Today on the “old calendar” is January 1st. We often associate this date with the beginning of the New Year, however, since “New Year’s day” is a purely secular celebration, it is more properly remembered according to the civil. For us in the Orthodox Church, the sacred New Year actually is on Sept 1 (Sept 14 on the new calendar). January 1st is associated with two other major celebrations: St Basil’s day and the Circumcision of Christ.
The Circumcision of Christ comes on the 8th day after the Nativity of the Lord. As a sign of the covenant between God and Abraham, all the males of Abraham’s household were consecrated to God through circumcision. This ritual act confirming the covenant is continued through all the male descendants of Abraham’s household. As a descendant in the flesh of Abraham, our Lord was also circumcised on the 8th day after birth. In the Book of Acts we see the debate within the early Church whether or not converts to the Christian faith from outside the Hebrew people would need to be circumcised as well, however, the apostles, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, instructed the Church that this would not be necessary because circumcision as a sign of the covenant between God and man had been superseded by baptism. We still, however, remember the Circumcision of Christ and keep it as a feast day of the Church, and while we do not undergo physical circumcision, we do take circumcision as an image of one aspect of our spiritual life.
Archimandrite Zacharias of Essex, a disciple of St Sophrony, who was himself a disciple of St Silouan of Mt Athos, talks about this “circumcision of the heart”. “The great Prophet Isaiah says that pain precedes the coming of the Spirit of salvation: that the spirit is first conceived in fear and pain of the heart (…they shall be afraid: pangs and sorrows shall take hold of them; they shall be in pain as a woman that travaileth: they shall be amazed one at another; their faces shall be as flames. Behold, the day of the Lord cometh…” Isa. 13:8) The fact is, we need contrition, we need fear, we need pain.
All these prepare us for new life, until an eruption, a breaking forth can occur in the heart. A new birth then takes place, and man, who is now become spirit, falls into the hands of the living Lord. As Saint Sophrony insisted, if we persevere in pain and contrition, our heart will one day be all transformed into a shining center of spiritual sensibility. And St Paul confirms that the contrition of a truly repentant heart will give way to the unutterable groanings of the Spirit within the heart as He cries, ‘Abba, father.’ Furthermore, our adoption as free children of God, under the grace of the law of the Spirit, will be sealed. So we need patiently to bear this pain, this ‘circumcision of the heart’, for this is what is meant by bearing the marks of the Lord Jesus, as St Paul puts it elsewhere.
Let us bear all this patiently until the Spirit of salvation is born in us, until our pain is transformed into the luminous grace of the adoption of the children of God.
“This circumcision of the heart is a great blessing. It begins with the deep change which is sown in man through Baptism, when the marks of Christ become ours, through our putting on of Christ. And we must continue to change until there is nothing in us that resists His presence. We then bear the seal of His people, for we belong to the new Israel, to the new creation which is the Body of Christ. In bearing within us His life-giving death, we partake of the abundance of eternal life which flows from His Resurrection. And as our heart is circumcised, so are we circumcised in our thinking, in our speech, and in all of our members. We no longer think or speak evil of anyone, but everything we do or say is seasoned with a measure of love until we attain to the fullness of the great love of Christ.”
What then is this circumcision that we undergo – this painful process that results in this “deep change” that brings us into such complete harmony with Christ? The process of physical circumcision involves cutting away a piece of tissue from a very sensitive part of the body – it is indeed a painful process. So also the circumcision of the heart involves cutting away a part of ourselves.
Through the practice of denying oneself and constant repentance, we constantly cut away from the heart everything of ourselves that resists the presence of Christ in us. Whatever in us is not compatible with the life of Christ must be removed. Sometimes this can happen quickly and easily, but more often than not, we are tearing at the long and tangled vines of our passions which are intertwined with the very core of our being. These passionate roots are very adaptable and even if the whole plant is torn out by our repentance, except for a small bit of root – the passion will again grow back, stronger and more powerful than ever. For this reason, when we go to war with our own passions, we must not stop until every little bit is uprooted and torn out. Even then we need to be vigilant to see that nothing remained from which the passion will again grow within us.
Because we are often blind to accurately seeing ourselves, it is frequently necessary to use a mirror to help see where and how the passions entangle us. This mirror is quite simply the people around us. By looking at how we interact with them, we see the evidence of our passions. Returning to the description of Fr Zacharias, he describes for us how our relationships with others should look when we are free of the influence of our sinful passions: “We no longer think or speak evil of anyone, but everything we do or say is seasoned with a measure of love…” Therefore if we think or speak evil of anyone (even within the secrecy of our own thoughts) this is evidence of the passions within us.
Because these passions seek to defend themselves by finding someone else to blame, the shortfalls that we see in others reflect our own shortcomings. When very small children come to confession, they very often don’t know if they sinned – this is normal for they still live in a state of innocence of mind. What they do know, however, is that they made someone (especially a parent) mad or upset. In our blindness to our own sins, we have to use this same technique – asking ourselves, “Did I upset anyone? Did I cause someone else distress?”
When you see that someone else became distressed at something you said or did, the natural reaction is to shift the responsibility to them and excuse yourself – Don’t Do This! That’s the tactic of your sinful nature trying to hide and defend itself. Be quick to accuse yourself – be a harsh judge of yourself – don’t let yourself get away with anything no matter how small or insignificant it might seem. Seeing that you have harmed someone else by your words or actions, make haste to seek them out, confess your sin and ask their forgiveness. Then, confess your sin to God and ask His forgiveness. Such an approach will quickly lead you to a state of repentance for you will begin to see things that were before, hidden by your own self-blindness.
This circumcision of the heart, brought about by painfully rooting out and excising anything that resists Christ, consists of self-denial and repentance. Unlike physical circumcision, it’s not something that only happens once and then it’s done, but it is something that we must engage in for the whole of our lives. It is a painful process for we are cutting away pieces of the self – pieces of our old sinful nature that hide deep within the core of our being. It is, in one sense, a “violent” process for we do indeed inflict violence upon the heart in order to remove from it the sin-loving nature that hides and makes its home in our hearts. Even so, we know from the words of our Lord in the Gospel that the Kingdom of God suffers violence and the violent take it by force. (Matt 11:12). Therefore let us engage in this holy violence of self-denial, confession of sin and repentance, rooting out piece by piece the vines of our sins which resist the grace of God, and replacing them with the blossom of the presence of Christ, which we might “partake of the abundance of eternal life which flows from His Resurrection.”
Turn to Christ, Love Him with all your heart, your mind, and your soul. Look to Him. Read His Word, read about His Saints, read the Psalms, be present for every service your Church has to offer. This is how we turn to Christ, this is how we change our ways, this is how we humble ourselves, and root the passions from our lives. Repent and be healed.
Thou Who sittest with the Father on a fiery throne in the heights wast pleased to be born of a Virgin through the Divine Spirit on earth. Wherefore Thou wast circumcised as a man on the eighth day. Glory to Thine all-gracious will; glory to Thy providence; glory to Thy condescension, O only Lover of mankind.
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, the sinner.