UPON THE CIRCUMCISION
YE flaming Powers, and wingèd Warriors bright,
That erst with music, and triumphant song,
First heard by happy watchful Shepherds’ ear,
So sweetly sung your joy the clouds along,
Through the soft silence of the listening night,—
Now mourn; and if sad share with us to bear
Your fiery essence can distill no tear,
Burn in your sighs, and borrow
Seas wept from our deep sorrow,
He who with all Heaven’s heraldry whilere
Entered the world, now bleeds to give us ease.
Alas! how soon our sin
Sore doth begin
His infancy to seize!
O more exceeding Love, or Law more just?
Just Law indeed, but more exceeding Love!
For we, by rightful doom remediless,
Were lost in death, till He, that dwelt above
High-throned in secret bliss, for us frail dust
Emptied his glory, even to nakedness; 20
And that great Covenant which we still transgress
And the full wrath beside
Of vengeful Justice bore for our excess,
And seals obedience first with wounding smart
This day; but oh! ere long,
Huge pangs and strong
Will pierce more near his heart.
According to Luke 2:21, the infant Jesus was circumcised and named on the eighth day after birth, as Torah requires. New Year’s Day has many other associations for people now, but it has a long history as the Feast of the Circumcision, now more commonly called the Feast of the Holy Name.
In the early Christian church, circumcision was a topic of great debate and division – so much so that Jewish common language characterized people as either “the circumcised” or “the uncircumcised” (i.e., the godly versus the ungodly). The Apostle Paul (who worked primarily among the Gentiles) taught “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision avails anything, but faith working through love” (Gal. 5:6).
And when eight days were completed for the circumcision of the Child, His name was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before He was conceived in the womb. Now when the days of her purification according to the law of Moses were completed, they brought Him to Jerusalem to present Him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every male who opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord”), and to offer a sacrifice according to what is said in the law of the Lord, “A pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”
Art: The Circumcision Of Christ by Peter Paul Rubens (1605), Academy of Fine Arts Vienna, Vienna, Austria
Milton’s poem is held to have been written in 1633, on or about January 1, the day commemorating the event in the church’s calendar which it treats. Using the stanza from Petrarch’s canzone to the Blessed Virgin, it celebrates Christ’s circumcision, looking back to the Nativity and forward to the Passion. Milton feels and tries to convey the pain which Christ felt: “He who with all Heav’ns heraldry whilere / Enter’d the world, now bleeds to give us ease”. Using the historical present tense, Milton draws the connection between circumcision and the Passion explicitly when he says that in submitting to the rite Jesus thereby
… seals obedience first with wounding smart
This day, but O ere long
Huge pangs and strong
Will peirce [sic] more neer his heart.
David L. Jeffrey, A Dictionary of Biblical Tradition in English Literature (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 1992).