Presentation of the Lord
Feb. 2, 2014
Luke 2: 22-32
Iona College, New Rochelle
“When the days were completed for their purification according to the law of Moses, Mary and Joseph took Jesus up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord” (Luke 2: 22).
40 days after Christmas, we return to a story related to the birth of Jesus. The Law of Moses stipulated that 40 days after the birth of a male child, his mother was to go to the Temple to be purified from the ritual uncleanness associated with childbirth; contact with human blood made one unclean, excluded from worship with the community. As a Greek from Antioch (we think), Luke wasn’t entirely familiar with Jewish law and custom, and is simply mistaken when he implies that “they”—either Mary and Joseph or Mary and Jesus—had to be purified. Once purified, mothers could resume their place in the community.
The Law also required that firstborn sons be redeemed, as the firstborn of the Hebrews had been saved in Egypt when the angel of death passed over the land and struck down the firstborn of man and beast thruout the land, except in the homes of the Hebrews whose doorposts had been marked by the blood of the paschal lambs. Thus Luke says that Mary and Joseph were presenting Jesus to the Lord. He omits any reference to the price of redemption, which was 5 shekels, distinct from the purification sacrifice. Again, he may not have known of this legal requirement. Or he may have been making a theological statement by omission: the redeemer of humanity was not himself in need of redemption,
On the other hand, Luke is careful always to present Mary and Joseph, as well as Jesus, as observers of the Law, which is in fact the reason for their going up to Jerusalem on this occasion. That leads us to understand an important point: our relationship with God must include observance. In some circles today, it’s fashionable to be “spiritual” but not “religious.” To be sure, legal observance—whether it’s Sunday worship or Lenten fasting or the entire Ten Commandments or anything else—isn’t the sum total of religion. Religion is fundamentally about our relationship with God. But external observance is the 1st, necessary step in that relationship, like flowers or sweet words between spouses. Without externals, religion or relationships dry up. Jesus tells us, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15). Religion is public, not only private. It involves who we are and everything we do.
Part of the rite of purification was the offering of a sacrifice, either a lamb and a pigeon, or for the poor, 2 pigeons. Luke tells us that Mary offered 2 pigeons, and thus that the family was poor. In the gospels, and the rest of the NT for that matter, we see Jesus’ constant attention to the poor, the neglected, the outsiders. He identifies with the poor and the neglected, right from his birth in borrowed lodgings, the attention given him by lowly shepherds, and his exile in Egypt, thru his association with outcasts during his ministry, thru his parable of the last judgment (Matt 25:31-46), to his death on a cross, stripped naked and almost completely abandoned, and his burial in a borrowed tomb. Hence the Church’s attention to the poor and the sick, to the homeless and the unemployed, to refugees and immigrants, and her insistence that the well-off share from their abundance, just as Jesus has shared his divinity and gift of eternal life with us.
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Our Lady of the Valley Church
If the 1st scene in the gospel passage is the Holy Family’s coming to the Temple and offering their sacrifice, the 2d scene is Simeon’s arrival. Luke calls him “righteous and devout” (2:25), like Zechariah and Elizabeth (cf. 1:6) and Joseph of Arimathea (23:50), and here Luke tells us what makes Simeon “righteous and devout”: he was “awaiting the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him” (2:25).
“The consolation of Israel” means the Messiah, the one anointed by God’s Spirit to comfort his people and redeem them, as in the 1st lines of the 2d part of the Book of Isaiah, nicknamed the “Book of Consolation”: “Comfort, give comfort to my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her servitude is at an end, her guilt is expiated” (40:1-2), or in the 17th-century English of the KJV employed by George Frederick Handel, “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God. Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned.”
Simeon is truly looking for salvation, and thus he is open to the action of the Holy Spirit in his life, and the Holy Spirit leads him to the redeemer. Mary and Joseph have come to the Temple, in part, to redeem their son; but they hear their son announced as the redeemer: “my eyes have seen your salvation, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and glory for your people Israel” (2:30,32). This child is the light—the daybreak sung by Zechariah in his canticle a little earlier in Luke’s gospel—who will lead God’s people out of “darkness and death’s shadow” (1:78-79). He is the light announced by the angels amid the glory of the Lord, “who is Messiah and Lord” (2:9-11)—not for Israel only, but also for the Gentiles, Simeon says, for he will fulfill Isaiah’s prophecies, e.g., “I formed you, and set you as a covenant of the people, a light for the nations” (42:6).
Simeon teaches us how to find the Lord: to look sincerely for him and to be open to where the Spirit will lead us: “He came in the Spirit into the temple” (2:27). So, as I said earlier, we must be in a relationship with the Lord, must be speaking with him, listening to him: in Scripture reading, in the sacred liturgy, in prayer; opening our hearts, our minds, our souls to him, bringing him our hopes and fears, our joys and sorrows, our problems and our praises; and then allowing the Holy Spirit to settle upon us (that same Spirit with which we were endowed in Baptism and Confirmation) and to comfort us, guide us, enlighten us.
After all that, Simeon was ready to “go in peace.” He was speaking of death—which we pray the Holy Spirit will enable us to face peacefully when it’s time, because we have seen the Lord’s salvation. But whatever we do, whatever we speak, whatever we decide, wherever we go, we can do in peace after speaking to the Lord about it and letting his light guide us.