Do you remember what happened on the 8th day of Christmas?
The 8th day of Christmas, you ask? You mean, eight maids a milking?
On the eighth day of Christmas–after Jesus is born in a humble feeding trough, after the angels sing “Glory to God in the highest” and announce good news of great joy to all the people, after the shepherds, amazed, run to Bethlehem, but before the Magi come bearing gifts–Jesus is formally welcomed into the Jewish people.
The eighth day of Christmas, as it were, is when Jesus is circumcised and named. The ancient rite of circumcision, first practiced by Abraham as a sign of the covenant with God, is routinely performed in hospitals now. But not then.
And then as now, circumcision is the first and most basic mitzvah (commandment or law) to be fulfilled for a Jewish baby boy.
“This is my covenant which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskins and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you. Throughout your generations every male among you shall be circumcised when he is 8 days old…” Genesis 17:10-12a
Jesus isn’t the first Jewish boy whose circumcision is noted in the New Testament. Don’t forget cousin John’s, also on the eighth day. His naming and miraculous birth is mentioned as well.
“Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son. Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown his great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her. On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him Zechariah after his father. But his mother said ‘No, he is to be called John.’”
Luke 1: 57-60
Circumcision is a permanent sign, etched in the flesh, of partnership with God. Even more than lineage and ancestry, circumcision anchors these boys, and their families, firmly in the Jewish community.
At his circumcision Jesus is also named with “the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.” (Luke 2:21) By the way, it should be noted that girls are named too, but not circumcised.
About a month after Jesus’ circumcision, Joseph and Mary come to Jerusalem. There they present Jesus to the LORD in the ancient practice of redemption of the firstborn son (pidyon ha ben). Since Jesus is Mary’s firstborn, and as the author of Colossians later asserts, “the firstborn of all creation” (1:15), he is presented then bought back or redeemed after he reaches 31 days old.
Joseph and Mary would have paid a small sum (five silver shekels in biblical times; today, usually five silver dollars) and performed a brief ritual in the Temple to fulfill the mitzvah. (Numbers 18:15-16)
While the family is at the Temple for the redemption ceremony, two righteous and devout Jews, Simeon and the prophetess Anna, recognize Jesus as a sign of God’s salvation and praise God, for this “light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel” who would himself redeem Jerusalem. (Luke 2:32, 2:38)
From his earliest days, Jesus is raised in a strong and beautiful Jewish home. From circumcision to naming to redemption to offering sacrifices, Mary and Joseph do “everything required by the law of the Lord.”
Not from a sense of empty duty or obligation, I suspect, but a profound connection to God and Torah and love of their child, Jesus.
After these mitzvot (plural of mitzvah) are fulfilled, Jesus and his parents “returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth.” At home in Nazareth the mitzvot, blessings, prophesies and praises take root: “the child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.” (Luke 2:39-40)
Excerpted from the forthcoming book, “The Jew Named Jesus” (Abingdon Press, 2013) by Rebekah Simon-Peter.