Feb 2, 2020: Feast of the Presentation of the Lord (ABC)

Introduction

Today the Church celebrates our Lord’s presentation to God on the fortieth day after his birth, in obedience to the Jewish Law. Although the Christmas season ended with the feast of the Epiphany, today’s feast recalls some of the themes of Christmas.  In this way, it serves as a kind of hinge or transition between the seasons of Christmas and Lent.

As with a few other important solemnities, when the date of this feast (February 2) falls on a Sunday, it takes precedence over the usual Sunday liturgy (in this year’s case, today would have been the 4th Sunday in Ordinary Time).

1st Reading – Malachi 3:1-4

Thus says the Lord God:
Lo, I am sending my messenger
to prepare the way before me;
And suddenly there will come to the temple
the LORD whom you seek,
And the messenger of the covenant whom you desire.
Yes, he is coming, says the LORD of hosts.
But who will endure the day of his coming?
And who can stand when he appears?
For he is like the refiner’s fire,
or like the fuller’s lye.
He will sit refining and purifying silver,
and he will purify the sons of Levi,
Refining them like gold or like silver
that they may offer due sacrifice to the LORD.
Then the sacrifice of Judah and Jerusalem
will please the LORD,
as in the days of old, as in years gone by.

The words of the prophet Malachi were originally addressed to the exiles who had returned to the holy land after the Babylonian exile. The prophet was extremely critical of the way the people were living their lives and called for reform.

In today’s reading, Malachi is warning the people that they should reform because the day of the Lord is coming.

Thus says the Lord God: Lo, I am sending my messenger

The Hebrew name mal’ākî, from which the title of the book comes, means “my messenger.”  Commentators are not in agreement about the identity of the messenger in this particular passage, but later in this chapter (verse 23), this messenger is called Elijah.  

However, the role this messenger will play seems to be more significant to the author than his identity.

to prepare the way before me;

The messenger will precede God and prepare the way that he will use for his coming — a very common custom for the coming of a dignitary, then and now.

In Matthew 11:10, these words are quoted by Christ as referring to John the Baptist, who prepared the way for the coming of the Savior. 

And suddenly there will come to the temple the LORD whom you seek, and the messenger of the covenant whom you desire.

In the Bible, it is very common for the coming of God to be delayed, and the faithful to be instructed in the ways of patience.  This is not the case here; we are told the messenger will come suddenly, almost in an ominous way, as if the people will not have a chance to adequately prepare.

Moreover, the messenger’s destination is very specific; he will come to the Temple.

Note that biblical translations may not always indicate that the word used here for “Lord” is ādôn, a common word that can refer to anyone whose status commands respect.  “The Lord whom you seek” who will appear in the Temple, then, is understood as the messenger, not as the Lord of hosts.

Yes, he is coming, says the LORD of hosts. But who will endure the day of his coming? And who can stand when he appears?

Malachi warns the people that they will be held accountable. Since fidelity to the covenant is the standard by which the people are judged, it will be the character of their fidelity that determines whether they will be rewarded or punished by the messenger.

For he is like the refiner’s fire,

Gold and silver are purified by melting them and allowing the impurities to float to the surface (see Zechariah 13:9).

or like the fuller’s lye.

A fuller is a worker who makes woolen cloth by cleansing wool of oils, dirt, and other impurities, and making it thicker.  Lye is used by fullers to whiten the wool.

He will sit refining and purifying silver, and he will purify the sons of Levi, Refining them like gold or like silver that they may offer due sacrifice to the LORD. 

Judgment is passed on the priests, the sons of Levi.  The searing punishment as described by the preceding metaphors is among the harshest described in the Bible.

Note that the priests will be purified, not destroyed.

Then the sacrifice of Judah and Jerusalem will please the LORD, as in days of old, as in years gone by.

The purification, overseen by God’s messenger, will transform the priests, making them once again worthy to offer sacrifice.  The reading ends on a note of hope: the sacrifice of the people, offered at the hands of these purified priests, will be pleasing to God once more.

2nd Reading – Hebrews 2:14-18

Since the children share in blood and flesh,
Jesus likewise shared in them,
that through death he might destroy the one
who has the power of death, that is, the Devil,
and free those who through fear of death
had been subject to slavery all their life.
Surely he did not help angels
but rather the descendants of Abraham;
therefore, he had to become like his brothers and sisters
in every way,
that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest before God
to expiate the sins of the people.
Because he himself was tested through what he suffered,
he is able to help those who are being tested.

The author of Hebrews is unknown, which is why it is placed between Paul’s writings and those of John. It was ascribed to Paul as early as the end of the 2nd century in the church of Alexandria, but Tertullian (155-240 AD) ascribes it to Barnabas.

When we think of Jesus as high priest, we generally think of him as powerful and majestic.  In today’s reading, the author of the letter to the Hebrews invites us to focus on Jesus’ humanity.

Since the children share in blood and flesh, Jesus likewise shared in them,

Jesus is one with all men and women because he fully entered into the human existence, idiomatically referred to here as flesh (sárx) and blood (haíma).  He did not merely appear to be human, as some through the centuries have suggested — he was a genuine human.

that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, 

It was necessary that Jesus be fully human because if he was to conquer death, he would first have to be subject to it.  Only under such circumstances would his victory have any power over the lives of others.  One expects God to be triumphant over death, but one would never expect someone subject to mortality to have such power.

that is, the Devil,

According to this author, it is the devil who tempts human beings into sin.  Having done so, he then acts as an accuser, demanding that a just punishment be exacted (see Revelation 12:10); and “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23; 1 Corinthians 15:56).

The author draws lines of conflict between Jesus, who has the power of life, and the devil, who holds the power of death.  In vanquishing death, Jesus has neutralized the power of the devil.

and free those who through fear of death had been subject to slavery all their life.

This isn’t the natural fear we have of dying, but rather the erroneous conception that at death, man’s relations with God were severed (Isaiah 38:18; Psalm 115:17-18). Because of Jesus’ death and resurrection, the nature of death was changed; heaven was opened and death became a means of passage into a new everlasting life.

Surely he did not help angels but rather the descendants of Abraham;

Jesus’ death did nothing to benefit the angels — not because they didn’t need his help, but because he was not one of them.  He did not share physical solidarity with them as he did with human beings.

The author refers to the human race as the descendants of Abraham, a possible reference to Isaiah 41:8–14, where Israel is called “offspring of Abraham,” whom the Lord will “hold” and whom he “helps.”

It’s also possible that this reference would have been seen in light of God’s covenant with Abraham in Genesis 22:18, wherein God promised worldwide blessing to his descendants. If so, Christ’s sacrifice can be seen as a fulfillment of this covenant.

therefore, he had to become like his brothers in every way, that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest before God 

As high priest, Jesus is described as merciful and faithful. He is merciful because he had been tested in every way as we are, and knows intimately what it is to suffer; he is faithful for having responded to every test in perfect obedience, without sin — and therefore worthy to offer himself as the unblemished sacrifice.

to expiate the sins of the people.

Christ bore God’s wrath and curse that rested on “the people,” the ones who sinned.

Gospel – Luke 2:22-40

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,
just as it is written in the law of the Lord,
Every male that opens the womb shall be consecrated to the Lord,
and to offer the sacrifice of
a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons,
in accordance with the dictate in the law of the Lord. 

Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon.
This man was righteous and devout,
awaiting the consolation of Israel,
and the Holy Spirit was upon him.
It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit
that he should not see death
before he had seen the Christ of the Lord. 
He came in the Spirit into the temple;
and when the parents brought in the child Jesus
to perform the custom of the law in regard to him,
he took him into his arms and blessed God, saying:

“Now, Master, you may let your servant go 
in peace, according to your word,
for my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you prepared in the sight of all the peoples:
a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and glory for your people Israel.”

The child’s father and mother were amazed at what was said about him;
and Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother,
“Behold, this child is destined
for the fall and rise of many in Israel,
and to be a sign that will be contradicted
—and you yourself a sword will pierce—
so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.”
There was also a prophetess, Anna,
the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher.
She was advanced in years,
having lived seven years with her husband after her marriage,
and then as a widow until she was eighty-four.
She never left the temple,
but worshiped night and day with fasting and prayer.
And coming forward at that very time,
she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child
to all who were awaiting the redemption of Jerusalem.

When they had fulfilled all the prescriptions
of the law of the Lord,
they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth.
The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom;
and the favor of God was upon him.

Only in Luke’s gospel do we read the beautiful story of Jesus’ presentation in the temple and of the witness of Simeon and Anna. It is a celebration of piety: the piety of Mary and Joseph, of Simeon, and of Anna.  It stresses the holy family’s strict obedience to the Law of Moses.  In fact, the author will declare five times in this passage that the parents of Jesus conformed to the ritual prescriptions of the law (verses 22, 23, 24, 27, and 39).

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,

Just as they had complied with the imperial decree to be enrolled in the census (Luke 2:1-5), so now Mary and Joseph observe the religious requirements of purification (Leviticus 12:1-8) and redemption of the firstborn (Exodus 12:2, 12), which was prescribed by Mosaic law to occur forty days after the birth.

The purification requirement sprang from the belief that blood was a source of life-power and belonged to God.  Therefore, blood was to be kept separate from the secular activities of life.  When this separation was not possible, as during a birth or death, the people and objects that came into contact with the blood were considered ceremonially unclean for a period of time. It is this period of time that Luke says has been fulfilled as the reading begins.

just as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every male that opens the womb shall be consecrated to the Lord,” and to offer the sacrifice of “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons,” in accordance with the dictate in the law of the Lord.

The sacrificial offering during the presentation was a way of reclaiming the firstborn male child, who they believed really belonged to God.  Buying back the child, as prescribed in Numbers 18:15-16) was a way of formally acknowledging God’s initial claim.

The requisite offering was a lamb plus a dove or pigeon; if the parents were poor, the offering would be two doves or pigeons.  Note that Mary and Joseph gave the offering of the poor.

Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon.  

Simeon is the Hebrew form of Simon.  The name means “He [Yahweh] has heard.”

This man was righteous and devout, awaiting the consolation of Israel,

Probably a reference to the time of messianic fulfillment.  “The consolation of Israel” can also be considered a messianic title.

and the Holy Spirit was upon him.

Like the prophets of ancient Israel, he had been seized by the Spirit of God (see Isaiah 61:1).  

It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he should not see death before he had seen the Messiah of the Lord. He came in the Spirit into the temple;

Note that Luke states three times that Simeon is under the direction of the Holy Spirit.

and when the parents brought in the child Jesus to perform the custom of the law in regard to him, he took him into his arms and blessed God, saying: “Now, Master, you may let your servant go in peace, according to our word, for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you prepared in sight of all the peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and glory for your people Israel.”

Simeon recognizes the child Jesus as the object of his longing, the one who was both the glory of Israel and the light for the rest of the world.

Luke’s gospel does not include Matthew’s story of the wise men coming to offer Jesus homage. However, through Simeon’s words, Luke teaches the same thing: the salvation that Jesus offers is offered to the whole world. Jesus is a light of revelation not just for his own people, the Jews, but for all peoples.

It is ironic that Joseph and Mary have brought their son to be presented to God at the Temple, but in reality, through the words of Simeon, God is presenting his only-begotten son to men.

The child’s father and mother were amazed at what was said about him; and Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother,

This must have taken place in the outer court of the Temple, where women were allowed, for Simeon explicitly addresses Mary.  This was very unusual behavior, as men did not typically speak to women with whom they were unfamiliar, especially in public.

With the words that follow, Luke is foreshadowing Jesus’ passion and death.

“Behold, this child is destined for the fall and rise of many in Israel, 

Simeon continues by predicting the opposition that Jesus would inspire.  Some would accept him, others would not.  The pure goodness of the Messiah would force people to acknowledge their great sinfulness.

If the “fall and rising” applies to one group, then it means they must be humbled in repentance before they can rise into salvation. If it describes two groups, then it indicates that those who reject Jesus will fall eternally, but those who accept him will rise to a new life.

and to be a sign that will be contradicted and you yourself a sword will pierce

The rejection of her son will be like a sword in Mary’s heart.

so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.”

These words are enigmatic.  What the rejection of her son and corresponding pain to Mary has to do with the thoughts of others is not obvious.

Some scholars believe that the sword that will pierce Mary will be both a sword of suffering and a sword of discernment. Mary will suffer with Jesus. In addition, Mary, like every other person, will have a decision to make about Jesus. Her final closeness to Jesus will not be because she is biologically his mother but because she too has become his disciple.

There was also a prophetess, Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher.  She was advanced in years, having lived seven years with her husband after her marriage, and then as a widow until she was eighty-four. She never left the temple, but worshiped night and day with fasting and prayer. 

As is often the case in Luke’s gospel, a male figure is accompanied by a female figure. Anna the prophetess is old and a widow, constantly in the temple praying and fasting.

And coming forward at that very time, she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were awaiting the redemption of Jerusalem.

Anna probably witnessed the meeting with Simeon and heard what he said, for she is convinced of the identity of the child, and she proclaims this to all those who cherished messianic hopes.

Neither Simeon nor Anna were formal temple personnel, yet they were the ones who recognized the divine child.  This points to the fact that religious insight comes from fidelity and genuine devotion rather than official status or privileged role.  God and the ways of God are revealed to those who have open minds and open hearts.

When they had fulfilled all the prescriptions of the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.

The family returns to Nazareth to resume its unpretentious life, but it is not the same.  Even though the child grows up like other children, he is merely waiting for his time to come.

Connections and Themes

The Temple.  The Temple is not merely a building where believers gather to worship God.  It is sacred because it is the dwelling place of God on earth.  It symbolizes God’s presence among us.  The advent of God to the Temple was always a time of great anticipation and excitement, as it promised blessing and rejoicing.

Today’s readings hold a Christmas and a Lenten theme in balance.  In the gospel, the child Jesus is brought to the Temple to fulfill the requirements of redemption.  By right he belongs to God, since he opened his mother’s womb.  Here, for the price of two turtledoves, he will be redeemed and returned to his parents.  His willingness to submit to the religious traditions of his people adds a dimension of legitimation to these traditions that they had not previously enjoyed.  The child enters the Temple quietly, without fanfare, although this child is the king of glory, the strong and mighty one.  Simeon recognizes this, as does the prophetess Anna.  Do we recognize the Lord of the Temple in the unassuming? The poor? The vulnerable?

The scene depicted in the first reading is startling in its contrast.  It announces that God will indeed come to the Temple in might and power.  However, this advent will be terrifying.  God will not come to be purified but to purify with fire and lye.  The Temple has been violated; the sacred precincts have been desecrated.  Devotion to the Temple requires that it be cleansed and reconsecrated.  Only then will it be a suitable place for God to take up residence again.  This picture of purification is modified by the reading from the letter to the Hebrews.  There we wee that the purging and refinement are accomplished in the self-sacrifice of Christ.  He has expiated sin through the shedding of his blood (clearly a Lenten theme).  His death was the ultimate act of purification.

Universal salvation.  It took the eyes of an old man and the faith of an old woman to recognize that the Lord had indeed come into the Temple, in the person of the Christ-child.  These two had been waiting for his coming, as the world had waited for thousands of years (the Church marks this waiting during the season of Advent). Ritually it was the child who was redeemed, but in fact, it is the world that will be redeemed. Simeon proclaimed that this child will be the light that shines in the darkness of the world (clearly a Christmas theme) — a messiah that will enlighten all people, Jews and Gentiles alike.  The king of glory enters the world through a backwater nation, and as the letter to the Hebrews tells us, he opens the portals for the entire universe to enter.

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