We learn from the Book of Leviticus, the twelfth chapter, that after the days appointed for the mother’s purification, the child is to be brought together with a sacrifice of a lamb of the first year for a burnt offering, and also a young pigeon or a turtle dove for a sin offering. We see in the last verse of that chapter:
“And if she be not able to bring a lamb, then she shall bring two turtle [doves], or two young pigeons; the one for the burnt offering, and the other for a sin offering...Lev. 12: 8)”
Remembering that, let us look again at the words from today’s Gospel reading:
“And when the days of her purification according to the Law of Moses were accomplished, they brought him to Jerusalem, to present Him to the Lord; (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, Every male that openeth the womb shall be called holy to the Lord;) And to offer a sacrifice according to that which is said in the Law of the Lord, A pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons. (Luke 2: 22-24).”
We need to understand the theology of what is happening in these verses. To begin with, St Luke is very clearly telling us that the family into which God became manifested, in our own human nature, was not a family of wealth, but of poverty; for they were not able to bring a lamb. The royal line of David, the line of the Jewish kings, had been reduced to poverty by the process of history, of wars and of subjugation to the Roman empire, And so it is that Joseph, in the line of those ancient kings, was a poor carpenter. Into his house of nobility, but of poverty, was our Lord born; this same Lord of glory, who had only a month before been laid in a manger because there was no place else for Him.
Remember the words of St. Paul:
“For ye know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that, though He was rich, yet for your sakes He became poor, that ye through His poverty might be rich (II Cor. 8:9).”
The implications of this are very deep, and very profound. It is a picture of the mystery of the Incarnation itself, that the One Who did not grasp onto His own equality with God, but became a man, Who humbled Himself in obedience as a servant unto the death of the cross, is the One to Whom every knee shall rightly bow, and Who shall be called Lord on every tongue, at the mention of His human name, the name of Jesus. Here He was, noble and the heir to the throne of David, yet poor. Here He was, true man yet very God. Here He was, the Lord Who had suddenly come to His temple, yet a new born babe, without power, and without wealth.
To see Him, as He truly was, required the eyes of faith, a certain faith which is knowledge, and that comes only by the revelation of God. Eyes that see, ears that hear and a heart that understands are the gift of the Holy Ghost. So it is that the true wisdom which comes from above is given to an old man, who wears the mantle of a prophet, seeing the Lord by the revelation given to Him from the Lord’s Holy Spirit. This is expressed in the words which live on in the Church every evening at prayer:
“Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word; For mine eyes have seen thy salvation, which thou hast prepared before the face of all people; a light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel.”
The wisdom of God contradicts everything that a fallen and sinful world holds dear. It contradicts the wisdom of the wise, the might of the powerful, the haughtiness of kings, the wealth of riches. “He hath put down the mighty from their seat, and hath exalted the humble and meek; He hath filled the hungry with good things; and the rich He hath sent empty away.”
An old man takes in his arms an infant from a poor man’s house, and declares that He is the salvation of God for all the world. An elderly widow, also given the true wisdom from above, the gift of the Holy Spirit, speaks of Him to all who looked for redemption in Jerusalem. The prophet Amos wrote that, in the understanding of sinful man, “the prophet is a fool, the spiritual man is mad.” How could this poor son of a poor carpenter, bring salvation to the world? Let alone, to Israel? And what light could He give to the Gentiles, light that would overturn the pagan religions, the ignorance of idolaters in every land, including the powerful empire of Rome with its many gods? How could this child born into a carpenter’s house, restore the glory of Israel, as if the throne of David could replace the rule of the cruel gentile tyrant, Herod, and banish the powerful legions of Rome? What did these two foolish and mad old folks have in mind, speaking such non-sense? What might was wrought by a young mother, by the willing obedient faith expressed in her words, "Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word." A woman, "the weaker vessel," welcomed the Word of God to the world in her womb, giving Him human nature, accomplishing in her weakness what no army, in its strength, could do.
Let me allude to a fantasy story: Perhaps some of you have seen the movie The Return of the King, or, better yet, have read J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. If so, you recall that the world is saved from the power of the evil Sauron by two very little, and completely powerless people. Two hobbits of the shire, Frodo and Sam, accomplish what the warriors of Middle Earth, even under the leadership of King Aragorn, could not do themselves. In the climax of the story, the armies of Middle Earth can only fight their battle to serve as a distraction, while the two little hobbits, both under four feet tall, and without any strength of arms, manage to take the One Ring to its destruction, thus toppling the power of Sauron, and freeing Middle Earth from his grasp. Tolkien wrote his story with a Christian mind, as a very devout Catholic; and he made it obvious that the victory was wrought by Providence through the hobbits.
Gods has chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are powerful, and the foolish things of the world to confound the things which are wise; so wrote St. Paul. The true victory that banishes oppression from the world, and overturns all of the power of evil, was accomplished by a naked and wounded, beaten and humiliated man, breathing His last breath nailed to cross, as a spectacle of all that appears to be weak and powerless. In His humility and obedience to the Father, His submission to the will of God in giving His life, he is the One true hero Who breaks all of the power of Satan, and liberates the whole world from sin and death.
But, the world saw Him in His weakness and foolishness. It saw Him in His poverty and want of all things, having His garments parted among the gambling soldiers, being given nothing to quench His thirst, but only vinegar as if by a cruel joke. By all the wisdom known to sinful men, this was no conquering hero, no victorious king. The words of Simeon and Anna must have seemed a hundred times more mad and foolish than when they had spoken of Him in the time of His infancy. Anyone old enough to have remembered them, who may have recalled hearing them about thirty three years earlier, surely thought that they must have been no true prophets.
Of course all of this brings me to my second theological point from today’s Gospel reading. Here we see Jesus being presented in the temple, and an offering being made for Him as if He were a sinner. His mother, the Blessed Virgin, is obeying the Law of Purification, as if this child had been born in uncleanness, that is, as if tainted with original sin: As if, from Psalm 51, in the penitential prayer of David: “in sin hath my mother conceived me." You and I can pray those words, for we were born in original sin, subject to powers over which we could not prevail; for we never could have made ourselves pure. But, Jesus needed no such offering, and His virgin mother needed no purification. For He alone was conceived without sin and was born clean. Yet, Mary and Joseph obey the Law; and this foreshadows for us the fact that Jesus would fulfill the Law.
The scriptures say that “He was tempted in every point as we are, yet without sin (Heb. 4:15).” And, that “God made Him to be sin for us, Who knew no sin, that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him (II Cor. 5: 21).” Isaiah had written, “And He made His grave with the wicked, and with the rich in His death, because he had done no violence; neither was any deceit in His mouth...He bare the sin of [the] many, and made intercession for the transgressors (from Isaiah 53).” The offerings that day, in the temple, foreshadow the life of Christ as one of perfect obedience to the Father’s will, in this case specifically by adhering to the Law of God given through Moses. It foreshadows the words he spoke to John the Baptist at His own baptism in the Jordan River: “Suffer it to be so, for thus it becometh us to fulfill all righteousness.” For in His baptism He let Himself be identified with sinful humanity, and began then to take upon Himself the sins of the world, remaining Himself pure from all sin; as John said that day, “Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sins of the world.” He bore them all the way to the cross; for “surely He hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows.”
Yes, He needed no offering, and His mother needed no purification since Her Son was borne in complete purity. But the offerings that day, in the temple, teach us that He was taking our sins on Himself. As the only pure Man ever to live, His death would be the only death that is completely undeserved. He did not merit death. Death came into the world through sin, and it is our penalty because of sin. When the sinless One died, death was undone. The power of Satan was destroyed, and with it the values and principles of a sinful world were turned upside down. On the day of his death, certified by His resurrection on the third day, all that was powerful was shown to be weak, all that was rich was shown to be poverty, all that was mighty was shown to be weak. “He hath put down the mighty from their seat; and hath exalted the humble and meek.” The two old prophets, who seemed foolish and mad, had spoken wisdom and reason when they spoke of this child as the One Who would bring redemption in Jerusalem.
And now, unto God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Ghost, be ascribed, as is most justly due, all wisdom, might, power and glory, now and forever. Amen.
Fr. Wells' Bulletin insert for this feast day
In order to make sense of today's reading from Luke 2, we have to dig deeply into two unfamiliar passages from the Old Testament. Since the ceremonial law (the law pertaining to sacrifices) was set aside at the perfect sacrifice on Calvary, we know only dimly that was going on in the Temple and why Our infant Lord and His mother were there at all.
Unfamiliar passage 1 is Leviticus 12:2—8. There we are told that when a male child was born, he was to be circumcised on the eighth day of his life as the sacramental sign of his entry into the covenant people. Then, 33 days later, on his 40th day, his mother must be ritually purified before the priest. She was to bring a lamb for a burnt offering and a pigeon or turtledove for a sin offering. If she were too poor to afford a lamb, then two small birds would suffice.
Unfamiliar passage 2 is Exodus 13:1—16. There it is asserted that the Lord had a special claim on the First-born, both man and beast. The first-born must either be sacrificed to the Lord, or redeemed (repurchased) by a substitute, in the form of an animal sacrifice.
These Old Testament customs, so strange to us but so much a part of the daily life of Jesus, Mary and Joseph, give force and point to St. Paul's statement (Gal. 4:4—5) that “God sent forth His Son, born of the woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive the adoption as sons.” How many 1st century Jews followed out the customs scrupulously? Surely not all. But the New Testament is emphatic that right down to “the night in which He was betrayed,” our dear Lord submitted to the ceremonial Law in perfect obedience to His Father.
In today's feast we recall that Jesus, although sinless, was born to share our fallen condition. From His circumcision on the eighth day He obeyed and fulfilled all of God's Law, even the ceremonial law, in every detail. He was absolutely obedient to the revealed will of His Father.
St Luke (a master of detail in his writing) points out that Mary took advantage of the special concession to the poor, by offering two small birds rather than the usual lamb and bird combination. What we are taught here is that in His Incarnation, “though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, that ye through his poverty might be rich” (2 Cor. 8:9). The poverty He assumed was the poverty of the universal human condition, estranged and hostile to the Creator.
The sacrificial animal, serving as His substitute, pointed ahead to the day when He Himself would become our Substitute, so that as He was presented in the Temple of the Old Covenant, we ourselves might be presented “with pure and clean hearts” in the heavenly temple where He is forever the great high priest. LKW