OF THE CIRCUMCISION OF OUR LORD
Chapter 13 of the Golden Legend by Jacobus Voragine (1275), translated by William Caxton, 1483. This "reader's version" of the text provides section headings, paragraph breaks, and explanatory notes. Because of deficiencies in my source, some parts of the following are presented only in summary form.
The day of the circumcision of our Lord there be four things that make and show it to be holy and solemn. The first is that it is the
of the Nativity. The second is the imposition of a new name bearing health. The third is the effusion of his precious blood. The fourth is the signs of the circumcision.
The Octave of the NativityAs for the first it appeareth, for the utas of saints be solemn, by much more reason ought it to be of him that is the saint of all saints. Now it seemeth that the Nativity of our Lord ought not to have none utas. For the nativity tendeth to the death. And the decease of saints have their utas because they be born of the nativity that stretcheth to life perdurable, for to be after glorified in body. And by the same way it seemeth that the nativity of the glorious Virgin Mary and of St. John Baptist, and of the Resurrection of our Lord ought not to have utas, for the resurrection was then done. Hereto we ought to consider, like as saith a doctor, theologian that, in this we should fulfil such things as we accomplished not in the principal day that our Lord was born in. Of which of ancient time men were wont to sing at the Mass: Vultum tuum domine, O Lord, your face [I long to see] (Psalm 26:8) etc. to the honour of our Lady St. Mary. The other octaves or utases as of Paske, Easter Whitsuntide, Pentecost the nativity of our Lady and St. John Baptist be of devotion, as of other saints that men will honour for singular cause or affection. And they may be said the octaves of figuration, for they signify and figure the octave of the last resurrection perpetual, which is the eighth age.
A New Name Bearing HealthAnd as to the second, this day was his name imposed to him, and was named with the new name that the mouth of God named. This is the name of which there is none other under heaven by which we may be saved, that is Jesus. After St. Bernard, “This is the name which in the mouth is honey, in the ear melody, and in the heart joy; this is the name after that he saith, it lighteth and shineth like oil. When it is preached it feedeth the soul, when it is in the mind of the heart it is sweet, and it anointeth when it is called.”
The Three Names of JesusAnd as the evangelist saith, he had three names, that is to wit the Son of God, Jesus, and Christus. He is called the Son of God insomuch as he is God of God the Father; Christ insomuch as he is a man taken of a person divine and nature human, and Jesus inasmuch as he is God united to our humanity. And of this three manner of names, saith St. Bernard, “Ye that lie in dust and powder arise out of your sleep and awake ye and give praising to God. Lo here that our Lord shall come unto your health, he cometh with unction, he cometh with glory. Jesus cometh not without health, nor Christ cometh not without unction, nor the Son of God without glory. For he is our health, our unction and our joy.”
And as touching this treble name; before his passion, he was not perfectly known. As touching the first he was somewhat known by conjecting, as of his enemies, which said Jesu Christ to be the Son of God. And as to the second, of less or fewer he was known for Jesu Christ. And as to the third, vocally, for as much as by the voice he was called Jesus. But as to the reason of the name, he was not known. For “Jesus” is as much to say as “Saviour,” and this understood not they.
After the resurrection, this treble was clarified and declared. The first to the certainty, the second to the publication, the third to the reason of the name.
The Name “Son of God”The first name is Son of God. And that these names be appropriate to him, Saint Hilary in his book that he made of the Trinity saith thus: Vere filium Dei unigenitum: "Truly God's only-begotten Son" In divers manners this name, Son of God, is known, as it is witnessed of testified by God. God the Father witnesseth it that he is his son. Apostles preach it, the religious believe it, the fiends our enemies confess it. And therefore we know our Lord Jesu Christ in his manners, by name, by nature, by nativity, by puissance, power and by his passion.
The Name “Christus”The second name is Christus, which is interpreted “unction.” For he was anointed with the oil of gladness before all them that to him were party. And by that he is said called anointed, it is showed that he was a prophet, a champion, a priest and a king. These four persons sometime were wont to be anointed. Jesu Christ was a prophet teaching the doctrine divine, a champion in the battle against the devil whom he overcame, a priest in reconciling the human lineage to God the Father, and a king in distributing and rewarding every man.…
[The Legend continues with discussion of the name “Jesus” and then cites comments by Church Fathers on the significance of that name. Here in italics is a summary of the parts omitted from my source:]
The Effusion of Our Lord’s Precious BloodThe Legend explains the third reason for solemnizing this day: it is the first of the five occasions when Christ’s blood was shed. The others are the agony in the garden, the courging, the crucifixion, and the piercing of his side.
The Signs of the CircumcisionThe fourth reason for solemnizing this day is for “the seal that Christ deigned to receive on this day.” For his willingness to receive circumcision the Legend provides five reasons: To show that his body was truly human, to show us that we should be circumcised in the spirit and thus redeemed, to leave the Jews no excuse for rejecting him, to keep the demons from learning of the mystery of the Incarnation, and to give us an example of humility.
Ways to Understand Why Circumcision occurs on the Eighth Day
LiterallyOn the literal level of understanding scripture, according to the Legend, God did not want babies to be circumcised in their first week because the flesh is too soft at that time.
AnagogicallyOn the anagogical level of understanding scripture, according to the Legend, circumcision on the eighth day reminds us that we will be reedeemed “withing the octave of the resurrection,” taking the eight days for the eight ages of the world. Also, the eight days remind of the eight things that will be ours in Heaven: life, health, food, plenty, glory, honor, peace, and every good. Also, man is composed of seven elements (the four physical elements plus three faculties of the soul) but upon redemption is circumcised of all sins and faults.
TropologicallyOn the tropological level, the Legend continues, each of the eight days has a moral meaning to the individual Christian.
The first day involves knowledge of our sins.
The second day is the decision
…for to leave sin and take the good, the which is showed us by the son that dispended spent his good follily, foolishly and when he had perceived that he had done evil and foolishly, he advertised himself and said: I shall depart and return to my father, and shall pray that I may serve him, and that he may receive me to mercy, and make me as one of his servants.
The third [day] is shame of sin, whereof saith St. Paul to them that for their sins be in pain and in torment: What fruit have ye founden in those sins in your life of which now ye be ashamed?
The fourth [day] is dread of the coming judgment and doom, whereof Job saith: I have feared and doubted God as men dread the waves of the sea in their great rage and tempest. And St. Jerome saith thus: Sive comedam sive bibam, etc. As oft as I eat or drink or that I do any other thing, alway me seemeth it seems to me that I hear the sound and the voice crying: Arise, ye dead men, and come to the doom and the judgment.
The fifth is contrition, whereof St. Jerome saith: Give thy weeping and bitterness of that which thou hast angered thy God by thy sin.
The sixth is confession, whereof David saith: Dixi confitebor, etc.: I have said and purposed in my heart that I shall confess me to God and make knowledge of my sin.
The seventh is hope of pardon, for if Judas had had very repentance and hope, and had confessed his sin, he had had forgiveness and pardon.
The eighth is satisfaction and sacrifice, and then is the man verily truly circumcised, not only from the sin, but also from pain.
Where the two first days be for the sorrow of sin that hath been done and the will for to amend it, the third day we should confess the evil that we have done and the good deeds that we have left. The other four days be orison, prayer effusion of tears, affliction of body, and alms given.
AllegoricallyOn the allegorical level of scriptural interpretation, the first five days correspond to the five books of Moses; the sixth and seventh, to the Prophets and the Psalms; and the eighth to the Gospel, which perfects circumcision.
Regarding the Flesh Removed by the CircumcisionThe Legend says that the removed flesh is said by some to have been carried by an angel to Charlemagne at Aix-la-Chapelle, where it remains, while others say it is in Rome. The author doubts these claims, reasoning that all of Christ’s flesh was glorified at his Ascension into Heaven.
ConclusionThe Legend concludes with a final reason why the Church solemnized the first day of the year: to encourage Christians to abandon the pagan celebrations that were customary on that day.
By contrast, Caxton’s translation of this part of the Legend concludes as follows:
We find that Jesu Christ said by the mouth of his saints: Non veni legem solvere sed adimplere, “I came not,” said Jesu Christ, “to break the law, but to fulfil it.” And he was that day circumcised and named Jesus, which is as much to say as Saviour.
And at the circumcision must he cut a little of the skin at the end of the member or yard, and that is signified and shewed that we ought to be circumcised, and cut and taken away from us the sins and evil vices, that is to wit pride, wrath, envy, covetousness, sloth, gluttony, and lechery, and all sins, and purge us by confession, by contrition, by satisfaction, by almsdeeds, giving alms and by prayers, and to give for God's sake of the goods that he hath lent us.
For we have nothing proper, truly ours but Jesu Christ hath lent to us all that we have. Then it is well reason that we do give for him to the poor of such goods as be his, for we be but servants, and we ought to give to the hungry meat, food to the thirsty drink, to the naked clothing, visit the sick, and tofore all things to love God, and after, our neighbour as ourself; and despoil unclothe, remove ourself from sin, and clothe us with good works and virtues, and follow the commandment of Jesu Christ. And in this manner we shall fulfil the will of our father Jesu Christ, if we been so purged and thus circumcised.
Then let us pray unto the Lord of heaven that saith that he came not to break the law but to fulfil it, that he give us grace in such manner to fulfil the law and his will in this world, that we may come into his holy bliss in heaven. Amen.
This text was taken from the Internet Medieval Source Book. E-text © by Paul Halsall. Annotations, formatting, and added rubrics by Richard Stracke. Permission is granted for electronic copying, distribution in print form for educational purposes and personal use. If you do reduplicate the document, indicate the sources. No permission is granted for commercial use.