According to Saint Luke, Jesus was circumcised on the eighth day after his birth, as the Law of Moses required. This is an event of tremendous religious importance for Jews. Circumcision entitles the newborn male to share in “the promise of mercy” which God “made to Abraham and his children forever.” For this reason, Jewish custom sees it as the most suitable occasion for giving the child his name and thus a distinct presence in the community of God’s people.
Luke the evangelist made nothing of these Jewish beliefs in his account. He mentioned the circumcision of Jesus for one reason only: it fulfilled the last word of the Annunciation, when the angel told the Virgin Mary that the son she would bear should be named Jesus. Therefore, instead of commemorating the Circumcision of Christ, the Church observes the Gospel’s emphasis and celebrates January first — the eighth day after Christmas Day — as the Naming of Jesus.
Jesus is the Greek form of a Hebrew name, Yeshu’ (or Joshua), meaning “Yahweh saves.” And that fact has immense significance for the Church. According to the Book of Exodus, God spoke to Moses out of the burning bush and called him to bring the Hebrew people out of Egypt. Moses asked the divine voice, “What is your name?” And God answered with the word “Yahweh,” which means “I am who I am.” Because this name was laden with all the holiness of the Almighty, the people of Israel developed the custom of never speaking it; whenever they met it in the text of Scripture, they spoke the Hebrew word for “Lord” instead. But when Mary gave birth to her child, “I am who I am” entered human life as “I am the One who saves.” God’s name became speakable for humans, because all the saving power of the Almighty was embodied in “the name of Jesus.” To take this name upon our lips — and still more, to manifest this name in our lives — is to become what Jesus is, human life in intimate communion with God.
Circumcision of Christ, Menologion of Basil II, 979–984. Public Domain