Sunday 2 February 2020
The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple
Gospel Commentary
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Gospel
Luke 2:21   After eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.

Luke 2:22   When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord 23 (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”), 24 and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”

Luke 2:25   Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. 26 It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. 27 Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, 28 Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying,
29 “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
according to your word;
30 for my eyes have seen your salvation,
31 which 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   And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. 34 Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed 35 so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

Luke 2:36   There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, 37 then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. 38 At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.

Luke 2:39   When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. 40 The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.

Initial observations

This feast used to be called the Purification and this word is still mentioned at the very start of the reading (“to be purified” in the Jerusalem Bible). The change of name reflects perhaps a sensitivity around the whole idea of purification after childbirth, called churching in not so distant past. It would not be helpful to dwell too much on this, but it can be under-stood at least from the point of view of cultural anthropology.

In ancient cultures (and still today), contact with the sacred or the Holy rendered one “impure”—not morally impure, of course, but ritually impure. The causes were various: contact with a corpse, any discharge of the fluids associated with procreation and, not least, childbirth itself. Two specific comments may help. (a) In those days, the sacred was considered both life-giving and dangerous. You can see why. In the days before antibiotics and good hygiene, infant mortality was high and death in childbirth common. The need to be purified was a real acknowledgement that the sacred has been encountered (true to the experience of parents today). (b) As a result, both mother and child underwent a period of absence from the community and had to be integrated safely, so to speak, by means of certain rituals. Thus the dangerous contact with the sacred was rendered safe for them and for others. See below Leviticus 12.

In this way, sense can be made of certain cultural practices, common in many religions, including classical Judaism. There is no going back to churching, of course, not least because the devision of persons, places and times into sacred and profane no longer makes any sense after the incarnation. The Letter to the Hebrews is a great help deepening our understanding of the effects of the incarnation such as the rendering obsolete of practices like purification after 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 Old Testament, history, Christology and ecclesiology. (i) Old Testament: 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 from our experience of the previous texts.


Old Testament background

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. 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. (Leviticus 12:1–8)

Every firstborn male among your children you shall redeem. When in the future your child asks you, ‘What does this mean?’ you shall answer, ‘By strength of hand the Lord brought us out of Egypt, from the house of slavery. When Pharaoh stubbornly refused to let us go, the Lord killed all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from human firstborn to the firstborn of animals. Therefore I sacrifice to the Lord every male that first opens the womb, but every firstborn of my sons I redeem.’ (Ex 13:13-15)

Three times in the year you shall hold a festival for me. You shall observe the festival of unleavened bread; as I commanded you, you shall eat unleavened bread for seven days at the appointed time in the month of Abib, for in it you came out of Egypt. No one shall appear before me empty-handed. You shall observe the festival of harvest, of the first fruits of your labour, of what you sow in the field. You shall observe the festival of ingathering at the end of the year, when you gather in from the field the fruit of your labour. Three times in the year all your males shall appear before the Lord God. (Ex 23:14-17)



New Testament foreground

See all of Luke 1-2.

St Paul
See Galatians 4:4-7.


Brief commentary

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 along the lines of Samuel. The child is not ransomed but presented (see Ex 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 written with Is 40:1ff. in mind. The consolation of Israel is precisely in the Messiah of the Lord. Simeon models the waiting of Israel for the coming Christ. In the hymn, to dismiss means to allow to die. The word salvation is rare in the New Testament (Luke 2:30; 3:6; Acts 28:28; Eph 6:17) and almost confined to the Lucan writings. 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 New Testament. 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.







Prayer

Inspired by your Spirit, Lord, we gather in your temple to welcome your Son. Enlighten our minds and lay bare our inmost thoughts. Purify your people, and make us obedient to the demands of your law, so that we may mature in wisdom and grow to full stature in your grace. We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God for ever and ever. Amen.



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: As St Paul says: “See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!” (2 Cor 6:2)



Prayer

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.