top of page

The Feast of the Circumcision of Our Lord Jesus Christ

The blessed month of Ⲧⲱⲃⲉ is known by its focus on and many celebrations of the Divine Manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ. Throughout this month, the Coptic Church presents for her members a series of readings in her Sunday Lectionary, and also in the readings associated with the Feasts of the Lord that are celebrated this month, that depict the Lord’s Manifestation in a twofold manner: firstly, God is manifested to all of creation in and by virtue of His glorious incarnation and in the events in the life of our Lord that the Church celebrates during this month — His circumcision, baptism, and the first of His signs which He performed at the wedding in Cana of Galilee — and secondly, His manifestation is personally connected to our lives, deeds, and behaviors as Christians.

The first of the feasts of the Divine Manifestation after the Nativity is the Feast of the Circumcision of our Lord Jesus Christ, which is celebrated in the Coptic Church on the sixth of Ⲧⲱⲃⲉ, eight days after the Feast of the Nativity (inclusive). We learn of His circumcision from the Gospel according to St. Luke: “And when eight days were completed for the circumcision of the Child, His name was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before He was conceived in the womb.”[1]

In closely examining circumcision as it was practiced in the Old Testament, the significance of the circumcision of our Lord, and of this Feast, becomes clear. God Himself commanded Abraham to practice circumcision as both a symbol of His covenant with man and as a distinguishing sign of God’s people.[2] He delineated specific instructions to Abraham in connection with the practice: “And the child of eight days old shall be circumcised by you, every male throughout your generations…And the uncircumcised male, who shall not be circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin on the eighth day, that soul shall be utterly destroyed from its family, for he has broken my covenant.”[3]

In the circumcision of our Lord, we observe His complete obedience to the Law of the Old Testament, and how He, while being Himself the Lawgiver, did not hold Himself above the Law. Indeed, since circumcision was God’s commandment to His people, it was necessary that Christ, the Son of God, observe it. St. Cyril of Alexandria, in his Third Homily on the Gospel of St. Luke, explains:

“Again, when the Son was present among us, though by nature God and the Lord of all, He does not on that account despise our measure, but along with us is subject to the same law, although as God He was Himself the legislator.”[4]

What a wonder it is to behold Christ’s willingness to observe the Law and His obedience to it! “For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so also by one Man’s obedience many will be made righteous.”[5] It was Adam’s disregard and disobedience of God’s Law that caused him to sin and his nature to become corrupt: “Through the advice of Eve our first mother, Adam ate from the fruit of the tree. So came to our race and all the creation the authority of death and corruption.”[6] It is therefore through the obedience of the Second Adam to the Law, and His fulfillment in Himself of all that was required for our salvation, that the sin of the first Adam is abolished and we are renewed.

“Now I say that Jesus Christ has become a servant to the circumcision for the truth of God, to confirm the promises made to the fathers, and that the Gentiles might glorify God for His mercy.”[7]

“Yes truly He confirmed His incarnation, and fulfilled our humility by His circumcision. Therefore, He taught us the ways of salvation, and He has saved us according to His great mercy.”[8]

The practice of circumcision, which was legislated by God to His people in the Old Testament, served three purposes, according to St. Cyril:

“…in the first place, it separated the posterity of Abraham by a sort of sign and seal, and distinguished them from all other nations. In the second, it prefigured in itself the grace and efficacy of Divine baptism; for as in old time he that was circumcised was reckoned among the people of God by that seal, so also he that is baptized, having formed in himself Christ the seal, is enrolled into God’s adopted family. And, thirdly, it is the symbol of the faithful when established in grace, who cut away and mortify the tumultuous risings of carnal pleasures and passions by the sharp surgery of faith, and by ascetic labors; not cutting the body, but purifying the heart, and being circumcised in the spirit, and not in the letter; whose praise, as the divine Paul testifies, needs not the sentence of any human tribunal, but depends upon the decree from above.”[9]

Circumcision served as the Old Testament precursor — the “type,” “prefigure,” or “shadow” — to baptism in the New Testament. For as God gave Abraham circumcision as the seal of those who were once His people, so also did He grant to His Church baptism by water and the Spirit — along with the mystery of Chrismation — as the seal of those who are the new Israel[10] — His new people: “In Him you also trusted, after you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation; in whom also, having believed, you were sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise.”[11] St. Paul also writes: “In Him you were also circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the sins of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, buried with Him in baptism, in which you also were raised with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead.[12]

Regarding this, Būlus al-Būshī, the thirteenth century Coptic Orthodox bishop, writes:

“The Lord has given us baptism in the place of circumcision; his blood and flesh in place of the lambs’ flesh…Circumcision is circumcision of the heart by the spirit…It is not the same, nor even the circumcision [itself]. Rather, it is the cleanliness and the purification of the heart in the Holy Spirit by means of baptism.”[13]

While the practice of circumcision, as it was known in the Old Testament, has been put away by the inauguration of the reality it prefigured — Christian baptism — there remains still a personal spiritual significance of circumcision to Christians. St. Cyril explains:

“For on the eighth day Christ arose from the dead, and gave us the spiritual circumcision. For He commanded the holy Apostles: ‘Having gone, make ye disciples of all nations, baptizing them into the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.’[14] And we affirm that the spiritual circumcision takes place chiefly in the season of holy baptism, when also Christ makes us partakers of the Holy Spirit. And of this again, that Jesus[15] of old, who was captain after Moses, was a type. For he first of all led the children of Israel across the Jordan; and then having halted them, immediately circumcised them with knives of stone. So when we have crossed the Jordan, Christ circumcises us with the power of the Holy Spirit, not purifying the flesh, but rather cutting off the defilement that is in our souls.”[16]

Circumcision for the believer, then, is firstly baptism itself, by which, through dying with Christ and rising with Him, the old nature is renewed, the inherited sin is wiped away, and the baptizee is transferred from darkness to light, grafted as a new branch — a new member — in the Tree of Life, Christ and His Body, the Church, sealed and sanctified by the Holy Spirit as signified by the anointing of the oil of the chrism;[17] secondly, it is the cutting off of all evil inclinations, sinful thoughts, and carnal desires from the heart and mind. It is the cutting off of the old life in order to adopt the new and superior life,[18] which is that of Christ. This is accomplished by the grace and assistance of the Holy Spirit and through our obedience to the commandments of our Lord: “Unless he keeps the commandments of God, a man cannot make progress, not even in a single virtue.”[19]

The Feast of the Circumcision of our Lord is a commemoration of a significant event in the Lord’s economy of salvation. St. Cyril writes: “His death, therefore, was for our sakes, as were also His resurrection and His circumcision.”[20] Moreover, it is a sobering call and a convicting reminder to cut off the hindrances to our growth in virtue and in the knowledge of God, and to renew our journey with Him, so that with Origen of Alexandria, we may confidently proclaim: “When He died, we died with Him, and when He rose, we rose with Him. Likewise, we were also circumcised along with Him.”[21]

To God is due all glory.

[1] Luke 2:21

[2] Genesis 17:12-13 (LXX)

[3] Genesis 17:12-14 (LXX)

[4] St. Cyril of Alexandria, Commentary on the Gospel of St. Luke, Homily 3.6

[5] Romans 5:19

[6] Ⲗⲱⲃϣ of the Monday θεοτοκια

[7] Romans 15:8-9

[8] Ⲯⲁⲗⲓ Ⲁⲇⲁⲙ for the Feast of the Circumcision and the Entry of the Lord into the Temple, 17-19

[9] St. Cyril of Alexandra, Commentary on the Gospel of St. Luke, Homily 3.7

[10] See Galatians 6:16; see also Romans 2:28-29; 9:6; 1 Peter 2:4-10

[11] Ephesians 1:13

[12] Colossians 2:11-12

[13] Būlus al-Būshī, Commentary on the Apocalypse of John ch.1-3 in Stephen J. Davis, Revelation 1-3 in Christian Arabic Commentary, 68-69

[14] Matthew 28:19

[15] Joshua

[16] St. Cyril of Alexandria, Commentary on the Gospel of St. Luke, Homily 3.4

[17] Regarding the chrism, see, e.g., Origen, Commentary on Romans, V, 8: “We are baptized with visible water and visible chrism according to the tradition of the church;” Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lectures, XXI, 3: “But beware of supposing this to be plain ointment. For as the Bread of the Eucharist, after the invocation of the Holy Ghost, is mere bread no longer , but the Body of Christ, so also this holy ointment is no more simple ointment, nor (so to say) common, after invocation, but it is Christ's gift of grace, and, by the advent of the Holy Ghost, is made fit to impart His Divine Nature. Which ointment is symbolically applied to your forehead and your other senses; and while your body is anointed with the visible ointment, your soul is sanctified by the Holy and life-giving Spirit.” 

[18] See Ⲯⲁⲗⲓ Ⲃⲁⲧⲟⲥ for the Three Saintly Children

[19] Benedicta Ward, The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, 20 (Abba Agathon, Saying 3)

[20] St. Cyril of Alexandria, Commentary on the Gospel of St. Luke, Homily 3.5

[21] Origen the Great, Homilies on the Gospel of St. Luke, Homily 14.1


bottom of page