Wednesday, February 1, 2017

A FEAST WITH THREE NAMES


February 2nd, 2017: Luke 2:22-40.

AIM: To help the hearers better understand the meaning of this feast.

 

          Today’s feast has three names: the Purification of Mary, the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple, and Candlemas. To understand the first two we must start with Jewish law about childbirth in Jesus’ day. This said that following the birth of a boy the mother was ritually impure and hence excluded from public worship for seven days. On the eighth day the boy was circumcised. This provision of the law is still observed by Jews today. Thereafter the mother remained at home for a further thirty-three days for her blood to be purified. That is why the first title for today’s feast is the Purification of Mary.

If this seems strange to us in 21st century America, it is not strange at all in other parts of the world. Even today Chinese mothers stay at home for at least a month after giving birth. After forty days of rest and seclusion, the Jewish mother presented a purification sacrifice: a lamb for a burnt offering, and a young pigeon or turtle dove for a sin offering. Poor mothers needed to offer only two turtle doves or two young pigeons. As we heard in the gospel, that is what Mary and Joseph offered. They were poor.

Mary needed no purification. The child she bore would purify the world through his sacrificial death and resurrection. But as a devout Jew, Mary observed the law of her people nonetheless. Jewish law also said that a firstborn son belonged to the Lord. This was because, in the final plague inflicted by God on the Egyptians, he had killed all their firstborn children and animals. But he spared the firstborn among his own people, the Jews. Firstborn Jewish children belonged, therefore, to the Lord. The parents could “redeem” them (take them back) by paying five shekels to any Jewish priest they chose.

Instead of paying this redemption, Mary and Joseph take their infant son to the Jerusalem Temple, to present him to the Lord. This explains the second title for today’s feast: the Presentation of the Lord in the Temple. From that day Jesus belonged completely to God. By age twelve he knew this. For when his parents found him in the Temple after a frantic three-day search, he asked them: “Did you not know that I had to be in my Father’s house?”       

When Mary and Joseph entered the Temple with their infant son, 40 days after his birth, they found that the Lord had two surprises for them. How often he surprises us. The first surprise was the appearance of the old man Simeon. He was “righteous and devout,” the gospel writer, Luke, tells us, “awaiting the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him.” God had promised Simeon that he would not die until he had seen “the Christ,” which means the Lord’s anointed servant, promised for so long by Israel’s prophets. When Simeon saw the child, he knew in his heart at once, that this was the one: the Lord’s anointed servant, the Messiah.

Taking the child in his arms, Simeon speaks the short hymn of praise to God that we heard in the gospel. It is called the Nunc dimittis, from its first two Latin words. From early times it has been chanted during the night prayer of the Church in both East and West. Praising God for fulfilling his promise, Simeon says he is now ready to go home to the Lord. The hymn also praises the child as Israel’s glory, and for the Gentiles a light – which helps explain why we bless candles on this feast and why it has a third name: Candlemas.

Simeon goes on to say that this child will be “a sign of contradiction.” Some will accept him, others will not. This contradiction continues today in those who regard the whole notion of God as a limitation of human freedom, and his law a fence to hem us in. In reality, God’s laws, first given to the leader of God’s people, Moses, in the Ten Commandments, are sign posts pointing the way to human happiness and flourishing.

Finally, Simeon warns Mary that the rejection of her Son by many will be a sword piercing her own heart. This prophecy would be fulfilled, according to the traditional dating, thirty-three years later on Calvary, where Mary stood beside her crucified Son, as he spoke his final words: “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”

The second surprise for Mary and Joseph is the appearance of the 84-year-old widow, Anna. Completely at home in the Temple, she has spent decades in fasting, adoration, and prayer – like contemplative nuns today. She now gives thanks for the child, Luke says, and speaks of him “to all who were awaiting the redemption of Jerusalem.”

Having fulfilled all the provisions of God’s law, Mary and Joseph return with their child to their home in Nazareth, where (Luke tells us) “the child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.” It was there, in hiddenness and silence, in faithfulness to daily work and prayer, that Jesus became the man who could say to rough workingmen, “Come, follow me,” and have them obey him on the spot; and to utter words that he is still saying to us today: “I have come that [you] might have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10).
[The homily draws upon the presentation by Pope Benedict XVI in Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives pp.80-88.]