Luke 2: 22 – 40 Jesus presented in the temple
When the time came for the purification rites required by the Law of Moses, Joseph and Mary took him to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, ‘Every firstborn male is to be consecrated to the Lord), and to offer a sacrifice in keeping with what is said in the Law of the Lord: ‘a pair of doves or two young pigeons’.
Now there was a man in Jerusalem called Simeon, who was righteous and devout. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Moved by the Spirit, he went into the temple courts. When the parents brought in the child Jesus to do for him what the custom of the Lord required, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying:
‘Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you may now dismiss your servant in peace. For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all nations: a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel.’
The child’s father and mother marvelled at was said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, his mother: ‘This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.’
There was also a prophet, Anna, the daughter of Penuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was very old; She had lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, and then was a widow until she was eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshipped night and day, fasting and praying. Coming up to them at that very moment, she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem.
When Joseph and Mary had done everything required by the Law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee to their own town of Nazareth. And the child grew and became strong; he was filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was on him.
* * *
I hope you’ll forgive me for today’s thoughts; they’re rather muddled. I’m not feeling much joy in my faith today – more a sense of the need to persist in the journey.
As I read the passage, my first thought was to check that the story could have happened as St Luke says. How far is it from Bethlehem to Jerusalem? It’s about five miles, so, yes, easily within a day’s walking distance.
Then I checked the sacrifice that Mary would have needed to offer for her purification after childbirth, which is itemised in Leviticus 12: 6 – 8. Verse 6 says that she is to bring a year-old lamb for a burnt offering and a young pigeon or a dove for a sin offering. But verse 8 says “But if she cannot afford a lamb, she is to bring two doves or two young pigeons, one for a burnt offering and the other for a sin offering”. From this we can see that Mary and Joseph were poor.
Then we have the story of Simeon. Moved by the Holy Spirit, he goes to the temple courts, where he is led to Mary and Joseph and the infant Jesus. He then prophesies. To me, the surprising aspect of his prophecy is that he identifies Jesus not as the Messiah but as God’s salvation, who is to be a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of God’s people Israel. In other words, Simeon doesn’t describe Jesus as a king who will rescue Israel, but as a light of revelation for the whole world. And he does this well before the ministries of John the Baptist and Jesus.
This slant on the prophecy may, of course, come from St Luke, who is writing with knowledge of the mission of the early church, and the way it spread to the Gentiles. But I have no difficulty accepting that it could have happened exactly as described. That fits entirely with my own experience of God’s prompting. It can be very specific and very powerful.
Finally, there’s the question of the provenance of this part of the gospel narrative. It reads as though St Luke had access to the memories of Mary, Jesus’ mother. This poses a slight difficulty.
Mary would have been born no later than 18 B.C. St Luke probably wrote his gospel no earlier than 90 A.D. That would be like me writing a narrative now, in 2020, based on the memories of someone who was born in 1912. Yes, we certainly could have met and spent time together, perhaps in the 1970s or 1980s, but how accurate would my memory be recounting what I had been told some 40 – 50 years earlier? And that’s assuming that Mary lived to be an old woman, and that St Luke was quite elderly when he wrote his gospel.
I think it could have happened like that, but that is a statement of faith, not of reason, nor of any historical evidence whatsoever.
It is perhaps more surprising that Mary is mentioned at all. St Luke actually tells us details about how she felt, as in verse 19, for example, ‘But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.’ Writings of that period seldom considered the feelings of women. I wonder whether this is the start of the movement in which women become spiritually equal to men?
You are great, and you have created a wonderful world. To bring your world to perfection, you sent Jesus. Thank you for the many witnesses to his life; thank you that he is your salvation, a light for revelation to the Gentiles.
In Jesus name, Amen.