This Sunday falls on February 2, so we celebrate the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple, the fourth joyful mystery of the rosary – and one of the more obscure ones. This feast teaches us two things: first, Jesus comes to fulfill the Old Testament; and second, it is precisely in that way that he comes very close to us.
“Suddenly there will come to the temple the LORD whom you seek.” The scene is the temple in Jerusalem. The faithful of Israel – never more than a remnant: not all of Israel, but the faithful are true Israelites – await the Lord, they long for “the messenger of the covenant,” the fulfiller of the Old Testament. (Covenant and testament translate the same word.)
Simeon “was righteous and devout, awaiting the consolation of Israel.” The “prophetess” Anna is one of the most obscure characters in the Bible – why is she in the story? But we know she is “of the tribe of Asher,” a true Israelite, and “she never left the temple, but worshiped night and day with fasting and prayer.” True Israelites, joyfully seeking God in his temple.
Mary and Joseph are true Israelites, too. “When the days were completed for their purification according to the law of Moses, Mary and Joseph took Jesus up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord, just as it is written in the law of the Lord.” They did everything “in according with the dictate in the law of the Lord”; at the end of the story, they returned to Nazareth “when they had fulfilled all the prescriptions of the law of the Lord.” Faithful Israelites, fulfilling the law of the Temple.
These are poor people. The law in question says, “if she be not able to bring a lamb, then she shall bring two turtledoves, or two young pigeons” (Lev. 12:8). Mary, of course, brings the true lamb, the richest sacrifice of all – but in material things, she is very poor. Notice the gentleness of the Law. It is not burdensome.
We sometimes have an image of this horrible law of the Old Testament. But the Jews who lived it did not find it horrible. They prayed, “The law of the LORD is perfect . . . . The jugments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether. More to be desired are they than gold, yea, than much fine gold: sweeter also than honey and the honeycomb” (Ps. 19). Sometime flip open the endless Psalm 119: every single verse (there are 176 verses) extols the goodness, the sweetness of God’s law.
The “purification” itself is a mercy. My wife and I appreciate this more every time we have a baby. After the birth of a baby, the woman was “unclean.” People assume this is a condemnation, a put down: women are yucky. But that isn’t what it says. “Unclean” simply means “she shall not come into the sanctuary” (Lev. 12:4). It means she should stay home from church, so to speak.
But that is the same thing our midwives tell us: not because they hate women, but because they love them, and respect them, and want to care for them. What we are talking about is an automatic dispensation for new mothers: stay home! Recover!
Once she is recovered, she and her husband make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Her reappearance is celebrated. She doesn’t just show up at synagogue one day. She is given a special ceremony.
And here is the most important thing. The new father and mother are given something to do. Far from unclean, they have a priestly task. Think of how powerful it would be, to bring your new baby, not just to your home parish (though that’s pretty exciting, too), but to the great temple in Jerusalem, to offer up a true sacrifice.
This is the point. The Law and the Temple provided for a very human religion, a religion that blesses the key moments of human life, a religion that binds together a people (so that these serendipitous meetings, like that of Mary and Joseph with Anna and Simeon are the norm), and makes allowance for human weakness while still allowing you real access to true worship. How beautiful is the Law of the Lord!
Jesus comes into that Law. He expands it to all people. In Simeon’s words, “the light for revelation to the Gentiles” is “the glory of his people Israel.” He does not destroy that very human religion, but invites us all into it. A truly merciful, inclusive high priest.
What human parts of our religion most excite you?