Thought for the day
Our Gospel today describes two very old people—Simeon and Anna—who are very attractive in their old age. They have lived prayerful lives of faith and, in particular, of hope and expectation. Being wise, they are people of discernment and they recognise the moment of grace, the coming of the Messiah. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to be like them in old age? The secret is to be now what we hope to be then. If we wish to be serene, wise, discerning, full of faith—then now is the time: See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation! (2 Cor 6:2)
Abba, Father, God of all time, you call us to become your children. Send your Holy Spirit into our hearts that we may live our faith serenely in the present moment and give us grace to recognise the time of your appearing. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.
Luke 2:22 Now when the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, Joseph and Mary brought Jesus up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord 23 (just as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male will be set apart to the Lord” ), 24 and to offer a sacrifice according to what is specified in the law of the Lord, a pair of doves or two young pigeons.
Luke 2:25 Now there was a man in Jerusalem named Simeon who was righteous and devout, looking for the restoration of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. 26 It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. 27 So Simeon, directed by the Spirit, came into the temple courts, and when the parents brought in the child Jesus to do for him what was customary according to the law, 28 Simeon took him in his arms and blessed God, saying,
29 “Now, according to your word, Sovereign Lord, permit your servant to depart in peace.
30 For my eyes have seen your salvation
31 that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples:
32 a light,
for revelation to the Gentiles,
and for glory to your people Israel.”
Luke 2:33 So the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was said about him. 34 Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “Listen carefully: This child is destined to be the cause of the falling and rising of many in Israel and to be a sign that will be rejected. 35 Indeed, as a result of him the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed —and a sword will pierce your own soul as well!”
Luke 2:36 There was also a prophetess, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was very old, having been married to her husband for seven years until his death. 37 She had lived as a widow since then for eighty-four years. She never left the temple, worshiping with fasting and prayer night and day. 38 At that moment, she came up to them and began to give thanks to God and to speak about the child to all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem.
Luke 2:39 So when Joseph and Mary had performed everything according to the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. 40 And the child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom, and the favor of God was upon him. made God known.
This story is also read for the Presentation (2 February), which used to be called the Purification, a word is still mentioned at the very start of the reading. The change of name reflects perhaps a sensitivity around the whole idea of purification after childbirth, called churching in the not so distant past. It would not at all be helpful to dwell too much on this, but it can be understood at least from the point of view of religious anthropology.
In pre-modern cultures, contact with the sacred or the Holy rendered one “impure”—not morally impure but ritually impure. The causes were various: contact with a corpse, any discharge of the fluids associated with procreation and, not least, childbirth itself. (a) In those days, the sacred was considered both life-giving and dangerous. You can see why. In the time before antibiotics and good hygiene, infant mortality was high and death in childbirth common. (b) The need to be “purified” acknowledged that the sacred has been encountered in the godlike action of childbirth.
Kind of writing
Perhaps it is good to recall again that the Infancy Gospels in both Matthew and Luke are always written with four lenses: the Hebrew Bible, history, Christology and ecclesiology. (i) Hebrew Bible: as we see, the anecdotes reflect Old Testament practices such as purification and circumcision. It is also the case here that Luke writes in the Greek of the Greek Old Testament, the Septuagint, creating an atmosphere of Old Testament piety and expectation in the figures of Mary and Joseph and Simeon and Anna. (ii) History: the purification of Mary and circumcision of Jesus are surely historical facts, even if no other early sources confirm them. (iii) Christology: the stories are written always in the light of the Resurrection. (iv) Ecclesiology: the writing reflects early Christian teaching about and exploration of the identity of Jesus, using Old Testament models and themes. The patterning of stories is clear in both Matthew and Luke.
Old Testament background
Throughout your generations every male among you shall be circumcised when he is eight days old, including the slave born in your house and the one bought with your money from any foreigner who is not of your offspring. (Gen 17:12)
On the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised. (Lev 12:3)
Consecrate to me all the firstborn; whatever is the first to open the womb among the Israelites, of human beings and animals, is mine. (Exod 13:2)
The first issue of the womb of all creatures, human and animal, which is offered to the Lord, shall be yours; but the firstborn of human beings you shall redeem, and the firstborn of unclean animals you shall redeem. Their redemption price, reckoned from one month of age, you shall fix at five shekels of silver, according to the shekel of the sanctuary (that is, twenty gerahs). (Num 18:15–16)
The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the people of Israel, saying: If a woman conceives and bears a male child, she shall be ceremonially unclean seven days; as at the time of her menstruation, she shall be unclean. On the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised. Her time of blood purification shall be thirty-three days; she shall not touch any holy thing, or come into the sanctuary, until the days of her purification are completed. If she bears a female child, she shall be unclean two weeks, as in her menstruation; her time of blood purification shall be sixty-six days. (Lev 12:1–5)
When the days of her purification are completed, whether for a son or for a daughter, she shall bring to the priest at the entrance of the tent of meeting a lamb in its first year for a burnt offering, and a pigeon or a turtledove for a sin offering. He shall offer it before the Lord, and make atonement on her behalf; then she shall be clean from her flow of blood. This is the law for her who bears a child, male or female. If she cannot afford a sheep, she shall take two turtledoves or two pigeons, one for a burnt offering and the other for a sin offering; and the priest shall make atonement on her behalf, and she shall be clean. (Lev 12:6–8)
New Testament foreground
Luke 1-2, in light of comments above.
But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God. (Gal 4:4–7)
Verses 22-24 There are three elements here: (a) purification—of the mother only, hence “their” is odd; (b) presentation of the child (not his redemption); offering of the child to God is along the lines of Samuel. The child is not ransomed but presented (see Exodus 13).
Verse 25-32 “Now” introduces the expected prophetic statement combining praise of God and an indication of the child’s destiny. The comfort or consolation is written is written with Is 40:1ff. in mind. The consolation of Israel is precisely in the Messiah of the Lord. Simeon models waiting of Israel for the coming Christ. In the hymn, to dismiss means to allow to die. The word salvation is rare in the NT (Luke 2:30; 3:6; Acts 28:28; Eph 6:17) and almost confined to the Lucan oeuvre. Light is the key metaphor here. We are perhaps meant to think of Isaiah: The Lord has bared his holy arm before the eyes of all the nations; and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God. (Is 52:10) The coming of the Messiah includes glory. Cf. I bring near my deliverance, it is not far off, and my salvation will not tarry; I will put salvation in Zion, for Israel my glory. (Is 46:13) In the Lord all the offspring of Israel shall triumph and glory. (Is 45:25)
Verses 33-35 There is a blessing for the parents, with a particular part addressed to Mary. Jesus’ ministry will have two effects: acceptance and rejection. Behind the language of falling may lie the much used metaphor of the stumbling block, found widely in the NT. The parenthesis in v. 35 here is as awkward in Greek as in English and may be editorial.
Verses 36-40 Considerable emphasis is placed on Anna’s advanced age and well attested piety. “At that very moment” is a frequent phrase in Luke 10:21; 12:12; 13:31; 20:19; 24:33 Acts 16:18; 22:13. To praise here comprises recognition, obedience and proclamation, all done in public. V. 40 is a second “conclusion” of sorts (cf. 1:80 and 2:52). The emphasis on growth, physical, spiritual and social, goes against a constant tendency in the tradition to underplay the very real humanity of Jesus.
Pointers for prayer
1. It was a day that started without any expectation of something unusual. It turned out to be a day with a meeting they would remember for a long time. Perhaps you have had significant meetings on what you expected to be just an ordinary day?
2. Simeon gave thanks because his eyes saw the salvation God had prepared. In what ways have you experienced God’s salvation in your life: an experience of being loved, or discovering a sense of purpose in life, or being touched by the wonders of creation? Give thanks for those memories.
3. Simeon also acknowledged that not all would accept the light that would shine through Jesus, and this rejection would be a cause of pain to Mary. It can be a source of pain to parents, teachers, church ministers, and all who work for others when some reject values, projects, advice which would be for their good. Even within ourselves we can be aware of division, at times being open to the light of God and at other times resisting it. Have you known the pain of that struggle? What has helped you to keep seeking the light of God in your life?
4. The final sentence speaks of Jesus as one who grew and became strong and was filled with wisdom. Recall times when you had a sense of growing up in some way. What brought that about? Think also of how you have seen growth in another person.
O God, you cradle us at the beginning of life and embrace us at our journey’s end, for you love us as your own. Bind our families together and deepen our faith, that, like the Holy Family of Nazareth, e may grow in wisdom, obedient to your word.
We ask this through Jesus Christ, your Word made flesh, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit in the splendour of eternal light, God for ever and ever. Amen.