The naming and circumcision of Jesus

Tony Gelston

During the days between Christmas and Epiphany there is a festival of Our Lord which is not as widely observed as it ought to be. Its date (1 January) is fixed in relation to that of Christmas, since a Jewish boy was circumcised on the eighth day of his life, even if that should happen to fall on the Sabbath. This was also the occasion for the naming of the child, as we see clearly in the case of John the Baptist in the first chapter of St Luke’s Gospel.

Sign of the covenant

St Luke mentions this occasion only briefly [2.21], but it has considerable significance for our celebration of the incarnation during the period of Christmas and Epiphany as a whole. In the first place, it underlines the particularity of Jesus’ human nature: he was a Jew and not a Gentile, a boy and not a girl. He was also an observant Jew. Circumcision was a sign of the covenant between God and his people Israel, and as such a token of the obligation of the individual Jew to remain faithful to God in obedience to his will as revealed in the Torah. Although the time when the individual boy assumed full personal responsibility for the covenant obligations was at the age of thirteen, when he became a bar mitzvah, his circumcision was a significant mark of his covenant relationship with God.

Jesus’ submission to the rite of circumcision may be seen in a similar light to that of his submission to the baptism of John, when he countered the Baptist’s protest by affirming that it was proper for him in this way to fulfil all righteousness. It was part of that identification with our humanity that was a necessary part of his saving work to redeem us. In this connection it has often been observed that this was the occasion of the first shedding of our Saviour’s blood, and thus pointed forward to his self-oblation on the cross, by which he brought the work of our redemption to completion.

Significance of his name

No less rich in significance is the name given to him on this occasion. The name ‘Jesus’ is the Greek form of the name ‘Joshua’, familiar to us from the Old Testament. The name ‘Joshua’ means ‘Yahweh saves’, and, when Joseph is instructed to name Mary’s son Jesus, the reason given is that he was to save his people from their sins. In fact, the name in itself bears a double significance. For it carries an implicit indication of our Lord’s divine nature, as well of his mission to save humanity.

In addition to this, it is hard to resist the suggestion that Jesus was in some sense to parallel the work of Joshua the son of Nun in leading the Israelites across the Jordan to take possession of the Promised Land. For Jesus is presented in the New Testament as the pioneer of our salvation, leading humanity into its new state of redemption in the Kingdom of God.