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Thursday, 30 January 2020

The Presentation of the Lord 2020


(Mal. 3:1-4; Hebrews 2:14-18; Luke 2:22-40)

There are a few things we should note about St. Luke’s gospel account of Mary and Joseph bringing the Child Jesus to the Temple in Jerusalem.  First of all, since it was not necessary for them to bring the Child to the Temple, why did they choose to do so?  Secondly, Luke tells us that:

When the days were completed for their purification according to the law of Moses, they took Him 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,”

However, the Law prescribes that the firstborn of man should be ‘redeemed’, not ‘presented’:

You shall dedicate to the LORD every newborn that opens the womb, and every first-born male of your animals will belong to the LORD.  Every human firstborn of your sons you must redeem. (Exodus 13:12-13)

The price of redemption was five Temple shekels, the money going towards the upkeep of the Temple worship and the support of the priests of Levi who had no land in Israel in order to be totally devoted to the worship of the Lord.  Since no redemption price was paid for Jesus -- only the sacrificial offering of a pair of turtle doves for Mary’s purification according to the Law -- there is no question of Mary’s first-born Son being bought back, redeemed, as the Law laid down, and that is why Luke changed the wording of the Law and spoke of Mary and Joseph presenting the infant Jesus to the Lord.   That very presentation -- doing something unique for this unique Gift from God -- was the reason for their bringing the Child to the Temple in Jerusalem: in the mind of Mary there was no question of ‘redeeming’ -- buying Him back -- from God, on the contrary, in acknowledgement of His ‘gifting’ to her (and to us) by God, Mary was, of her own initiative and  free will, bringing Him to God’s Temple in order in order to present Him to His Father: to offer Him along with the childhood-long years of her own worshipful service of maternal love, cherishing, and teaching, to present Him to His Father, God, for God‘s purposes on earth:

They took Him up to Jerusalem to present Him to the Lord (just as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every male who opens the womb shall be consecrated to the Lord” ), and to offer (for Mary’s purification) the sacrifice of “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons” in accordance with the dictate of the law of the Lord.

Just as Samuel had been given to the Lord in the old Temple of Shiloh by his mother Hannah in thanksgiving that the opprobrium of childlessness had been taken from her, so here Jesus is presented by Mary to the Lord in the Temple at Jerusalem.   He was consecrated to the Father before His birth on earth and in His birth; here His Mother acknowledges God’s claim on her human Son and, yielding her own claims upon Him, presents Him to His Father in the Temple, with a sense of gratitude immeasurably greater than that of Hannah (Lk:46-48):

Mary said: "My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my saviour.   For He has looked upon His handmaid’s lowliness.”

See how wonderfully that holy Mother co-operates with her Son in the work of our salvation!  At this, her very first opportunity, Mary does what her Son cannot yet Himself physically do: for, graciously aware of the depths of her own lowliness she offers Him – out of heart-felt personal gratitude and with wondrous sensitivity to the working of the Spirit of the Son within her -- to His Father of Whom we are told in the letter to the Hebrews (10: 5-7):

For this reason, when He came into the world, He said: “Sacrifice and offering You did not desire, but a body You prepared for Me; holocausts and sin offerings You took no delight in.  Then I said, ‘As is written of Me in the scroll, Behold, I come to do Your will, O God.’”

Here Mary is shown as the perfect realization of the ‘daughter of Sion’, following in the steps of Abraham, who, when leading his son Isaac on the way to sacrifice on Mount Zion, said (Genesis 22:8):

            My son, God will provide for Himself the sheep for the burnt offering.

Abraham became the father of Israel and indeed our father in faith because he had been willing and prepared to sacrifice his only, beloved, son Isaac, in obedience to God.  However, at the point of sacrifice, the Lord intervened and said:

Do not stretch out your hand against the lad, and do nothing to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from Me.  (Genesis 22:12)

Isaac was not the lamb of God, nor was Abraham‘s obedient -- though heavy -- heart a full foreshadowing of the future.  For, when the old covenant was come to its fulfilment, Mary, the supreme daughter of Abraham was offering, presenting, her Son entirely to God His Father with a most wonderfully grateful and rejoicing heart:

Mary said: "My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my saviour.

The New Covenant was at hand, and this Presentation of the Infant Jesus is the very first fully, purely, Christian act, Christian sacrificial act … Mary offering her Son to His Father for His, indeed soon to be, both Their, purpose(s).  As the annotators of the of ‘The Jewish Annotated New Testament’ make perfectly clear, “no law prescribes this presentation, presenting children at the Temple is not a recognized custom”. 

It is true that Mary did not as yet know what would be asked of her: she did not foresee the Crucifixion.  Nevertheless, her offering to God was given in total faith and sincerity, complete trust and self-abandonment.  Therefore, having presented Him to the Lord, she was not called to leave Him in the Temple as Hannah had done with Samuel.  Samuel had been left with Eli the high priest; here, there was none worthy to bring up Jesus save Mary His immaculate mother, and therefore He went back with her to Nazareth and began learning, as we are told:

To grow and become strong, increasing in wisdom; with the grace of God upon Him.

God accepted at the Presentation Mary’s offering of her Son, as an implicitly sacrificial, TOTALLY CHRISTIAN offering made under the supreme guidance and sublime inspiration of the Spirit of her Son, the Holy Spirit of Truth and of Love, already working fully, freely, and unrestrainedly, in her.  In the subsequent hidden years of life in Nazareth she helped her Son become a man before God:

           He had to be made like His brethren in all things, so that He might become a             merciful and faithful high priest. (Hebrews 2:17)

Unbeknown to Mary, the Spirit of her Son was already leading her, preparing her, for the time when He would leave her, first of all to enter upon His public mission, and when, finally, He would be taken from her in the Crucifixion.  This preparation began to be revealed to Mary almost immediately after she had presented her Son in the Temple, for the prophet Simeon came upon the scene and said to her:

Behold, this Child is appointed for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and for a sign to be opposed -- and a sword will pierce even your own soul -- to the end that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.

And we can glimpse how gently God would lead her over the years ahead, for, lest those words of Simeon should hang around in her memory like some small but threatening cloud on the distant horizon, the prophetess Anna came shortly after Simeon with a paean of praise for the Child and for God:

             She began giving thanks to God, and continued to speak of (the Child) to all                 those who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.

It was with such mysterious words of wonder, joy, and hope that Mary and Joseph:

            returned to Galilee, to their own city of Nazareth.

The work of our redemption was beginning with God and man, One in Jesus; and with Mary co-operating in wondrous responsiveness to the Spirit, both in the birth, and now in the Presentation, of her Son.  This presentation of her Son by Mary was no blind gesture, rather it was the occasion when she seized with both hands a blessing offered her by God, affirming it most solemnly in the Temple at Jerusalem; and then, over the subsequent thirty years,  confirming it by her daily humble faith and prayerful trust under the guidance of God’s Holy Spirit as He prepared her to be able to fully and finally live out the offering she had so spontaneously and whole-heartedly made in the Temple.

It is frequently like that with us, People of God.  We can be called, invited, to respond to God with decisive self-commitment, and that moment is not the time to want to think out, anticipate and foresee, all that might result from such an invitation.   God wants our response of humble trust and total commitment; for He Himself will enable us to carry out what He has encouraged and invited us to take on.  Mary was totally pure, and that does not simply mean sin-less, it also means totally self-less before God, totally unselfish in her response to His will … God often wants to find something of that purity in us her children too.