of the law to Moses on Mount Sinai; and this on two several accounts: First, as a distinguishing mark between them and the rest of mankind. Secondly, as a seal to a covenant between God and that patriarch: whereby it was stipulated on God’s part to bless Abraham and his posterity; whilst on their part it implied a holy engagement to be his people, by a strict conformity to his laws. It was therefore a sacrament of initiation in the service of God, and a promise and engagement to believe and act as he had revealed and directed. Circumcision is also looked upon by St. Austin, and by several eminent modern divines, 3 to have been the expedient, in the male posterity of Abraham, for removing the guilt of original sin: which in those who did not belong to the covenant of Abraham, nor fall under this law, was remitted by other means, probably by some external act of faith.  1
  This law of circumcision continued in force till the death of Christ: hence our Saviour being born under the law, it became him, who came to teach mankind obedience to the laws of God, to fulfil all justice, and to submit to it. Therefore, he was made under the law, that is, was circumcised, that he might redeem them that were under the law, by freeing them from the servitude of it; and that those, who were in the condition of servants before, might be set at liberty, and receive the adoption of sons in baptism; which by Christ’s institution, succeeded to circumcision. On the day he was circumcised he received the name of JESUS, the same which had been appointed him by the angel before he was conceived. 4 The reason of his being called JESUS is mentioned in the gospel: 5 For he shall save his people from their sins. This he effected by the greatest sufferings and humiliations; having humbled himself, as St. Paul says, 6 not only unto death, but even to the death of the cross; for which cause God hath exalted him, and hath given him a name which is above all names; that at the name of JESUS every knee should bow: agreeably to what Christ says of himself, 7 All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth. 8  2
  Christ being not only innocent, but incapable of sin, could stand in no need of circumcision, as an expedient then in use for the remission of sin. He was pleased, however, to subject himself to this humbling and painful rite of the Mosaic dispensation for several reasons: as, First, to put an end in an honourable manner to a divine, but temporary, institution, by taking it upon his own person. Secondly, to prove the reality of his human body; which, however evident from this and so many other other actions and sufferings of his life, was denied by several ancient heretics. Thirdly, to prove himself not only the son of man, but of that man in particular of whose seed the Messiah was promised to come; thus precluding any future objection that might be raised by the Jews against his divine mission in quality of Messiah, under the pretence of his being an alien; and hereby qualifying himself for free conversation with them for their own spiritual advantage: setting us all a pattern of undergoing voluntarily several hardships and restraints, which, though not necessary on our own account, may be of great use to promote the good of others. Christ not being like other Jewish children, who could not know or fear the pain of circumcision, when they were going to suffer the operation, was perfectly sensible of it beforehand, and with calmness and intrepidity offered himself willingly to suffer the knife, and shed the first fruits of his sacred blood in this painful manner. Under the smart this divine infant shed tears, but not as other children; for by them, with the most tender love and compassion, he bewailed chiefly our spiritual miseries, and at the same time presented with joy his blood as the price of our redemption to his Father. Fourthly, by thus humbling himself under this painful operation, he would give us an early pledge and earnest of his love for us, of his compassion for our miseries, and of his utter detestation of sin. The charity and zeal which glowed in his divine breast, impatient, as it were, of delay, delighted themselves in these first fruits of humiliation and suffering for our sakes, till they could fully satiate their thirst by that superabundance of both, in his passion and death. With infinite zeal for his Father’s honour, and charity for us sinners, with invincible patience, and the most profound humility, he now offered himself most cheerfully to his Father to undergo whatever he was pleased to enjoin him. Fifthly, he teaches us by the example of voluntary obedience to a law that could not oblige him, to submit with great punctuality and exactness to laws of divine appointment; and how very far we ought to be from sheltering our disobedience under lame excuses and frivolous pretexts. Sixthly, by this ceremony, he humbled himself to satisfy for our pride, and to teach us the sincere spirit of humility. What greater humiliation can be imagined than for Him who is the eternal Son of God, in all things equal to his Father, to conceal these glorious titles under the appearance of a sinner? What a subject of confusion to us, who, being abominable criminals, are ashamed to pass for what we are, and desire to appear and be esteemed what we are not! Shall we not learn from this example of Christ to love humiliations, especially as we cannot but acknowledge that we deserve every reproach and all manner of contempt from all creatures? Seventhly, by beginning the great work of our salvation in the manner he was one day to finish it; suffering in his own person the punishment of sin, to deliver us from both sin and its punishment, he confounds the impenitence of sinners who will suffer nothing for their own sins; and inculcates the necessity of a spiritual circumcision, whereof the external was but the type and figure, as the apostle puts us in mind. 9  3
  It is manifest, beyond all contradiction, from several texts of the Old Testament, 10 that men under that dispensation ought not to have rested in the external act alone, but should have aspired from the letter to the spirit, from the carnal to a spiritual circumcision. These texts, at the same time that they set forth its necessity, describe it as consisting in a readiness and willing disposition to conform to the will of God, and submit to it when known, in every particular. They in consequence require a retrenchment of all inordinate and superfluous desires of the soul, the keeping a strict guard and government over ourselves, a total abstinence from criminal, and a prudent reserve even in the lawful gratifications of sense and appetite. If such instances of spiritual circumcision were required of those under the Old Law, to qualify them for acceptance with God, can any thing less than the same entitle us Christians to the claim of spiritual kindred with faithful Abraham, and to share of that redemption which Christ began this day to purchase for us at the expense of his blood? We must cut off whatever inordinate or superfluous desires of riches, honours, or pleasures reign in our hearts, and renounce whatever holds us wedded to our senses or the world. Though this sacrifice required the last drop of our blood, we ought cheerfully to make it. The example of Christ powerfully excites us not to spare ourselves. A thousand irregular affections reign in our souls, and self-love is master there. This enemy is only to be expelled by compunction, watchfulness over ourselves, perfect obedience, humble submission to correction, voluntary self-denials, and patience under crosses. To these endeavours we must join earnest prayer for the necessary grace to discover, and courageously crucify whatever opposes the reign of the pure love of God in our affections. If we are conscious to ourselves of having taken a contrary course, and are of the unhappy number of the uncircumcised in heart; what more proper time to set about a thorough reformation, by cutting off whatever is inconsistent with, or prejudicial to the true Christian spirit, than this very day, the first of the new year? that so it may be a new year to us in the most Christian and beneficial sense of the word. 11  4
  Wherefore, after having consecrated its first fruits to God, by the most sincere and fervent homage of praise and adoration; after having paid him the just tribute of thanksgiving for all his benefits, and in particular for the mercy by which he vouchsafes us still time to appease his anger, and serve him; it becomes us to allot some part of this day to tears of compunction for our past offences, and to the diving into the source of our spiritual sloth and other irregularities, with a view to the amendment of our lives, and the preventing of relapses: not contenting ourselves with general purposes, which cost self-love so little, the insufficiency of which our own experience has convinced us of; we must lay the axe to the root, and seriously resolve to decline to the best of our power, the particular occasions which have betrayed us into sin, and embrace the most effectual means of reformation of life and improvement in virtue. Every year ought to find us more fervent in charity; every day ought our soul to augment in strength, and be decked with new flowers of virtue and good works. If the plant ceases to grow, or the fruit to ripen, they decay of course, and are in danger of perishing. By a rule far more sacred, the soul which makes not a daily progress in virtue, loses ground: a dreadful symptom in the spiritual life.  5
  The more intense ought our fervour to be, as we draw the nearer to the end of our course: So much the more, says the apostle, as you perceive the day to approach, 12 the day of retribution to each according to his works, which will be that of our death, which may be much nearer than we are willing to imagine. Perhaps we may not live to the end of this very year: it will be the case of thousands, who at this time are as regardless of it as we can be. What security can we have against a surprise, the consequences whereof are infinite and irretrievable, except that of a sincere and speedy conversion, of being upon our guard against temptations, of dedicating effectually this ensuing year and the remainder of our short lives to God, our last end and only good, and frequently imploring his grace and mercy. It is our blessed Saviour’s advice and injunction: Watch ye therefore; praying at all times,… that you may be accounted worthy … to stand before the Son of man. 13  6
  The Christian’s devotion on this day ought to consist, first, in the solemn consecration of the first fruits of the year to God; and secondly, in honouring the mystery of the Incarnation of the Son of God, particularly his birth and circumcision. The church invites us on this day to unite our homages with the seraphic ardours and transports of devotion with which the glorious Mother of God assisted at these wonderful mysteries which we commemorate, but in which she acted herself so great a part. With what sentiments did Mary bear in her womb, bring forth, and serve her adorable son, who was also her God? with what love and awe did she fix her eyes upon him, particularly at his circumcision? who can express in what manner she was affected when she saw him subjected to this painful and humbling ceremony? Filled with astonishment, and teeming affections of love and gratitude, by profound adorations and praise she endeavoured to make him all the amends in her power, and the best return and acknowledgment she was able. In amorous complaints that he would begin, in the excess of his love, to suffer for us in so tender an age, and to give this earnest of our redemption, she might say to him: Truly thou art to me a spouse of blood. 14 With the early sacrifice Christ here made of himself to his Father, she joined her own, offering her divine son, and with and through him herself, to be an eternal victim to his honour and love, with the most ardent desire to suffer all things, even to blood, for the accomplishment of his will. Under her mediation we ought to make him the tender of our homages, and with and through this holy Redeemer, consecrate ourselves to God without reserve.  7
Note 1. In the ancient Sacramentary of the Roman church, published by Cardinal Thomasius, (the finishing of which some ascribe to Pope Gelasius I., others more probably to Leo. I., though the ground was doubtless the work of their predecessors,) this festival is called the Octave of our Lord’s Nativity. The same title is given to it in the Latin calendar (or rather collection of the gospels read at Mass throughout the year,) written above 900 years ago, presented to the public by F. John Fronteau, regular canon of St. Genevieve’s at Paris, and by Leo Allatius. The inference which Baillet draws from hence, that the mystery of our Lord’s circumcision was not then commemorated in the office of this day, is a notorious mistake. For Thomassin takes notice from Ivo of Chartres, that the word Octave here implies the circumcision of our Lord, which was performed on the eighth day after his birth: and in the above-mentioned Sacramentary express mention is made of the circumcision in the Secret of the Mass. In F. Fronteau’s calendar the gospel read on this day is the history of the circumcision given by St. Luke. An old Vatican MS. copy of St. Gregory’s Sacramentary, and that of Usuard’s Martyrology, kept at St. Germain-des-Près, express both the titles of the Octave day and of the circumcision.
  Durandus, in the 13th century, (Ration, offic. l. 6. c. 15.) John Beleth, a theologian of Paris, (c. 71.) and several missals of the middle ages, prescribe two masses to be said on this day, one on the circumcision, the other on the B. Virgin Mary. Micrologus (c. 39.) assigns this reason, that as the B. Virgin, who had so great a share in the birth of Christ, could not be mentioned in that solemn office, therefore a commemoration of her is deferred to the Octave day. The second Mass is now abolished; but in a great part of the office a regard is had to the B. Virgin. In F. Fronteau’s Roman calendar, after the title of the Octave is added, Natale S. Mariæ; for which Dom Martenne would have us read, S. Martinæ; but without grounds. For, as Pope Benedict XIV. observes, (Comment. de Festis Domine, c. 1.) the original unquestionably means a festival of the B. Virgin Mary. The word Natale, which was used originally for the birth-day of the Emperors, was afterwards taken for any annual feast. [back]
Note 2. Gen. xvii. [back]
Note 3. Grounding their opinion on Gen. xvii. 14, &c. [back]
Note 4. Luke i. 31. [back]
Note 5. Matt. i. 21. [back]
Note 6. Phil. ii. 8–10. [back]
Note 7. Matt. xxviii. 18. [back]
Note 8. The Jews generally named their children on the day of their circumcision, but this was not of precept. There are several instances of children named on the day of their birth, (Gen. xxx.) which could not be that of their circumcision by an express law requiring the interval of eight days from their birth; the child being presumed too weak and delicate to undergo the operation sooner, without danger of its life. It seems to have been the practice among the Jews for children to be circumcised at home: nor was a priest the necessary or ordinary minister, but the father, mother, or any other person could perform the ceremony, as we see in the time of Abraham (Gen. xvii.; Acts vii.) and of the Maccabees (1 Mac. 1.) St. Epiphanius (Hær. 20.) Whence F. Avala, in his curious work entitled Pietor Christianus, printed at Madrid in 1730, shows that it is a vulgar error of painters who represent Christ circumcised by a priest in the temple. The instrument was sometimes a sharp stone, (Exod. iv.; Jos. v.) but doubtless most frequently of iron or steel. [back]
Note 9. Rom. ii. 29. [back]
Note 10. Deut. x. 16; xxx. 6; Jer. iv. 4. [back]
Note 11. The pagan Romans celebrated the Saturnalia, or feast of Saturn, from the 17th of December during seven days: at which time slaves dined with their Masters, and were allowed an entire liberty of speech, in the superstitious remembrance of the golden age of the world, in which no distinction of ranks was yet known among men. (Macrob. l. 1. c. 10. Horat. &c.) The calends also of January were solemnized with licentious shows in honor of Janus and the goddess Strenia; and it is from those infamous diversions, that among Christians are derived the profane riots of new year’s day, twelfthtide, and shrovetide, by which many pervert these times into days of sin and intemperance. Several councils severely condemn these abuses; and the better to prevent them, some churches formerly kept the 1st of January a fast-day, as it is mentioned by St. Isidore of Seville (lib. 2. offic. c. 40.) Alcuin (lib. de div. offic.) &c. Dom Martenne observes (lib. de antiquis ritibus in celebr. div. offic. c. 13.) that on this account the second council of Tours in 567, ordered that on the calends of the circumcision the litany be sung, and high mass begun only at the eighth hour, that is, two in the afternoon, that it might be finished by three, the hour at which it was allowed to eat on the fasts of the stations. We have among the works of the fathers many severe invectives against the superstitions and excesses of this time. See St. Austin, (serm. 198. in hunc diem.) St. Peter Chrysologus, (serm. in calendas,) St. Maximus of Turin, (Hom. 5. apud Mabill. in Musæo Italico,) Faustinus the Bishop, (apud Boland. hac die. p. 3.) &c. The French name Etrennes is Pagan, from strenæ, or new year gifts, in honour of the goddess Strenia. The same in Poitou and Perche, anciently the country of the Druids, is derived from their rites. For the Poitevins for Etrennes use the word Auguislanneuf, and the Percherons, Equilans, from the ancient cry of the Druids, Au guy l’an neuf, i. e. Ad viscum, annus novus, or to the mistletoe the new year, when on new year’s day the Pagans went into the forests to seek the mistletoe on the oaks. See Chatelain, notes on the Martyr. Jan. 1. p. 7.
  The ancients began the year, some from the autumnal, others from the vernal equinox. The primitive patriarchs from that of autumn, that is, from the month called by the Hebrews Tisri, which coincides with part of our September and October. Hence it seems probable that the world was created about that season; the earth, as appears from Gen. iii. 2, being then covered with trees, plants, fruits, seeds, and all other things in the state of their natural maturity and perfection. The Jews retained this commencement of the year, as a date for contracts and other civil purposes; as also for their sabbatical year and jubilee. But God commanded them to begin their ecclesiastical year, or that by which their religious festivals were regulated, from the spring equinox, or the Hebrew month Nisan, the same with part of our March and April, Exod. xii. 2. Christian nations commenced the year, some from the 25th of March, the feast of the Annunciation, and bordering upon the spring equinox; others from Christmas; others from its octave day, the first of January, in which our ancestors have often varied their practice. Europe is now agreed in fixing the first of January for this epoch.
  The Julian year, so called from Julius Cæsar, from whom the Roman calendar received its last reformation, consisted of 365 days, and six hours, which exceed the true solar year by 11 minutes; for astronomers compute the yearly revolution of the sun not to exceed 365 days, 5 hours, 48 minutes, and 37 seconds, according to Cassini, but according to Keil 57 seconds, or almost 49 minutes. This error, becoming daily more sensible, would have occasioned the autumal equinox to have at length fallen on the day reckoned the solstice, and in process of time, on that held for the vernal equinox. The Golden number, or Grecian cycle of the lunar years, was likewise defective. To remedy both which, Pope Gregory XIII. in 1582, established the new style. Scaliger, Tachet, and Cassini, have demonstrated that cycles might be chosen still more exact by some few seconds; however, this adopted by Pope Gregory, besides being the easiest in the execution, admits of no material error, or sensible inconveniency. This correction of the style was received by act of parliament, in Great Britain, in 1752; for the promoting of which great praise is due to the two illustrious ornaments of the republic of letters, the Earls of Chesterfield and Macclesfield. [back]
Note 12. Heb. x. 25. [back]
Note 13. Luke xxi. 36. [back]
Note 14. Exod. iv. 25. [back]