Luke 2:22–40 (NRSV)
Jesus Is Presented in the Temple
22 When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord 23 (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”), 24 and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”
25 Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. 26 It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. 27 Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, 28 Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying,
29 “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
according to your word;
30 for my eyes have seen your salvation,
31 which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel.”
33 And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. 34 Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed 35 so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”
36 There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, 37 then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. 38 At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.
The Return to Nazareth
39 When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. 40 The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.
Most of us are just coming down from the hurry and busy of Christmas this week and are looking forward to the new year, which will start tomorrow. The thing is Christmas is not just a day but a season. It is a day and season where we celebrate the incarnation of God, Emmanuel God with us. To explore this amazing aspect of faith we need than a mere day. The traditions of the church throughout history have celebrated the incarnation from Christmas Eve night through January 6th also known as Epiphany. This season, known as Christmastide, they focus on various aspects of Jesus being fully man and fully God.
So much of our faith focuses on the sacrificial aspect of Christ and the hope found in the resurrection. How much time do we just spend reflecting on the amazing thought and joy of God loving us so much that he sent his son? Do we really reflect of the vicarious humanity of Christ in our daily devotions and reflections? Do we consider how amazing the love God has for us by coming from his throne in heaven to be born as a human child, to dwell among a human family, to teach and live among human friends, and to sacrifice his own life to provide us hope. Do we contemplate how Jesus in his humanity redeems every aspect of our humanity and through that redemptive life, we can become children of the Highest God?
When I consider these things it often stops my thoughts and prompts me to praise God. While I am at work I consider the holy family and their interactions within the work force. Jesus just as my own children waited with eagerness for his father to return home from work. Jesus, like my own younger self, became excited for that day that he could go to work with his dad and help. We often hear the song Mary Did You Know as we get ready for Christmas day, but do we know? Jesus is like us but more, and he wants us to become like him.
Let us consider that for the next few weeks, Jesus is like us but more, and he wants us to become like him. What would our life look like if we were to become like Jesus in every aspect of our lives? What if Jesus became incarnate in our life?
It is often hard to think of Jesus in human terms because we think so highly of him. We often fail to consider the humanity of Jesus sleeping, or eating with his disciples. We often neglect the thought of Jesus blowing his nose or sneezing when dust is heavy in the air. Or that Jesus might shiver when the cold winter winds blow. But he was fully human in every way, born of a human mother and raised by a human father.
Today we consider this humanness of Jesus. He lived within a Jewish family and that family participated in all the feasts and festivals of that faith. Mary and Joseph lived according to the teaching of their leaders, and offered the appropriate sacrifices. Mary gave birth to a son and gave him the name Jesus on the eighth day according to the traditions of their faith. Then after the appointed time Mary traveled with her husband Joseph to the temple their purification.
At times I do not really think deeply about this event. But after thirty-three additional days, if she bears a son, she is required to offer sacrifices to the lord for purification. Mary required purification after giving birth to Jesus. Think about that. The whole point of the purification period is allowed the body to heal before they enter into the normal routines. The mother is unclean for the first seven days after giving birth. During this period of time anyone who comes in contact with the mother and any of the furnishings she touches must wash themselves and their clothing. It seems like a pretty steep sentence towards women, but lets look at this from a different perspective. The mother has just spent a great deal of energy giving birth, she is tired, uncomfortable, trying to get adjusted to motherhood and the tasks associated with that. She is unclean because she needs her space. If you bother her you better have a good reason because you will have work to do after that. The ones that would risk this are going to be the ones closed to the mother, they will take the added work because they love the woman and the child. So, the husband will be near his wife, caring for her. That same law requires that if he is going to be involved he must stay home with her until all the laundry is finished. For seven days the family of a son will only be in contact with their closest relations, but on the eighth day they go out into the community. On the eighth day the child who was unclean because of his close proximity to the mother, was washed and the circumcision and naming ceremony was performed. If a daughter was born they would wait two weeks for this community appearance, again it sounds like it is being hard on the female portion of the population, but it gives the family time to adjust without constant visits from well-wishers.
There are also scientific reasons for this, if males are going to be circumcised, their blood needs to be ready. While in the womb the blood is thinner it has less platelets to prevent clotting while the nourishment moves from the mother to the child. Once the child takes its first breath the body goes into overdrive converting systems to function properly. After a week the blood generally has more platelets than when the child is born so to perform the circumcision at that time minimizes the risk. Because the females of the Jewish population are not required to have this minor surgery the Law give the mother an extra week of undisturbed peace at home, while the mothers of sons have to endure the congratulations of the masses.
That is the first week, but after that there is just over another month of impurity. I have always wondered why. The answer is found in basic biology of the human body, I will not go into the details but will only say it takes time for a woman’s body to physically heal and recover from birth. For nine months she held a human being within her body, a human being that grew from a single cell to a person the size of a watermelon. She carried that person inside and that person stretched, twisted and pushed everything around. God said give that woman some time to adjust and leave her alone. Oddly enough doctors actually give similar advice even today.
I understand the timing issues, but the ideas of impurity still are unresolved. What makes a person impure or unclean? There are many thoughts about these issues. Most I find a bit prejudice and some even demonize basic human systems. Systems that God created and declared very good. As I read all these various theories a teaching of Jesus came to mind. “What goes into the body does not make a man unclean but what comes out.” Whenever there is discharge from the body that person is unclean. If you do not believe me, why do healthcare professionals put on gloves? In most places if there is blood involved they must treat the situation as if a potential outbreak of disease may occur.
Blood is symbolic to life and in the Jewish culture. Even the blood of an animal was considered sacred to the point that after they removed the blood they would have to place kosher salt on the outside to draw the most minute trace out of the meat because to eat the blood was considered contrary to the law. The spilling of human blood is an even graver sin. When Cain murdered his brother Abel, God said that his blood was crying out to God from the ground. Without blood their life ceases to exist, and the shedding of blood symbolizes the fragility of our lives. A simple cut was seen as life pouring out of the body. Even today there are religious communities that hold tightly to this image, and refuse blood transfusions because it is seen as removing life from one person to preserve their own. From their perspective that would be participating in the murder of the donating person.
With child birth there is blood. Even today the birth of a child can cause harm to the mother so though it is not in itself sinful, it has an aspect of separation attached to it. This goes all the way back to Eden and our first mother. The punishment for Eve and her daughters was that the pains of child birth would greatly increase. As most mothers could attest that is still a factor to this day. This initial sin, the original sin the sin that needs purification. With every new life there is a chance of separation and that separation is sin. Sin is anything that happens in life that can separate us from our relationship with God and with others. New life carries within it an opportunity for great separation.
On the eighth day, Jesus was circumcised and after that Mary waited the additional thirty-three days to go to the temple to offer sin and purification sacrifices. Mary endured pregnancy and everything that goes with it. She participated with every other mother in history in that original punishment for sin, the pain and potential loss of life during child birth. She did this for one reason, she wanted to participate in the redemption of all people.
Mary endured bearing life so that through her God could repair the damage caused by sin. She sacrificed herself so that the entire world might be saved. I do not want to deify Mary, but there is something about her life that should inspire us. She lived for her God. Her faith was not just something she did because of the culture, it was deep in her heart. Her love for God and her people Israel was at the core of her very being. She participated in the incarnation in a way beyond what any of us can experience. Yet with every birth we can get a glimpse.
That weighed heavy on my heart this week. I considered all the potential risks that could have occurred. Yet both Mary and God said yes. They said yes for each one of us. And through her obedience to God’s will she gave us the opportunity to be called children of God. I will have to be honest, I did recite a hail Mary as I contemplated this. I thank Mary for all she did.
Mary was there at the temple offering her doves for sacrifice. I must mention this, the law required that a lamb be sacrificed for a sin offering, yet there was a clause in that law that stated that if the person could not afford a lamb they could offer a dove in it’s place. She offered a dove for the sin offering and one for the purification offering. She did this because they were poor. They were obedient to God yet financially they did not always know how they would get by. You might think that the mother bearing the messiah would have had great blessings since she was bearing the king of kings, yet she offered in the temple doves. She gave birth to God incarnate yet she was left right where she was before, broke and only able to offer a pair of doves in celebration of life to her God.
God does great things through the seemingly impossible. Mary and Joseph lived in poverty, they lived as refugees in the land of Egypt for a while, they were common but skilled laborers. God came to live among the common and poor, God lived as an exiled person as a stranger in a foreign land, God lived like us. The Holy family had nothing but they had all they needed. The closing line in the newest Star Wars movie makes a reference to this very idea. The question is asked how can we lead a revolution with so little? And Leia answers, “We have all we need.” Because all God needs to redeem is people willing to be obedient to him where they are at that moment. He only requires lives that are willing to trust that He will provide even when the seed of hope is as small as a mustard seed or a new born child.
Mary went to the temple, and she to offer the pair of doves. She entered that place knowing full well what was being said about her, and knowing in her heart that the child she carried was the hope of humanity. I am sure there were some in the background that were saying that she probably should be offering a few more doves because she was holding a child born in sin. You know those rumors. There were probably a few others that made remarks about God’s displeasure with her because she was offering doves instead of a lamb, because the common understanding of the day was that God’s favor rested on those with financial blessings. Yet Mary walked through the comments made in the background. She walked until a man approached named Simeon. We do not know much about Simeon. All we really know about him is that he was a righteous and devout man. Many theories have been made about who he really was. Some say that he was a priest, possibly even the priest that performed the sacrifices on Mary’s behalf. One theory was that Simeon was the son of the great rabbi Hillel. You may not know who Hillel was but he was the rabbi that started the order of the Pharisees, he was the one that wrote interpretations of scripture that the first century Jewish faithful followed, but not only them the contemporary Jewish groups still revere Hillel as the great rabbi today. Any way some scholars have theorized that Simeon was the son of this man, and that is why he was considered righteous and devout. Both of those theories cannot be proven and could probably be rejected through the simple fact that if either were the case one of the gospel writers would have mentioned it. All we know is that Simeon was a man of faith, and he listened to the spirit of God. Through his life, he had discerned in some way that he would not die until he saw the Messiah. And on that day that very day when the Holy Family came to offer sacrifices he was lead by the spirit to go to the temple. When he arrived, this devout man saw the family and he took Jesus in his arms and praised God and blessed the child and the family. He spoke to Jesus, saying to him to release his servant for he has seen his salvation. Imagine that scene. The salvation of mankind was seen that day by Simeon. That salvation was God with us, before Jesus did anything other than eat, sleep, and keep his mother awake all night the salvation of the world was among us. God came to mankind.
After this meeting, there was someone else approaching. It was the old woman that had spent her life sitting in the temple courts talking, praying and fasting. She came over to the family and began to praise God and proclaiming that this child is the redemption of Jerusalem. This probably caused quite the stir. And all this is happening while Mary and Joseph are walking into the temple to offer sacrifices to God according to the customs of their day.
Incarnation. It is a powerfully loaded word. God in the flesh living among us. This is what Christmas is all about. God with us: then, now, and for the ages to come. It was that incarnation that bring our salvation, because it was at that moment that we see that God so loved the world that he sent his son not to condemn the world but to save the world. This child would be the cause of rising and falling of many, he would become the foundation and the stumbling block. He will become the lamb who was slain, but at that moment he was the child. Do we live the incarnation today? Are we willing to be like Mary bearing Jesus within us? Are we willing to let the risks of carrying Christ to others so that He can be born in them even if it could potentially cause a separation? Are we willing to look that risk in the eyes and say yes and out of the great hope of love boldly walk forward trusting that God will provide even if it only amounts to a pair of small insignificant birds? Are we willing to be like Simeon, able to see God’s salvation in a face that everyone else rejects? Are we like Anna, even in advanced age, willing to rush to the family before us praising God and his redemption? Are we willing to let the incarnate Christ this Christmastide to live through us?