First reading: Malachi 3:1-4. Ps 23(24):7-10. / Hebrews 2:14-18.
Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 23(24:7-10)
Gospel: Luke 2:22-40. / Luke 2:22-23
Link to readings.
Forty days after the celebration of Christ’s birth we interrupt the ordinary Sunday cycle to celebrate the Presentation of the Lord. Luke’s Gospel (2:22-40) provides the biblical basis for the feast, though, in fact, the Evangelist has conflated two prescriptions of the Jewish law that were distinct. According to Exodus 13:1 and 13:11-16, all first-born males, animal and human, belonged to the Lord and had to be “redeemed,” that is, bought back from the Lord through a sum paid to the Temple. The sum could simply be forwarded; physically taking the child to the Temple was not required. What did require presence in the Temple was another rite: the purification of the mother of a child some forty days after childbirth, as laid down in Lev. 12:1-8. On this occasion an offering was to be made--in the case of the poor, as Luke notes, “a pair of turtle-doves or two young pigeons.”
Luke’s conflation of the two motifs means that in the person of the infant Jesus, “the Lord” suddenly comes to the Temple, as the prophecy from Malachi, read as the First Reading (Mal 3:1-4) foretold. In Malachi’s account, the coming of the Lord to the Temple will be a terrifying event, involving a rigorous purification of Temple worship and restitution of offerings “pleasing to the Lord”. The reading actually highlights by way of contrast the very different mode in which “the Lord” in the person of Jesus actually comes to his Temple: not as a terrifying judge but as an infant member of a simple human family, who in obedience to the prescriptions of the Law, make the offering of the poor.
It is this sense of Jesus’ solidarity with the common mass of humanity that the Second Reading from Hebrews 2:14-18, brings out. The Jewish high priest was a mediatorial figure who enacted the divinely prescribed rituals on behalf of God. But along with this unique status that set him apart, he was also a member of the sinful mass of humankind, aware of his weakness and needing to offer sacrifices for his sin. In portraying Jesus as High Priest, the author of Hebrews does not, of course, think of him as personally sinful but exploits this aspect of the role to emphasise his solidarity with the human condition in every other respect. The offering “pleasing to the Lord” that the prophet Malachi required is in fact that made by Jesus in his offering of himself to suffering and death, to remove the sentence of eternal death hovering over all his human “brothers and sisters”. So, when Mary and Joseph bring the child Jesus to the Temple and make on his behalf the offering prescribed, for the poor, this foreshadows the offering, supremely “pleasing to the Lord” that he will later make for the salvation of the world.
The other characters in the drama, the elderly couple, Simeon and Anna, discern in this otherwise very ordinary family from the poorer class the presence of “the Lord” in his Temple, as Malachi had foretold. But, along with fulfilment of the promise, Simeon speaks of novelty and rupture too. The child is going to be not only the “glory of ... Israel” but also “a light for the revelation to the Gentiles”. Here is a sense of boundaries being extended, of a salvation widely cast, in a way that is going to cause trouble. As Simeon points out in his second oracle, the child is destined “for the fall and the rising of many in Israel, and for a sign of contradiction”. The wide-ranging scope of salvation—the fact that it is not going to be confined to Israel but will be a light for the Gentiles—will challenge the narrowness of many hearts and bring resistance.
In this connection, Simeon speaks of a “sword” that is to pierce Mary’s soul. While allusion to Jesus’ passion can hardly be excluded, the “sword” may have a wider reference. The custom of “redeeming” a firstborn (whether a child or animal) acknowledged the fact that all life was ultimately the possession and gift of the Lord; the parents “bought back” their child from the Lord. In the case of Jesus, however, as the next episode in the Temple will show (2:41-51), Mary will have to surrender him back to the Lord to be about his “Father’s business” (v 49): the costly redemption of the world. This is the full offering that she will have to make.
In so many aspects, then, this feast is about offering and self-dedication: that of Jesus, that of Mary—and that of all who seek to make their lives something “pleasing to the Lord”.
Brendan Byrne, SJ, FAHA, taught New Testament at Jesuit Theological College, Parkville, Vic., for almost forty years. He is now Emeritus Professor at the University of Divinity (Melbourne). His commentaries on the Gospels can be found at Pauline Books and Media