Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The Presentation of the Child Jesus in the Temple: Thoughts on the Sunday Readings

This Sunday hear the story of the Presentation of the Child Jesus in the Temple. For Catholics who pray the rosary, the story is familiar. However, it's meaning is often misconstrued or misinterpreted. For instance, some think the story is about Jesus' circumcision. That's inaccurate.

In the readings this Sunday the lectionary highlight the way the story points forward to the passion of Christ. Specifically, the episode is linked with Old Testament hopes for the renewal of the priesthood and the sacrificial worship of the cult.

By the way, I have written quite a bit on this. If you're interested in a fuller and more scholarly examination, I'd recommend by article, "The New Temple, the New Priesthood, and the New Cult in Luke-Acts", which appeared in the latest volume of the Letter & Spirit academic journal. You can read it for free here.

Without any further ado, here we go.

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.
As usual, the reading is far too rich for a short blog post to do justice to it. Here let us just highlight three ideas:

1. The Lord is coming to purify the temple. The Lord specifically announces that he is coming to the temple. His arrival is described in terms of a "refiner's fire". 

2. The Lord is coming to purify the priesthood. Specifically, the purpose of the Lord's advent is to purify the "sons of the Levi", the priestly tribe in ancient Israel. 

3. The Lord's coming will enable proper sacrifice. The coming of the Lord will bring about "due sacrifice to the LORD". The language suggests that such is not capable of being offered in the present condition. The reason for this seems to be that the priesthood needs to be purified. In other words, the Lord is coming to purify the priesthood so that it may offer the sacrifices God wills to be presented. 

RESPONSORIAL PSALM: Ps 24:7, 8, 9, 10
R. (8) Who is this king of glory? It is the Lord!
Lift up, O gates, your lintels;
reach up, you ancient portals,
that the king of glory may come in!
R. Who is this king of glory? It is the Lord!
Who is this king of glory?
The LORD, strong and mighty,
the LORD, mighty in battle.
R. Who is this king of glory? It is the Lord!
Lift up, O gates, your lintels;
reach up, you ancient portals,
that the king of glory may come in!
R. Who is this king of glory? It is the Lord!
Who is this king of glory?
The LORD of hosts; he is the king of glory.
R. Who is this king of glory? It is the Lord!
Following on the imagery of the first reading, it is appropriate that the Responsorial Psalm envisions the Lord coming to the temple. 

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 second reading highlights Christ's priesthood. Again, I'd like to draw out three ideas. 

1. Christ is a merciful high priest. Christ is, as we find elsewhere in Scripture, the one priestly mediator between God and man (cf. 1 Tim 2:5)

2. Christ's death serves as a sacrificial offering that saves us from sin and death. This is seen in two ways. First, by his death Christ has conquered the devil to "free those who through fear of death had been subject to slavery".  Second, Christ died to "expiate the sins of the people". Both terms seem related to the concept of "atonement". 

a. Liberty from slavery as atonement language
In Judaism sin was understood in terms of a debt. This conceptual matrix is clearly behind the language of the Lord's Prayer in the Gospel of Matthew; the petition "forgive us our debts" (Matt 6:12) is clearly about God forgiving us of our sins. Moreover, debt led to slavery. In the ancient world, if one could not pay off his or her debts one ended up being sold into servitude. This is specified by the Torah (cf. Lev. 25:39–55). See also 1 Kings 4:
Now the wife of one of the sons of the prophets cried to Elisha, “Your servant my husband is dead; and you know that your servant feared the Lord, but the creditor has come to take my two children to be his slaves. (2 Kings 4:1) 
Interestingly, then, the Jubilee Year, which involved the forgiveness of death and the freeing of indebted slaves, was announced on the Day of Atonement (cf. Lev. 25:9-10; cf. Lev. 23:27). For ancient Jews, the forgiveness of sins and the forgiveness of debts were inseparably linked.  
Much more could be said here. Significantly, Israel's exile was understood in terms of God selling Israel into slavery because of its debt of sin (e.g., Isa. 50:1: "Behold, for your iniquities you were sold. . ."). 
In sum, Christ's death has delivered his people from the bondage to due their sin. His death has paid the "ransom" price--i.e., he has "redeemed" us by his blood. The language is inseparably linked to atonement. 
Indeed, the in the Dead Sea Scrolls, "atonement" is specifically understood in terms of deliverance from the debt of sin and the Jubilee: 
". . . And liberty will be proclaimed for them, to free them from [the debt of] all their iniquities. And this [wil]l [happen] 7 in the first week of the jubilee which follows the ni[ne] jubilees. And the d[ay of aton]ement is the e[nd of] the tenth [ju]bilee 8 in which atonement shall be made for all the sons of [light and] for the men [of] the lot of Mel[chi]zedek. . . " (11QMelchizedek 2:6-8
It is perhaps worth mentioning that the Epistle to the Hebrews goes on to not only identify Christ's death as an atoning sacrifice but it also specifically identifies him as "a priest in the order of Melchizedek" (cf. Ps 110:4).
b. "Expiation" as a sacrifice of "atonement"
Christ's death is understood in terms of "expiation", in Greek, hilasmos, the word used to translate the Hebrew, kippūr, "atonement". The term is closely related to Israel's sacrificial cult and, in that context, refers to "atonement" sacrifices. See, for example, Num. 5:8, Ezek. 44:27; 2 Macc 3:33.   
Together with the language above about setting humanity free from slavery, the terminology reinforces the notion that Christ's death has served as a priestly sacrifice.  
3. As Christ was "tested", so too will believers be. Christ has paved the way ahead of believers. He has suffered but we shall as well. However, he is not unmerciful or compassionate towards them in their suffering for he endured suffering himself.

GOSPEL:  Luke 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.
I cannot possibly comment on every aspect of this passage. Let us just hit the following highlights.

1. Why did the Holy Family go to Jerusalem? According to the Old Testament, after a woman gave birth she was ritually unclean (cf. Lev. 12:1-5). In order to be purified a sacrifice was required (Lev. 12:6-8).

To be clear: ritual impurity did not necessarily involve "sin", though sin was a kind of impurity (cf. Klawans, Impurity and Sin in Ancient Judaism, 158). A woman was not a "sinner" because she had given birth. Without giving a long explanation, we can simply say here that the purity laws were essentially "symbolic".

Exactly how they were symbolic is debated. Three basic approaches might be mentioned here:

  • Jacob Milgrom has shown that things associated with "death" were linked with "impurity" (e.g., touching a corpse)(cf. Milgrom, Leviticus 1-16, 1002–3). The purity system thus underscores that God is the Lord of life. 
  • Another approach is that of Mary Douglas, who has tied purity to the idea of God's "order" and purpose in creation (e.g., creatures that depart from the norm, i.e., fish that do not have fins and scales, are unclean). 
  • The Church fathers made the case that the purity laws were given to Israel to teach them to reject the ways of the nations and to, in a sense, quarantine Israel from their neighbors. The more recent analysis offered by Jan Assmann would seem to support aspects of this theory (Moses the Egyptian).   

Without offering a long explanation, it seems to me that the laws had a multi-faceted purpose.

2. Luke seems hesitant to speak of Mary as "unclean". One fascinating aspect of the narrative is that even though Luke would have known that "impurity" was metaphorical in the case of childbirth and not related to sinfulness, he still seems uncomfortable identifying Mary with uncleanness. Rather than explain that the couple went up to Jerusalem to deal with her state of impurity after childbirth, Luke says that the time came for "their purification." Perhaps this hesitancy is due to Luke's previous narrative, which seems to identify Mary with the ark of the covenant. Go here for more on that:

3. Mary and Joseph are obedient to the law. Mary and Joseph do not seek a "way out". They do not look for loopholes (i.e., "I am the mother of the Messiah"). Here we see their great willingness to obey the Law of the Lord--giving us an example to follow!

4. Holy Family offers turtle doves, the offering of the poor (Lev. 12:8). The Holy Family is identified with the poor.

5. The meaning of "presentation". The precise language of Mary and Joseph "presenting" the child Jesus in the temple is significant. One level it recalls figures such as Samuel, who in the Old Testament were dedicated to God from their youth by their parents. However, there seems to be more than just a "dedication" going on here. The word translation “to present" is paristēmi. As Pope Benedict observed in volume 3 of his work, Jesus of Nazareth, the term is specifically used for "presenting" a "sacrifice". See Romans 12:1: "I appeal to you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present [paristēmi] your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship."

Jesus is in the temple as the sacrifice. Here Jesus' sacrificial death is anticipated. (For more on that Jesus' sacrificial death in Luke-Acts, see my Letter & Spirit article, for which there is a link above). 

5. The Piercing of the Messiah and His Mother. Mary is told that her soul will be pierced so that "the thoughts out of many hearts will be revealed" (Luke 2:35). Much could be said here. Suffice it to say, Mary is so closely united to her son that she will participate in his redemptive suffering.

Indeed, in this Mary is a model of all believers. St. Paul explains, "Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church. . ." (Col. 1:24)

6. Christ and the renewal of the priesthood. The story of the presentation reveals the fulfillment of what Malachi longed for: the arrival of God at his temple and the purification of the priesthood. Christ comes to the temple as the true priest, offering the true sacrifice, himself. He therefore brings about a renewal of the priesthood.

In fact, all believers have a share in that priesthood. By uniting ourselves with Christ and following Mary's example we offer our selves as a sacrifice to God, as Paul explains.


Anonymous said...

Thank you, Dr. Barber. Something I find interesting here is that the law in Leviticus calls for a lamb for the burnt offering and the pigeon and turtledove for the purification offering. OR, as you mentioned, if poor the pigeon and dove would suffice. While the Holy Family makes the offering appropriate for the poor, they still do not lack "presenting" a Lamb for sacrifice.

Anonymous said...

Nicely done, anonymous.

Michael Barber said...

Actually, it reads,
"And if she cannot afford a lamb, then she shall take two turtledoves or two young pigeons, one for a burnt offering and the other for a sin offering; and the priest shall make atonement for her, and she shall be clean.”

Anonymous said...

!agnus dei!

thank you again for your lectionary analyses - VERY helpful to me :)