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?