Presentation of our Lord and Purification of Mary
February 2, 2013
God Visits His Temple
St. Luke 2:22-32
Now when the days of her purification according to the law of Moses were completed, they brought Him to Jerusalem to present Him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every male who opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord”), and to offer a sacrifice according to what is said in the law of the Lord, “A pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.” And behold, there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon, and this man was just and devout, waiting for the Consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. So he came by the Spirit into the temple. And when the parents brought in the Child Jesus, to do for Him according to the custom of the law, he took Him up in his arms and blessed God and said: “Lord, now You are letting Your servant depart in peace, according to Your word; for my eyes have seen Your salvation which You have prepared before the face of all peoples, a light to bring revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of Your people Israel. Luke 2:22-32
The Law of Moses was summarized in the Ten Commandments, but the Ten Commandments were not the full extent of that law. The Law of Moses contained regulations about worship, civil affairs, diet, health, and just about every aspect of life. When a woman gave birth to a son she was ritually impure for forty days thereafter. Furthermore, every firstborn son was “holy to the LORD,” that is, he belonged to God and had to be redeemed back. A wealthy family would pay in sheep or goats. A poor family would pay in turtledoves or pigeons. The offering of the firstborn to the Lord and redeeming him back from the Lord reminded God’s people of the Exodus. God set his people Israel free from the slavery they suffered in Egypt for four hundred years. That miraculous Exodus – where the children of Israel crossed over the Red Sea on dry ground – was preceded by ten plagues against Egypt that finally persuaded Pharaoh to let God’s people go. The final and decisive plague was the Passover, where the Angel of Death killed the firstborn son of every Egyptian family, but spared the firstborn of the sons of Israel, passing over the homes whose doors were marked by the blood of the lamb.
God wanted his people to remember the Passover and the Exodus. This was the defining event of the Old Testament Church. It taught them that they belonged to the God who set them free. They belonged to the God who forgave sins and destroyed death by the shedding of blood. That the firstborn should be given back to the LORD was a clear and compelling testimony of God’s grace and faithfulness.
Mary’s purification and Jesus’ presentation go together. We observe this festival on February 2 forty days after December 25 the day we set aside for the celebration of Christ’s birth. But if we consider the nature of that birth, Mary did not need to be purified and Jesus did not need to be presented. A woman needed to be purified after giving birth because no birth was without sin. But this birth was. The firstborn son needed to be presented to the LORD because atonement needed to be made for sin. The blood of the Passover lamb made that crystal clear. But this child was not a sinner. So here we have a unique situation. For the first and only time in the history of Mosaic Law there is an immaculate conception and a virgin birth. What this tells us is that the purification of Mary and the presentation of Jesus were not for the benefit of Mary or Jesus. Why then? What was the reason? And why did the Holy Spirit inspire St. Luke to record this event?
This historical account of the purification of Mary and the presentation of Jesus to the LORD in the temple in Jerusalem forty days after Christ’s birth in Bethlehem is recorded for our benefit. I say “historical account” because it happened. God acts in history. God is the Lord of history. Abraham was an historical figure, a man from the ancient land of Ur, called by God to the land later named after his grandson, Israel. God’s dealings with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are God’s dealings with us because Israel’s history is ours.
When we learn of Jacob’s ladder where he dreamed of heaven and earth being reconciled; when we read of Joseph’s imprisonment and later release from prison and rise to prominence in Egypt; when we read of Moses and the crossing the Red Sea; of David the shepherd boy killing Goliath the giant who mocked God – we are reading history. And that is our history. Those people are our people. God cut with them the covenant of blood. God gives us Christ’s body and blood to eat and to drink. God placed his name upon them with the familiar words:
This same God places his name upon us in holy baptism where we are baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. God pledged himself to their future and we are that future. Simeon said and we sing that the light to lighten the Gentiles is the glory of Israel.
Simeon was a pious man. He lived a good and faithful life according to the Law of Moses. The Holy Spirit had revealed to him that he would not die until he saw the promised Christ, the Consolation of Israel, who was the Savior of the world. When he saw the infant Jesus and picked him up in his arms, he praised God. He said that God was now letting him depart in peace. God had kept his word. Simeon could now die in peace. And he prayed, under inspiration of the Holy Spirit, this prayer of praise to God that the Church has been singing now for hundreds of years. Simeon called Jesus God’s salvation. He said, “For my eyes have seen your salvation which you have prepared before the face of all peoples.” Jesus is the Lord God’s salvation. For whom? For the whole human race. “Which you have prepared before the face of all peoples.” That includes everyone. “A light to lighten the Gentiles and the glory of your people Israel.”
The Gentiles have no light apart from Christ. Israel has no glory apart from Christ. We sing Simeon’s song. We have seen God’s salvation. It is a light to lighten the Gentiles and it is the glory of God’s people, Israel.
At Sinai God talked to Moses and Moses talked to God. Moses asked God if he could see his glory. Their conversation is recorded for us in Exodus 34 where we read:
Should a sinner see God’s uncovered glory it would destroy him. God’s glory is revealed on Sinai and you cannot look on it. This glory kills sinners dead. That’s why every human effort toward religion or spirituality or whatever it is called these days will do its level best to silence the Ten Commandments or revise them or come up with something better. God’s glory accuses those who fall short of it. That’s just the way it is. But who enjoys being accused?
Simeon was a just man, the Bible says. He was devout. He was more pious than you or I. Yet this just man, this devout man was still a sinful man who needed to be forgiven of his sins before he could face God. If Moses could not see God’s face and live, neither could Simeon and neither can we. But wait. Simeon did see God’s face and live. He lived to tell about it! How many times we’ve sung with him, “My eyes have seen thy salvation.” When Simeon was holding the baby Jesus in his arms he was holding the almighty God in his arms, for Jesus is not just the revelation of God’s glory. Jesus is God himself who has taken upon himself our human nature and become our brother. Now in the man Jesus we can see the glory of God and live. Jesus has come to the temple. More than that: he is the temple. Referring to his body that would bear our sin on Calvary he said, “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.”
How did Simeon know? How did he know that this forty day old infant was his God, his salvation, the Light to lighten the Gentiles and the glory of Israel? How did he know? There was no halo over his head. There were no angels directing his way. He knew because God told him. He had the word of God. The word of God is the promise of God. When Simeon praised God for letting him depart in peace he added, “according to thy word.” God’s word says it to us and that’s how we know. Epiphany is not just about the revelation of Jesus then and there. It is about the revelation of his glory here and now wherever his word is proclaimed and believed. God keeps his word.
Most of Israel rejected Christ when he first appeared. They lost their glory and have never regained it. Today’s nation of Israel has neither historical nor biblical connection to ancient Israel. The only glory Israel has ever had or ever will have is that revealed by Christ. In rejecting Christ Israel rejected herself.
In our day we see history repeating itself as nominal Christianity – that is to say, people who are called Christians and call themselves Christians – is in a similar condition as first century Israel. Just as Israel wanted her glory without Christ, so what passes for the church these days wants enlightenment without the Word of God. Simeon called Jesus a Light to lighten the Gentiles. Yet we see huge portions of Christendom abandoning basic tenets of the Christian religion. People heaping up for themselves teachers to teach what their itching ears want to hear as most Christian preaching isn’t Christian anymore. Instead of proclaiming repentance and the forgiveness of sins the most popular preachers preach how to be successful in life. The result is spiritual blindness in the midst of Christ’s holy Church. The Church who is the pillar and ground of the truth is reduced to marketing her wares to a jaded public that isn’t buying. Meanwhile church attendance keeps on declining and the spiritual darkness deepens.
But Christ is still the Light to lighten the Gentiles. He is who Simeon said. He is what the Church sings. God joined the human race to do as one of us what none of us had ever done. After fulfilling the law right down to its every exacting requirement, Jesus offered himself up as the sacrifice to take away all sins of all sinners. No sin was left unforgiven by that bloody sacrifice. This is why we can look upon God with confidence and faith only as we see him in the person of his Son, his firstborn, his only begotten. Jesus himself is the temple of God and he remains the temple of God. He is where sinners who know they are sinners who cannot bear to look upon the face of God and live can nevertheless look upon the face of God and live. Jesus enlightens us, not by making us smarter than our neighbors with some deep religious philosophy, but by taking away the sin that blinded us. We see Jesus and we see how much God loves us. We see Jesus and from seeing God’s salvation we see what a wonderful life we have to live. And we know that it won’t end at the grave. When we die, we can depart in peace.
Rolf D. Preus