Today we celebrate the Presentation of Baby Jesus in the Temple. The section of Luke 2 is complex, Luke has collapsed different Jewish practices into this brief story. Remember, blood belongs to God and in Torah it was declared that there was a forty day period during which a woman was ritually ‘impure’. This is why we celebrate on February 2, forty days after Christmas.
The Jewish Bible differentiates between the Holy and the mundane. Lev 10:10 says that Aaron and his priestly descendants are charged with the task of distinguish(ing) between the holy and the secular, and between the impure and the pure. “Tame” (impure, unclean, ritually) is not a moral condition, however, it is contagious. Bodily fluids, like blood, and skin conditions make up the majority of causes of tame and are difficult for us to comprehend. The Law declares that giving birth makes a woman impure, so Mary has shown up to make her sacrifice. (Luke wants us to see Jesus is raised in a faithful, Jewish home.) So while Mary is being purified, Jesus is being redeemed. Exodus 13 declares: Consecrate every first born for me. The first birth of every womb of the children of Israel, of a human and of an animla: it is Mine. This is later clarified as the males. Therefore God says, redeem every first born among your sons. The explanation for the practice is connected to the Exodus experience in Egypt and the slaying of the firstborns. This is why the firstborn animal is sacrificed and the firstborn son is redeemed. The cost is “five” of the local currency.
The rest of the story of these ancient practices is much involved. Briefly, it seems that the most ancient practice, predating the official religious cultic practices, was that the first born served as the family worship leaders. This task was later focused in the tribe of Levi. The Levites were the priests, but the parents were required to pay a price, to redeem their son. Hence, Mary and Joseph comply.
The first fruits are offered to God as a reminder that ALL THINGS are His. It is a “return” and act of gratitude. It is about rightly ordering life and reminding ourselves that God is not on the fringe of life. We instinctively recoil at the idea that God is to be The Center. Yes, even we, who practice our faith, continue to treat God as a valuable resource, but manage to keep Him at arm’s length so He does not impinge too much on our daily life--that spirit of rebellion rules us all. And, if reluctant to give our own lives to God, we find it equally difficult to hand over our children. “Love God,” we say, but we want them ‘to be happy.’ God, we know, is not in the happiness business. So we would gladly pay the redemption price if it meant that our children could escape God’s priestly service.
Ironically, Mary and Joseph fail. The redemption payment does not purchase Jesus’ freedom. As Simeon and Anna declare, prophetically, Jesus IS the Redemption of Israel and the World. He cannot evade His priestly calling. He will make the atoning sacrifice; He is priest and lamb….
You and I are called to be Simeon and Anna. We are called to pray and wait. Like Anna we must tell people about Jesus. We have to sing God’s praise like Simeon. Like them, we are to be ‘people of the Temple,’ people who live our lives centered in the Holy Space—not literally physically living in this sanctuary, but spiritually. This is where our heart belongs, here, in God’s house with God’s people….Wherever our bodies might be, our hearts are here.
And speaking of hearts, we do well to be like Mary. Filled with awe and wonder at the prophets’ reaction to her baby boy, she receives the kind of message reserved for all those who love God and are called to service by Him. “Your son,” she hears, “will be a cause of division. He will cause some to rise and others to fall.” Division: the twin desires, to obey God or to obey one’s self cause a war. It rages within us and it rages in our world. Jesus demands a choice: confronted with His person we must say “Yes,” or forever be swept away into the competing Kingdom, a kingdom of self-seeking and darkness. Jesus is THE LIGHT, but it is a light discerned only by those who, like Anna and Simeon, are looking for it.
No mother wants to hear such things about her baby son, yet Mary did. More graphically, she was told a sword would pierce her own heart... and, it did. Some would hold Mary in contempt, minimizing her role (because others erroneously over emphasize her). But we do well to hear God’s word and to understand that Mary is not just one more person. She is His mother and that connection, as any good mother will tell you, is not ‘just another relationship.’ Mary stood at the cross and I declare without doubt that she was emotionally crucified with Him. Who can doubt that? Who can doubt that a mother would feel each blow of the whip, each thorn in the crown, each nail in His flesh, each agonized breath as He slowly died, the Lamb of God and the Great High Priest who did not get redeemed from His vocation—but redeemed us all.
So, like her, we must offer our children and ourselves to God. No holding back. Like Anna and Simeon we must pray and hope and wait for the salvation of God. We must also announce the Savior is Jesus to a dark and weary world. And we must be, like Mary, willing to suffer and die with the Savior for that redemption for which we long….amen