The Presentation and the Heart of Mary

van der weyden presentationAnother day late, I would like to offer a meditation on the Feast of the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple. The Presentation points us to the heart of Mary – most immediately, for two reasons.

First, it is here that we get the prophecy, “and your own soul a sword shall pierce”: Simeon points us forward, and tells us that Mary has her own kind of share in the suffering of Christ.

Second, the Presentation is of course the fourth joyful mystery of the rosary – and for many, I think, one of the most baffling. What are we supposed to learn from this mystery? It seems a shame to let this feast pass without taking a stab.

(I recently read a Catholic giving the advice that we need real, personal prayer – “not just the rosary,” he said. Well, if we pray the rosary badly, with our lips and not our hearts, then we certainly need more. If we pray it well, “with our minds in harmony with our voices,” as the Rule of St. Benedict tells us to pray the Psalms, we find in the rosary the great revelation of Jesus Christ – and, at the same time, the great revelation of the heart of Mary, which reveals the true depths of our own hearts. There is nothing more Christ-centered or more “personal” than a rosary well-prayed. So today, let us consider the riches of this obscure mystery.)


The first point about the Presentation is sacrifice: they came “to offer the sacrifice of a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons, in accordance with the dictate in the law of the Lord.”

Luke is quoting Leviticus 12, which says, “two turtledoves or two pigeons, one for a burnt offering and the other for a sin offering.” A holocaust is burned entirely, a sign of worship, an acknowledgement that all we have comes from God and is meant to lead us to God. The sin offering is not burned entirely – part is saved for the priest to eat – as a sign, on the one hand, that we are incapable of worshiping God properly without help, but on the other hand, that we are purified through worship.

But sacrifice is about the heart: it is not the doves God wants, it is Mary’s heart. Indeed, what Leviticus 12 first says is, “if she cannot afford a lamb, then she shall take two turtledoves or two pigeons.” The Old Testament always makes provision for the poor. The point is, it doesn’t matter to God whether it’s a lamb or a turtledove or whatever: what is important to him is the worship that is offered, in the hearts of his people, through these sacred signs.

In fact, whether lamb or dove, they are only symbols of offering the child himself. God doesn’t want us to kill our children – but he does want us to worship through them.


That leads to the meaning of this child, the Christ, “the consolation,” or “calling near,” “of Israel,” that Simeon awaits; the “salvation,” the “light for revelation,” the “glory” that Simeon proclaims; the “redemption of Jerusalem” that Anna proclaims.

“Behold, this child is destined for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be contradicted —and you yourself [literally: your soul] a sword will pierce— so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.”

Jesus is redemption. But here in the Temple, when he is first offered as sacrifice, he is “for the fall” as well as the “rise . . . a sign that will be contradicted.” Jesus, says our reading from Hebrews, will be “tested through what he suffered,” and so will we.

Like every sacrifice, Jesus reveals what is in our hearts. When we discover that God is beginning and end, the giver of every gift and the only true joy, are we bitter, or exultant? Are we cheerful givers, or do we resent God?

His suffering will pierce Mary’s heart with a sword. How will she respond? How does she respond at the Presentation, when she offers sacrifice? Is she glad to know God, or sorry?


And thus “the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.” The grammar is interesting: the contradiction of Jesus reveals the thoughts of hearts, their opposition to God’s glory or their rejoicing in it.

But so too does the piercing of Mary’s heart: will we stand with her, or against her? Will we join her in joyfully offering sacrifice? Or will we refuse, for “fear of death” (as the reading from Hebrews says), fear that God must be greater than all other goods, that we must offer our own lives, even our children, to him?

“Who will endure the day of his coming?” says the first reading, from Malachi. “For he is like the refiner’s fire”: the sacrifice, the obedience demanded, to prove whether we accept God as God, or whether we refuse to serve. Will we join Mary, and “offer due sacrifice to the LORD”?

Where is the refiner’s fire in your life today? Where does God call you to acknowledge him?

Feast of the Presentation: Jesus the True Priest

van der weyden presentationMAL 3:1-4; PS 24: 7, 8, 9, 10; HEB 2:14-18; LK 2:22-40 

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?