What we know of the circumcision comes from one verse in Luke’s gospel: “And at the end of eight days, when he was circumcised, he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.” (Luke 2:21, ESV). This makes reference to his parents learning of his name in the Annunciation (Luke 1:31) and the dream of Joseph (Matthew 1:21). The Bible doesn’t say much about the ceremony, nor about that of his cousin John (Luke 1:59-79), but the nature of the ceremony of circumcising and naming Jesus was as expected for the male child of line of Abraham (Matthew 1:1-16).
The theological issues of the Circumcision are discussed in a December 2014 episode of Issues Etc. featuring Dr. Arthur Just, which was rebroadcast a week ago. As they note, the Circumcision of Jesus is obedience to the Old Covenant, while it is meaningless for the New Covenant (Colossians 3:11).
The 1549 BCP acknowledged this history with its collect (in modernized spelling) that persisted through 1928:
Almighty God, which madest thy blessed son to be circumcised, and obedient to the law for man; Grant us the true circumcision of thy spirit, that our hearts, and all our membres, being mortified from all worldly and carnal lusts, may in all things obey thy blessed will; through the same thy son Jesus Christ our Lord.In the 1979 prayer book, the feast has been renamed The Holy Name and the collect drops all reference to the Circumcision. Marion Hatchett, in one of his more partisan apologies for the ’79 revisionism, quotes someone else as saying Cranmer et al “turned the day into a commemoration of circumcision, rather than of the Circumcision of our Lord” (Commentary on the American Prayer Book, 169) — without explaining why the book drops all reference to circumcision rather than trying to shift the emphasis to The Circumcision.
In the ACNA trial liturgy, it’s called The Holy Name of Our Lord Jesus Christ, but the collect puts more effort into explaining the theological significance of the feast:
Almighty God, whose blessed Son was circumcised for our sake in obedience to the Covenant of Moses, and given the Name that is above every name: give us the grace to faithfully bear his Name, to worship him in the Spirit given in the New Covenant, and to proclaim him as the Savior of the world; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.Festal Hymns
In Hymnal 1940, there is one hymn (#113) for “The Circumcision” and 10 alternate hymns that focus on the holy name. In Hymnal 1982, there are five hymns (#248-252) listed for “Holy Name”, and the one circumcision hymn is gone. One hymn in common between the two is “Jesus, Name of wondrous love!” (H40: 323; H82: 252). However, as you might expect, the list of alternate hymns in H40 includes a variety of hymns about the name of Jesus that are sung at other times (e.g. what’s now called Christ the King Sunday) such as “At the Name of Jesus” (H40: 356; H82: 435).
The English Hymnal (1906) has two hymns (#36-37) for “The Circumcision of Christ” and my copy of Hymns Ancient & Modern (1868 edition) lists three hymns (#55-57). The common thread is “The ancient law departs” (A&M: 55, H40: 113), with the familiar tune St. Michael from the Genevan Psalter by 16th century composer Louis Bougeois. The hymn was dropped from The English Hymnal (1906) and Hymnal 1982.
The Hymnal 1940 Companion credits the original French text to Sebastian Besnault, as published in 1736. The 1860 translation of five verses is credited to the first edition of Hymns Ancient & Modern:
The ancient law departs,It immediately entered the American hymnody with Hymnal 1874, but by 1940 retained only three of the five verses (1,2,4). The missing third verse is an important one in explaining the Circumcision as the first time that Christ shed his blood for mankind, when he (with the help of his earthly parents) fulfilled the Mosaic covenant so that it might be abolished.
And all its terrors cease;
For Jesus makes with faithful hearts
A covenant of peace.
The light of light divine,
True brightness undefiled,
He bears for us the shame of sin,
A holy, spotless child.
His infant body now
Begins our pains to feel;
Those precious drops of blood that flow
For death the victim seal.
Today the name is Thine,
At which we bend the knee;
They call Thee Jesus, child divine!
Our Jesus deign to be.
All praise, Eternal Son,
For Thy redeeming love,
With Father, Spirit, ever One,
In glorious might above.
Still, this very familiar tune (what’s not to like about a Genevan Psalter tune?) and the text that matches the festal day seem like one that should be embraced (not ignored) whenever the appropriate collect and/or readings are scheduled for church.
Update: Former Anglo-Catholic (now Ordinariate Priest) Fr. John Hunwicke defends the recent decision of the RCC to de-emphasize the Circumcision in this feast, and instead emphasize the BVM and the Incarnation.