THE FAMILIAR INFANCY STORIES in Luke’s Gospel — the Circumcision and naming of Jesus, the Presentation of our Lord in the Temple, the encounters with Simeon and Anna — these are very human stories, very lovely and poignant stories that touch both heart and mind. Surely, Mary treasured all these things and pondered them in her heart, just as she had the words of the shepherds. The stories are both treasure and wonder, both gift and puzzle, for us as surely as they were for Mary.
Human stories, yes. Lovely and poignant stories, yes. But not simple stories. These stories plunge us deep into the heart of the Gospel, into a symbolic world of creation, fall, and redemption, into a rich and complex theological portrait painted in flesh and blood.
It is the Presentation of our Lord in the Temple that we treasure and ponder in our hearts this day. But it’s not the Temple in Jerusalem that provides the first stage for that drama; rather, it is the Temple of the Garden of Eden. The Garden is a temple because it is the intersection of heaven and earth, the meeting place between God and man. The Garden is a temple because it is the place where the image of God dwells in the persons of Adam and Eve. The Garden is a temple because it is the place where our first parents serve as the first priests, mediating between God and creation, gathering up and voicing the praise and worship of all creation, presenting it to God as offering. The Garden is the first Temple, long before any structure is built upon the holy hill of Zion.
God gives his priests, Adam and Eve, a blessing and a vocation:
28 And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth” (Gen 1:28 ESV throughout unless otherwise noted).
This is a two-part vocation,and the two-parts interlock. Subdue the world. Eden is paradise; the world outside is not. Adam and Eve are to subdue the outside world by expanding paradise outward, by bringing God’s order and reign to bear over the whole earth. And how are they to do this? Be fruitful and multiply.
Have children. Send them out from the Temple into the world to order it and govern it and nurture it: the priestly vocation in the Temple becomes the kingly vocation in the world. We can only imagine what this would have looked like. Before it could happen, man traded God’s blessing and vocation for untimely knowledge and fell from the grace of priesthood. And what of the divine vocation? Subduing the earth will be harder now, impossible really:
17 [C]ursed is the ground because of you;
in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life;
18 thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you;
and you shall eat the plants of the field.
19 By the sweat of your face
you shall eat bread,
till you return to the ground,
for out of it you were taken;
for you are dust,
and to dust you shall return (Gen 3:17b-19).
As for filling the earth, it can still be done, but only at great cost.
16 To the woman [God] said,
“I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing;
in pain you shall bring forth children.
Your desire shall be [toward] your husband,
but he shall rule over you” (Gen 3:16).
Every human birth from this moment on — which means every human birth — takes place in the shadow of sin. Michael Card says it this way: We were meant to awaken in a garden; instead we are born into a sin-impregnated world. The human vocation — be fruitful and multiply — is now tainted by sin. The joy of bearing new life is intertwined with sorrow and pain by sin and is ultimately undone by sin’s unholy companion death. The blessing of the Garden spirals downward into the requirements of the Law of Sinai, Leviticus chapter 12:
If a woman conceives and bears a male child, then shall she be unclean for seven days. On the eighth day, the male child shall be circumcised. The woman shall remain unclean for thirty-three days following.
When the days of her uncleanness are ended, she shall bring an offering to the priest: a yearling lamb for a burnt offering and a pigeon or turtle dove for a sin offering. If she cannot afford a lamb, she may take two pigeons or turtle doves, one for the burnt offering and one for the sin offering (cf Levi 12).
Birth, uncleanness, sin: words that were never intended to be spoken in the same breath are now bound together under God’s Law.
And so Mary comes to the Temple to fulfill this Law, to make a burnt offering of thanksgiving and devotion to God, to present a sin offering as a daughter of her mother Eve, as have countless Jewish mothers before her.
But this birth, this sin offering — they are different. This offering is the beginning of the end of all sin offerings. This offering is not just of a dove; it is a mother’s offering of her son, of God’s only-begotten Son, of the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Every offering ever made is swept up and fulfilled in this one offering, in this one moment: a moment which stretches from manger to cross, a moment proclaimed in the dual cry, “It is finished,” and “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here. He is risen as he said.” It is a moment made present and real in every baptism in which birth by water and Spirit is not tainted with sin, but in which that new birth destroys the power of sin. It is a moment in which Mary becomes the New Eve, consoling the mother of us all:
My mother, my daughter,
Do not be ashamed, do not grieve.
The former things have passed away.
Our God has brought us to a New Day.
See, I am with Child
Through whom all will be reconciled.
O Eve! My sister, my friend,
We will rejoice together
Life without end.1
And old Simeon is there: righteous and devout old Simeon, filled with the Holy Spirit, waiting — waiting for the consolation of Israel, trusting in the Spirit’s promise that his eyes would not see death until until his eyes had seen the Lord’s salvation. Please don’t misunderstand these next statements as sexist. They are not; they express the Gospel fulfillment of creation theology. Quite profoundly, this moment in the Temple is woman’s moment, the moment in which Mary, on behalf of Eve and all her daughters, fulfills the uniquely female priestly vocation of fruitfulness, of sending forth her child into the world to rightly order it, to redeem it. No man can add anything to this moment really. Simeon is only a witness, and recipient of the grace of the moment. But he knows what he has seen, and he startles Mary and Joseph with his gift of vision:
29 Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace,
according to your word;
30 for my eyes have seen your salvation
31 that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and for glory to your people Israel” (Lk 2:29-32).
Salvation, light, revelation, glory: Simeon knows what he has seen in this moment. We know what we’ve seen in this moment, too. We bless and light candles this day in witness, and we depart this place in peace according to God’s word, bearing the light we have received: priests leaving the Temple once again, going out into the world to fulfill the divine vocation to proclaim the Kingdom of God — Eve’s sons and daughters, Mary’s sons and daughters, God’s sons and daughters, as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.
Luke seems to conflate two events in his telling of this Temple visit: the purification of Mary and the pidyon haben, the redemption of the firstborn son. And once again we are plunged into the heart of the Gospel, not in the Garden this time, but in the Hebrew slave quarters in Egypt. Nine plagues there have been, nine attempts to convict Pharaoh, to compel him to let God’s people go: all to no avail.
Exodus 11:1 (ESV): The Lord said to Moses, “Yet one plague more I will bring upon Pharaoh and upon Egypt. Afterward he will let you go from here. When he lets you go, he will drive you away completely.
What is coming is so horrible, so devastating, as to be almost unthinkable: a righteous judgment by God, yes, but one that makes us catch our breath and bow our heads.
Exodus 11:4–6 (ESV): “Thus says the Lord: ‘About midnight I will go out in the midst of Egypt, 5 and every firstborn in the land of Egypt shall die, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sits on his throne, even to the firstborn of the slave girl who is behind the handmill, and all the firstborn of the cattle. 6 There shall be a great cry throughout all the land of Egypt, such as there has never been, nor ever will be again.”
Every firstborn male child in Egypt will die in one night — a generation and all its heirs erased forever. But, the Hebrews will be spared, spared by the blood of the Passover lamb smeared on the doorposts and lintels of their slave quarters.
From this moment on, because God spared them, God claims the firstborn sons of Israel as his own. Every Jewish male child who first opens a mother’s womb is holy unto the Lord and is given to the Kohanim, the priests. This child may be — must be — redeemed from the priests by his parents for five silver shekels, five silver dollars in the pidyon haben, the redemption of the firstborn. And so Mary and Joseph bring Jesus on the thirty-first day of his life to be redeemed.
Luke 2:22–24 (ESV): And 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 male who first opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord”) 24 and to offer a sacrifice according to what is said in the Law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons.”
This is a poor family: two pigeons for Mary’s purification is a poor family’s offering. The additional five shekels as the redemption price for their son must have been a burden. The priest, at least the priestly representative today, is allowed to return the money to the father to start a college fund or some such thing. Maybe this Temple priest had mercy on this poor family and returned the money to Joseph, not for college, but for food. Maybe not.
The firstborn sons of the Hebrews are saved by the blood of the Passover lamb, and they are consecrated to God as his firstborn sons. And now one of these firstborn Hebrew sons, the only-begotten Son of God, the Passover Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, the Redeemer of the world is himself redeemed from God by a man who is not even his father for five shekels that he cannot even afford. What an irony that is: what a mystery that is! And yet it is Jesus, even here, just thirty-one days old, entering fully into the human condition, fulfilling the Law, being redeemed that he might become the Redeemer, becoming the Passover Lamb whose blood saved the firstborn of Israel in Egypt, and whose blood — smeared no longer on doorposts and lintels but poured out on the cross — is offered for the salvation of us all: rich, deep, complex theology meant as much for the heart as for the mind.
Candlemas — Candle Mass — we call this day. We bless and light candles as witness to the Light of the World, because, like old Simeon and Anna, we have seen his salvation. We celebrate the Mass — a good word we rarely use for the Eucharist — by lifting up the cup of salvation, a cup containing the blood of the Passover Lamb. And we proclaim our redemption, a redemption not of the firstborn, but a redemption by the firstborn of all creation:
Alleluia! Christ our Passover has been sacrificed for us.
Therefore, let us keep the feast. Alleluia!
Then we are sent out into the world — priests and kings all — to fulfill our divine vocation: to love and serve as faithful witnesses of Christ our Lord, to whom with the Father and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory, now and for ever. Amen.
1. (c) 2004 O.I. (Mississippi Abbey, Dubuque, IA). The posted image was painted at the Mississippi Abbey and is available for purchase in several formats at the link provided as a caption to the image.