Thursday, January 30, 2020

The Feast of the Presentation

We have a truly unusual situation this Sunday.  Under normal circumstances, it would be the Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time, but it just so happens that this year, the Feast of the Presentation (pegged to Feb. 2) falls on the Sunday and “outranks” the regular Lord’s Day obligation.  The result is that many persons who do not regularly attend daily mass will have the rare experience of celebrating the full liturgy for the Feast of the Presentation. 

The Readings for this Feast Day focus on the theme of the priesthood of Christ, seeing a kind of sacerdotal significance to this first entrance of the Messiah into the Temple.  These Readings prompt us to meditate firstly on how Jesus has served and continues to serve as our great High Priest, but also how his priesthood is lived out in our own lives, since we share in his priesthood by virtue of our Baptism.

1. The First Reading is Mal 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.

As the last of the Twelve, the Book of Malachi occupies a decisive position in shaping the interpretation the minor prophets.  Writing sometime between the ministries of Haggai and Zechariah (late 500s BC) and the reforms of Nehemiah (c 444 BC), Malachi was remembered in the Jewish and Christian traditions as the last of the classical writing prophets of the Old Covenant, and thus the one to give the final divine instructions to Israel as she awaited the “Day of the LORD” and the coming of the Messiah.

There is little doubt that the Book of Malachi was written during Judah’s “Persian Period” (537–334 BC).  The Second Temple seems to be reconstructed and functioning (Mal 1:6–2:9), which would place the ministry of Malachi after Haggai and Zechariah (i.e. <520 bc="" span="" style="mso-spacerun: yes;">  On the other hand, there is no mention of Nehemiah (c. 444-420 BC), and his reforms seem not to have been implemented yet, because mixed marriages with Gentiles (among other issues) are still a pressing problem (Mal 2:11; cf. Neh 13).  Therefore, Malachi is almost universally dated within 500-450 BC.  Those who are impressed with Malachi’s similarity in language and concepts with Haggai-Zechariah tend to date the book toward 500 BC, while those who place more weight on the similarity of social pathologies addressed in Malachi and Nehemiah tend toward 450 BC.
As is the case with some others of the Twelve (Joel, Obadiah, Habakkuk), the superscription of Malachi provides no other information about the prophet other than his name.  Moreover, since “malachi” means “my messenger” in Hebrew, it is not clear whether it is a personal name or a title.  The Septuagint, for example, translates the superscription: “The oracle of the word of the Lord to Israel by the hand of his angelos (=”angel” or “messenger”)” (Mal 1:1 LXX).  Therefore, some believe the book is anonymous, and “Malachi” is simply a title given to an unknown prophet.  St. Jerome endorsed a minor Jewish tradition that the unknown “messenger” was Ezra, but other minor Jewish traditions identified him with Zerubbabel or Nehemiah.  In more recent times, some scholars have proposed that Malachi was once the third of three sets of anonymous “oracles” (massā’) appended to the end of Zechariah: (1) Zech 9-11; (2) Zech 13-14, and (3) Mal 1-4.  According to this hypothesis, scribes later separated Malachi and made it an independent book in order to produce the round number of twelve minor prophets.  However, there is no textual evidence for this theory, and the literary character of Malachi—with its unique dialogues between God, the prophet, and the people—is singular and quite unlike anything in Zechariah.

The main stream of Jewish and Christian interpretation has understood “Malachi” as the name of the prophetic author, whether a given name or a “pen name.”  The book lends itself most naturally understood as recording, in abbreviated form, the prophet’s dialogical preaching and rebuke of the people of Judah (Mal 1:2–3:15) and Jerusalem in a specific time period (c. 500-450 BC), which resulted in a communal repentance on the part of the more religiously faithful members of the populace (Mal 3:16).  Thus, it appears to be rooted in the historical events of a prophet’s ministry, and not simply a literary creation.
Many scholars have noted that Malachi seems to employ the rhetoric of the legal court.  Some have suggested that the disputations are in the form of the covenant lawsuit or rîb, similar to Micah.  Covenant certainly is a dominating concept in Malachi, as the prophet mentions four of them: (1) the covenant with Levi (2:4-8); (2) with “our fathers” (2:10: Abrahamic?), (3) with one’s spouse in marriage (2:14); and (4) the covenant associated with a divine messenger (3:1: Mosaic?).  In general, we may say that the literary dynamic of Malachi presents the prophet as the “attorney” for the LORD, who is prosecuting Israel for various interrelated breeches of covenant.

The Oracle used for this Feast Day is mysterious and intriguing.  Malachi begins by saying, on behalf of God, “I will send my messenger to prepare the way before me.”  The word “messenger” can also mean “angel,” so we could understand this as “I will send my angel before me ….”  This idea of a preparatory angel recalls the experience of Israel in the Wilderness, where the Angel of the LORD lead them (Exod 14:19), or the conquest of the land, concerning which God promised his angel to precede the armies of Israel (Ex 23:20,23; 32:34).  The return of the Presence of the LORD will be like those great events of salvation history, a kind of “invasion” by the LORD.  In the context of the Gospel, this preparatory “angel” is John the Baptist, who has been dominating our thoughts during Advent, the Feast of the Baptism, and last week’s liturgy (2nd Week of Ordinary Time).  John was the “angel” who prepared for Jesus’ “invasion” of the Holy Land.  

Malachi goes on to say, “And suddenly there will come to the temple the LORD whom you seek, and the messenger of the covenant whom you desire ….”  These verses could be understood in poetic parallelism, such that “the LORD” and the “messenger of the covenant” are the same person.  Indeed, that is how it was fulfilled, as Jesus was both “the LORD” (the God of Israel) and also the “messenger of the covenant” when he entered the Temple.  Not only was he the “messenger” of the covenant, he was the covenant (Isa 42:6; 49:8), and would give his own body and blood (i.e. his very self) as a covenant to the Twelve in the Upper Room.  A covenant is a kinship bond established by an oath.  The oath-ritual Christ will institute for this covenant will be the eating of his body and blood.

Malachi goes on to warn his contemporaries that the arrival of the LORD in the Temple was not just an event of consolation, but was also a portent of judgment and purification of liturgical abuse.  “Who can endure the day of his coming?  He will purify the sons of Levi,” Malachi says.  This means: purify the priesthood of evildoers, and rectify liturgical abuses. 
There was priestly corruption and liturgical abuse in Malachi’s day, as we can see from reading his book.  Israelites were offering unfit animals in sacrifice, and the priests were permitting this to occur.  Likewise, in Our Lord’s day there were greatly priestly and liturgical abuses.  Although his visit to the Temple as an infant will not immediately confront these abuses, his visits to the Temple as an adult certainly would.  At least two Temple cleansings are recorded in the Gospels, one at the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry in John 2, and one at the beginning of Jesus’ Passion Week in the other three Gospels.  Personally, I believe Jesus had a public ministry of three or more years, and that he cleansed the Temple every time he entered Jerusalem (because the scammers moved back in every time he left). In Jesus’ lifetime, the High Priesthood was held by imposters without the right blood line, and the Court of the Gentiles was defiled by being turned into a religious bazaar for the exchange of currency and sale of sacrificial animals. 
Malachi says the LORD will “refine the sons of Levi” (i.e. the priests) so that they may “offer due sacrifice” to the LORD.  Jesus fulfills this by establishing a new order of priests, the Twelve, and teaching them how to offer the “due sacrifice” of the New Covenant, the thanksgiving sacrifice we call the Eucharist.  After showing them how to celebrate it, Jesus commissions the Twelve as new priests to replace the Levitical priests when he says, “Do this as my memorial [sacrifice]”. The entrance of the LORD into the Temple at the Presentation announces the beginning of a process that will culminate in the establishment of a New Temple (the mystical Body of Christ), a new Liturgy (the Eucharist and the other sacraments and their rites), and a new Priesthood (the apostles and those who succeed them) in the Upper Room.   

P.  Our Responsorial Psalm is Psalm 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!

Psalm 24 reflects an ancient procession ritual practiced in the Jerusalem Temple, the rubrics of which were never recorded.  I suspect that, very early in Israel’s history, the Ark of the Covenant was periodically removed from the Holy of Holies by the Levites and re-processed into the Holy City in a ceremony celebrating God’s kingship. Or, perhaps this Psalm reflects the time before the building of the Temple, when the Ark will periodically relocate to a new city in Israel, and be welcomed by the new host city.  The line about “the LORD mighty in battle” may recall times when the Ark of the Covenant would accompany Israel’s troops in warfare and return triumphantly.  Regardless, in the context of the Feast of the Presentation, we have both the New Ark (Mary) and the LORD Himself (Jesus) entering the Temple.  The idea of the lintels and the gates rising up to allow the “King of Glory” to enter is poetic hyperbole.  Sometimes in the ancient world, the imperial pallaquin of a great king was too large for the gates of the city which he was coming to visit, so the gates literally had to be dismantled and raised.  The concept of majesty is being described as extension in space.  Although Jesus is very small physically, his majesty cannot be contained by the Temple gates.  If Jesus’ glory was manifested in some physical form, it would be more than the earthly Temple could accommodate.  Moreover, Jesus enters as “the LORD mighty in battle,” invading the Promised Land—and indeed the earth itself—with his divine presence, preparing to do battle against sin, death, and the Devil, defeating them all on one day in Jerusalem 33 years later.  

2. Our Second Reading is Heb 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.

Amazingly, many of the themes from the First Reading and the Psalm continue into this reflection on Christ’s priesthood in the Epistle to the Hebrews.  The concept of Christ-as-Warrior is present here when Paul speaks of Jesus “destroying the one who has the power of death” and freeing those he has enslaved.  We also see Jesus “becoming like his brothers and sisters in every way,” as he, like any other male child born into an Israelite family, undergoes the ceremonial rituals that Moses prescribed for a sinful people—rituals from which he and his mother were should have been exempt, yet they humble themselves to submit to them.  Yet the humility of Jesus’ life of obedience under the Law of Moses—a Law given to a people who were hard of heart—prepared him to be a fitting High Priest for the New Covenant people.  He who submitted to animal sacrifices for his purification, would one day make his own body the ultimate sacrifice, purifying stains of sin no animal blood could expunge. 

G. Finally, our Gospel is Lk 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.

Luke is at pains to emphasize that the Holy Family was obedient to the law in humility, although they could have claimed special exemption from its demands.  This sets an example for us.  No Christian, no matter how gifted with charisms or elevated in clerical position, should ever think he is “above the law” of God.  Recent and continuing scandals have been the result of men thinking this, that their special status excused violations of the law or permitted them to indulge themselves in ways not lawful for other Christians.  But this is not the case.  No Christian, from the newly baptized infant to the Pope, is excused from the moral law or the proper rules for the celebration of the sacraments.  No one should take liberties with the laws of faith and morals or canon law in order to favor a person who holds some special status.  

Jesus also demonstrates here that he is a man of order and authority, not a rebel anarchist trying to destabilize the social or ecclesiastical order.  Although Jesus’ teaching can and does destabilize illegitimate systems of authority, it is not for the sake of anarchy but for the establishment of the order of Christ’s kingdom, governed by the Apostles and those who have received the succession of the priesthood from them. 
“Every male that opens the womb shall be consecrated to the LORD,”—this line reminds us of the original priesthood of Israel, in which the firstborn of every family was consecrated for priestly service.  This took place in the first Passover, through which all the firstborn of Israel were consecrated to God. “Consecration” in the Old Testament, in the context of a male human being, is usually a synonym for “ordination to priestly service.”  Jewish tradition, based on Scripture, is that the firstborn of Israel served as priests before being replaced by the Levites after the Golden Calf debacle.  Jesus is not from the tribe of Levi.  He is from the tribe of Judah, the patriarch to whom the rights of the firstborn fell after the cursing of his three older brothers.  Jesus, as firstborn of the royal family of the House of Judah, is a kind of firstborn of the people of Israel, and he will reclaim “the priesthood of the firstborn” lost at the Golden Calf.  

Interestingly, scholars note that nothing is said of Jesus’ “redemption” sacrifice in this episode.  Non-Levite Israelite firstborns were required to be redeemed, that is, “bought back” from God at the price of an animal sacrifice, and their natural place serving God in the sanctuary was filled by a Levite.  Nothing is said of Jesus’ redemption sacrifice—just as nothing is said of Samuel’s in the Old Testament (1 Sam 1-3), because Samuel was not redeemed but left at the Temple to serve.  (Interestingly, the story after the Presentation is one in which Jesus is left behind to serve in the Temple similar to Samuel of old, and Jesus is confused as to why Joseph and Mary return to get him ….) Is this because Jesus was not redeemed, or simply an oversight on Luke’s part? (The sacrifice of turtledoves mentioned is actually for the purification of the mother from ritual uncleanness, not for the redemption of the child.) We can’t know, but it does point toward the priestly status that Jesus enjoys.
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.

Jesus is recognized as a child marked by God for the fulfillment of sacred promises by the community of devout Israelites awaiting the fulfillment of the prophetic promises.  This community included groups like the Essenes, a holiness reform movement, but was not limited to them. Simeon comes forward and speaks of the child in language that is redolent of the diction of the prophet Isaiah— a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and glory for your people Israel—this is typically Isaianic, emphasizing that the salvation brought by the Messiah would not be limited to the Jews, but for all Israel and all nations.  The priesthood and liturgy that Jesus would establish would not be ethnic and would spread to all the nations of the earth. 

Painfully, Simeon speaks to the Blessed Mother: “a sword will pierce your own soul,” indicating her co-passion with her divine son and her extraordinary co-redeeming role, replicating in each one of us in a less singular manner.  Everyone attached to Christ will experience his cross, and as a lance pierced his heart, a “sword” will pierce each one of us, an interior agony caused by the love of God flowing through us being rejected by the world around us.  And so we are reminded that the priesthood of Christ, foreshadowed by his entrance into the Temple as a child, necessarily involves suffering and self-immolation, since he is not just priest but also victim.  We share these roles as his mystical body.  On this Feast of the Presentation, let’s plead with Christ for more of his strength through the Holy Spirit to be communicated to us, that we may endure the sufferings of this present life as we share in his atoning priesthood for the sake of the salvation of all the nations.  

Would you like to come with me to visit the Temple Mount  and the other holy sites of the Gospels?  I'm leading a pilgrimage with my former student and now Father Mark Bentz of St. Alice Parish (Springfield, Oregon) this June 14-23, 2020.  We got a second bus and now have extra room for latecomers, so sign up today at!

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