5th day in the Octave of Christmas – Gospel

Commentary on Luke 2:22-35

The Holy Family was a Jewish family and both Jesus and his parents are shown as faithfully carrying out the requirements of the Law. In today’s Gospel there is a double ceremony described: one is the purification of the mother and the second is the offering of the first-born child to the Lord (in the past, we used to refer to the upcoming feast on February 2 as the Purification, but now it is called the “Presentation”).

Clearly, the notion of the need for a mother to be purified after giving birth is not something we feel necessary now. However, for the Jews during this time, the spilling of blood was a source of uncleanness. So, after giving birth, there had to be, after a designated number of days, a ceremony of purification. Sometimes the husband also went through a similar ceremony. Given the special circumstances surrounding the birth of Jesus, the idea of purification seems even less necessary, although Luke does not seem to have any problem with it.

According to the Mosaic law (Lev 12:2-8), a woman who gave birth to a boy was not allowed to touch anything sacred for 40 days (and in the case of a baby girl, the period was even longer), nor could she enter the Temple precincts because of her ritual ‘impurity’. At the end of this period, as mentioned by Luke, she was required to offer a year-old lamb as a burnt offering and a turtle dove or a young pigeon as expiation for sin. Those who could not afford the lamb could offer two birds instead.

The parents also presented their first-born son as an offering to the Lord, again in accordance with Jewish law (Exod 13:2,12), but this did not have to be done in the Temple. Presenting the child in the Temple seems to re-echo the scene in the First Book of Samuel where Hannah offers her son Samuel for service in the sanctuary. There is no mention in Luke’s account of the five shekels that was supposed to be paid to a member of the priestly family to ‘buy back’ the child.

The account goes on to mention two elderly people – Simeon and Anna (Anna will appear tomorrow). They represented all those devout Jews who were looking forward to the expected coming of the Messiah and the restoration of God’s rule, God’s kingship, in Israel.

Simeon had received a promise that he would not die until he had laid eyes on the Messiah. Under the promptings of the Spirit, Simeon enters the Temple just as Mary and Joseph arrive with their child. He recognises who the Child is and then says a prayer of thanksgiving and surrender to his God. We call this prayer the Nunc dimittis (“…now you are dismissing your servant in peace…”), a hymn which is now used during the Night Prayer of the Church. In harmony with Luke’s vision of Jesus, he describes Jesus as a Light for the Gentiles and the Glory of the people of Israel. And so, the Feast of the Presentation (which we now celebrate on February 2nd) is a feast of light sometimes called ‘Candlemas’. It is a time when candles are blessed and lit to reflect Christ as our Light.

Meanwhile Mary and Joseph are astounded at what is being said about their child. Even they have not yet come to a full realisation of just who he is.

But all is not sweetness and light. Simeon goes on to say some hard-sounding words. He says:

This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed…

To say that Jesus brings about the fall of people is a difficult idea to come to terms with. It seems to fly in the face of the loving, forgiving and compassionate Jesus of the Gospel. And yet the paradox is that many, for reasons of their own, can totally reject the way of life that Jesus proposes. In doing so, they also turn away from the direction where their fulfilment as persons lies. Jesus’ life is a sign, a sign which points us in the direction of God, but there are many who contradict that sign and go in other directions.

And Simeon has more to say. To Jesus’ Mother he also says:

…and a sword will pierce your own soul, too.

Mary will not know the meaning of these words for many years to come, although a small foretaste will come when Jesus is lost as a boy in Jerusalem. Mary may be full of grace, but no more than her Son will she spared be from sharing some of the pain he will ultimately endure. It is all part of that unconditional ‘Yes’ which Mary made to the angel in Nazareth. It too is contained in the offering of her Son that she has just made to God his Father.

There is a scene in the Gospel of Luke where a woman, having been impressed by the teaching of Jesus, cries out:

Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts that nursed you! (Luke 11:27)

A great tribute to Mary for having produced such a magnificent Son. But Jesus replies:

Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it! (Luke 11:28)

Mary’s true greatness is not in the privileges bestowed on her by God, but in her unconditional acceptance of everything God asked of her. For each one of us it is the same. Today, let us say a big ‘Yes’ to God no matter what he sends us.

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