Luke 2:21-40 (NIV)
On the eighth day, when it was time to circumcise the child, he was named Jesus, the name the angel had given him before he was conceived. When the time came for the purification rites required by the Law of Moses, Joseph and Mary took him to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male is to be consecrated to the Lord”), and to offer a sacrifice in keeping with what is said in the Law of the Lord: “a pair of doves or two young pigeons.”
Now there was a man in Jerusalem called Simeon, who was righteous and devout. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Moved by the Spirit, he went into the temple courts. When the parents brought in the child Jesus to do for him what the custom of the Law required, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying: “Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you may now dismiss your servant in peace. For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all nations: a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel.” The child’s father and mother marvelled at what was said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, his mother: “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.”
There was also a prophet, Anna, the daughter of Penuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was very old; she had lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, and then was a widow until she was eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshipped night and day, fasting and praying. Coming up to them at that very moment, she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem. When Joseph and Mary had done everything required by the Law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee to their own town of Nazareth. And the child grew and became strong; he was filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was on him.
Last Sunday I said that we would spend a couple of weeks looking at stories on the edge of the Christmas story, reflecting on what they might mean for how we carry out what theologian and civil rights leader Howard Thurman called the work of Christmas: to find the lost, to heal the broken, to feed the hungry, to release the prisoner, to rebuild the nations, to bring peace among people, to make music in the heart. We began by hearing of the flight to Egypt and the massacre of the innocents, and considered that the image of the infant Jesus as a refugee may call us to see Christ in all who seek our shores and treat each one as if they were Christ himself. This morning we have heard of the presentation in the temple and the prophecies of Simeon and Anna.
The passage actually speaks first of the purification rites required by the Law of Moses, and these concerned Mary rather than Jesus, as Leviticus chapter twelve says that a woman will be unclean for seven days after the birth of a boy and should be purified after forty days, and will be unclean for fourteen days after the birth of a girl and should be purified after eighty days. I have always found something deeply uncomfortable in the idea that labour renders a woman unclean, and even more so in the idea that giving birth to a girl renders her unclean for a longer period, but many biblical laws have a sense that we can not fully understand at first reading, being distanced from them by both time and culture. When read together, the cleanliness laws in Leviticus chapters eleven to fifteen seem more concerned with health than morality, an effort to manage contagion rather than an attempt to pass judgement. The need for purification after childbirth is perhaps explained by the fact that there is a particular anxiety around bodily discharges, which may seem squeamish or even prudish to modern sensibilities, but may have been an appropriate caution in a society with less medical knowledge. That may not explain the different timescales depending on whether the child is a boy or a girl, but people now talk about boys and girls causing different cravings or different shape bumps, so maybe there was a belief that women bled for longer or needed more time to recover after giving birth to girls. I'm not going to deny that there is misogyny in scripture, but I think a more generous reading is possible here, one that assumes the law was rooted in care rather than control.
We might also note that it has been common at many times and in many places for women to be confined after birth, to give them time to recover and to bond with their newborn, and there may be an element of that here too. You may have noticed that women did not undergo purification rites until some weeks after their time of being unclean had ended, which would presumably have afforded them some time at home away from the wider community, and this was perhaps meant for the good of the new mother. The process of purification would also have provided a ritual for motherhood, and I think there is something really significant about having that moment of recognition and reflection, focused not on the child whose life has just begun but on the mother whose life has forever changed. The thanksgiving or churching of women forty days after birth was at one time common in Catholic and Anglican churches, but has fallen out of practice in recent decades, and perhaps we have lost something there. The language of purification or even confinement may not be helpful in our context, but I do think it is good for us to find words and rites to help us mark and make sense of times of transition.
The phrasing of the passage from Luke makes it sound as though Mary and Joseph offered two doves as part of the presentation of Jesus, but it was in fact the purification rites that called for such an offering. The mother was to bring a lamb and a dove, with the exception that she could bring two doves if she could not afford a lamb, which presumably Mary could not. It is from this verse that we assume the poverty of Jesus’ childhood. You might be wondering what happened to the gold from the magi, and here we find ourselves diving headlong into the complexity of the timeline of the gospels. The presentation in the temple is only recorded in Luke and the magi only appear in Matthew, and it is not immediately clear how the stories fit together. It is often assumed that Jesus was a toddler by time the magi arrived, as that would explain why Herod ordered the death of boys up to the age of two. It is therefore possible that the family travelled to Jerusalem after forty days for the purification rites and presentation, and then were visited by the magi some time later, except that Matthew has the magi visiting in Bethlehem and Luke says that from Jerusalem they returned to Nazareth. We may just need to accept that Matthew and Luke were writing narratives based on different sources for different audiences, and (dare I say) may have made different mistakes and added different embellishments, and so they are not going to line up seamlessly.
Having thought about the purification rites for Mary, let’s take a look now at the presentation of Jesus. Luke says that this took place because the law required every firstborn male to be consecrated to the Lord, but there seems to be a little more to it than that, because Exodus chapter thirteen speaks not only of the consecration but also of the redemption of the firstborn. My understanding is that firstborn sons were consecrated to the Lord, but were then to be redeemed or bought back by the family. It is explained as a reminder of the liberation from slavery, when the firstborn sons of Israel were protected while the firstborn sons of Egypt died, as if they had been given over to God and then given back to the people. Elsewhere it seems that firstborn sons were meant to belong to the priesthood, but could be redeemed by their families while the sons of the Levites served as priests in their place.
It’s complicated for sure, but it only gets stranger when you think about who is being consecrated and redeemed in this passage. Jesus, God incarnate, is consecrated to God. Jesus, the one who redeems the world, is redeemed by his human family. Jesus, our great high priest, is bought back from the priesthood. It’s quite something to try and get your head around, and in many ways it makes no sense, but I think there is something here about the integrity of the incarnation and the significance of being rooted in community. Jesus was born as a particular person into a particular family who belonged to a particular people who followed particular traditions, and this episode honours all of that. In submitting to the law, as in submitting to baptism and to sorrow and to death, God experiences the truth of our humanity and takes seriously our need to create order and find meaning in our lives and within our communities.
We’ve gone quite deep into the passage and we’re still only four verses in, so we’d better get a move on. While in the temple for the purification and the presentation, the family meet two figures who bear witness to Jesus. Simeon speaks of him as “a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel... destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed”. Through this child, the truth will be revealed and the world will be shaken. There will be rising and falling, opposition and glory. Salvation is coming for all, and nothing will ever be the same again. It’s apocalyptic stuff, and yet Simeon ends by looking at Mary and saying the words “a sword will pierce your own soul too”. It reminds me of the moment in every big film battle where we are drawn in from epic shots of thousands of faceless warriors to focus on the death of a named character. It anchors redemption history in real lived experience, and it reminds us that our own lived experience is not forgotten or overlooked either.
Anna’s exact words are not recorded, but we are told that “she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem”. It sounds like she was so excited that, much like the shepherds before her, she immediately ran off to tell anyone who would listen what she had seen. But what was it that she and Simeon had seen? What gave away that this child was the salvation of the Lord? Did the infant Jesus have a nice shiny halo floating two inches above his head? Probably not. In truth I imagine that he looked like any other baby boy born to a Jewish couple in the first century. It wasn’t that he appeared differently, it was that Anna and Simeon saw differently. It is said of Simeon that the Spirit was on him, and Anna had dedicated her long widowhood to fasting and prayer. These were people who had learnt to listen well to God and to see the signs of God at work in the world. They were open to the movement of the Spirit, and so they were able to discern the divine truth in the human experience, to recognise what was being worked out and rejoice in its completion even before it had come to be.
This is where I want to return us to where we began, asking what this passage might say about how we carry out the work of Christmas: to find the lost, to heal the broken, to feed the hungry, to release the prisoner, to rebuild the nations, to bring peace among people, to make music in the heart. And I want to stay with Simeon and Anna, because I think that alongside getting stuck into the practical stuff that makes those things happen, we too need to learn to be open to the Spirit and practise discernment, to perceive and celebrate the promise that is even now being fulfilled. There is a joy in Simeon and Anna’s response, a joy that comes from a hope that is not wishful thinking but certain faith, and I believe that the work we are called to must be inspired and powered by that same joy and hope and faith. So may we too see beyond the present state to the future that is to be, and may we give thanks and praise to God as we play our part in fulfilling the promise.