From “A Sermon Preached at Saint Dunstan’s upon New-Year’s-Day, 1624” by John Donne

by The Rev'd Dane E. Boston

On New Year’s Day, the Church keeps the Feast of the Holy Name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Before the 1979 revision of the Book of Common Prayer, this day was kept as the Feast of the Circumcision of Christ, as it falls eight days after Christmas Day. (I wish I knew more about the reason for the change in name. My instinct leads me to suspect modern squeamishness, but I am not sure how the revisers would explain themselves. The older name has greater theological significance and a physicality not inherent in a title like “the Holy Name.”)

What follows is a portion of a New Year’s Day sermon by John Donne. It is from the standard (but soon to be replaced by a new Oxford Edition) Potter and Simpson edition of Donne’s sermons, accessed online through the electronic version made available by Brigham Young University ( Donne connects the Circumcision of Christ with a challenging call for his congregation to be inwardly circumcised (Romans 2:29). In this connection, he follows the Book of Common Prayer in the Collect for the Feast of the Circumcision: 

Almighty God, which madest thy blessed Son to be circumcised and obedient to the law for man: Grant us the true circumcision of the spirit, that our hearts and all our members 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.

Come therefore to this Circumcision betimes, come to it, this Day, come this Minute: This Day thy Saviour was Circumcised in the flesh, for thee; this Day Circumcise thy heart to him, and all thy senses, and all thy affections.

It is not an utter destroying of thy senses, and of thy affections, that is enjoyned thee; but, as when a Man had taken a beautifull Woman captive in the warres, he was not bound to kill her, but he must shave her head, and pare her nailes, and change her garments, before he might marry her; so captivate, subdue, change thy affections, and that’s the Destruction which makes up this Circumcision: change thy choler into Zeale, change thy amorousness into devotion, change thy wastfulnesse into Almes to the poore, and then thou hast circumcised thy affections, and mayest retaine them, and mayest confidently say with the Apostle, we are the Circumcision, which worship God in the spirit, and rejoyce in Christ Jesus, and have no confidence in the flesh.

Doe this to day; as God this day gives thee a  New yeare, and hath not surpriz’d thee, nor taken thee away in the sinnes of last yeare; as he gives thee a new yeare, do thou give him a New-years-gift, Cor novum, a new and a Circumcised heart, and Canticum novum, a new Song, a delight to magnifie his name, and speak of his glory, and declare his wondrous works to the Sonnes of men, and be assured that whether I, or any other of the same Ministry, shall speake to you from this place, this day twelve-month, and shall aske your consciences then, whether those things which you heard now, have brought you to this Circumcision, and made you better this yeare than you were the last, and find you under the same uncircumcision still, be assured that God will not, God cannot be mocked, but as he wil receive us, with an Euge bone serve, Well done my good and faithfull Servant; so will he say to you Perditio tua ex te, Your destruction is from your selves: Enough hath been done for you by me, enough hath been said to you by my Servants, Quaere moriemini, Why will you die O house of Israel? And after a long despising of his graces, he will come to a finall separation; you shall come to say, Nolumus hunc regnare, we will not have Christ Jesus to reigne over us; and Christ Jesus shall come to say, Nescio vos, I know you not, nor whence you are.

Hodie si vocem ejus, If you wil heare his voice this day, Hodie eritis, This day you shall be with him in Paradise, and dwell in it all the yeare, and all the yeares of an Everlasting life, and of infinite generations. Amen.