The Gospel passage that the lectionary gives us today is extremely brief, but it contains some important points for reflection.
I. Circumcision – Covenant
First of all, circumcision is a sign of the covenant – it’s not just any sign, but a sign that subsists in the flesh. Listen to the explanation of circumcision which we find in the book of Genesis:
And God said to Abraham, As for you, you shall keep my covenant, you and your descendants after you through their generations. This is my covenant which you shall keep, between me and you and your descendants after you: Every male among you shall be circumscribed in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you. He that is eight days old among you shall be circumscribed…so shall my covenant be in your flesh an everlasting covenant (Gen 17:9-13).
Jesus, who came to establish a new covenant with his own blood, is marked in the flesh even according to the old covenant. The sense of circumcision is clear: the covenant with us must subsist not only in words pronounced verbally or written on paper, but also in one’s very own flesh.
Another point for reflection is the number 8. And at the end of eight days…(Lk 2:21). Eight days! In the Bible, the seven days of the week are of fundamental importance: God worked on creation for six days, and on the seventh day, he rested. Another element of the covenant with Israel was the observance of the Sabbath. The eighth day – Sunday – is the day of the new creation, the day of the resurrection of Christ.
Have you ever considered why the baptistery near St. John the Lateran in Rome is octagonal? There are many other baptisteries and baptismal fonts in Italy with the same form. The Church Fathers understood the biblical symbolism – a language which is unfortunately foreign to us. Precisely because in baptism we are inserted into the death and resurrection of Christ, and because in antiquity, the day par excellence of baptism was the Paschal Feast, Sunday, the eighth day of the week, a new day of a new life – for all of those symbolic reasons, the baptismal font was often built in an octagonal shape. Therefore, the number “8” helps us think about the new covenant established between God and us with our baptism.
When we enter into a contract – with the care and attention we do, by signing and initialing each page to be sure everything is scrupulously observed. When nations enter into pacts with one another, they do so with the utmost seriousness so that everything is legally binding. And what about our covenant with God – which is baptism? Very often this convention with the Lord is done with great lightness and superficiality.
In the monastic life, vows are a ratification of our baptism, a radical expression of our belonging to God. And as a sign, we have the monastic tonsure, and we always wear habits to indicate – visibly to all men – that we are consecrated to God.
This meaning of the number 8 is a stimulus to be more faithful to our covenant with God, established in our baptism – and for us monks, ratified with the vows of our profession.
III. The Name “Jesus”
The last point upon which to reflect is the phrase: he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb (Lk 2:21).
In fact, in the Gospel of Matthew, we read that the angel appeared in a dream to Joseph and told him: Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit.; she will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins (Mt 1:21). Therefore, the name “Jesus” means “Savior: he who saves”.
Jesus saves. But saves us from what? From our sins. From our personal sins, which we consciously and unconsciously commit. From impersonal sin of the world: hate, oppression, violence, betrayal, homicide, separation, self-centeredness, the power of darkness. All of these sins of the world, though, have their roots inside of us, and we often are slaves to sin. My mother used to say often to her six children: “Your principle enemy is yourself!”, and she was right! A very useful prayer to Jesus is this: “Lord, save me from myself!” We need to be freed from our sins.
In the covenant made between God and us, we’re not dealing with two normal subjects, but with the Ruler of the Universe and his poor creatures. But, the new and amazing thing is that God takes a slave and he makes him his son – and so forms a covenant with him.
In the consecration of the chalice, we repeat the words of Jesus our Savior: “For this is the chalice of my blood, the blood of the new and eternal covenant, which will be poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins”. The Fathers liked to highlight that in the circumcision, Jesus poured out his blood for the first time, as a sign of the new and eternal covenant, which would be formed with us on the cross.
(Translated from the original Italian by B. Gonzalez.)