THE PURIFICATION AND PRESENTATION
Under the law of Moses,1 a woman who had given birth to a son,2 remained in her impurity a whole week. She could not leave her dwelling until the fortieth day, and then only to go up to the Temple, where she was purified. This God was pleased to exact not only for hygienic reasons, but to remind them that even in the legitimate work of marriage and the blessing of fecundity, after the fall of the first man, culpable concupiscence might still be present and require expiation.
On the other hand, if the child was the firstborn, he became holy to the Lord, that is, separated from all that is profane and consecrated to the service of Jehovah.3 In this way God affirmed His absolute power over Israel by claiming the firstfruits of the family, as He had demanded the firstfruits of the goods of earth and of domestic animals. The firstborn son belonged, therefore, not to the father, but to the Lord; and, in the law of Moses, it was by these eldestborn of the different families that the official cult was to be rendered to the God of Israel. A special ordinance, however, had regulated that the tribe of Levi should fulfill the sacerdotal functions in their stead;4 and this substitution was made only on condition that the firstborn should be offered in the Temple and at the same time redeemed by a ransom of five shekels (about three dollars). This symbolic consecration, at which a priest, in the name of the Lord, took possession of the child and returned it to its parents only in consideration of an offering as ransom, was sufficient to maintain God's rights and the duties of each family in the Israelitic theocracy.
When, therefore, the fortieth day had come, Mary and Jesus, under the guidance of Joseph, went up to the Temple, the mother for her purification, the Son to be consecrated to the Lord. Assuredly neither of these legal ceremonies was necessary on this occasion. Mary, having conceived and brought forth by exception to the common law, was free from all stain, and Jesus, being really the Son of God and His Priest, required no consecration to Him. But humility, discreet silence with regard to the divine plan, absolute respect for the law, were more becoming to the reserved, modest, pious character of Mary than a premature revelation of the heavenly mysteries or an imprudent declaration of her maternal rights. She came, then, as a woman with stain, to the door of the Temple, and a priest asperged her with blood. Unable to give a young lamb,5 the obligatory offering of rich families, she made the offering of the poor, a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons, and was officially relieved of the legal impurity which, however, she had not contracted.
The Child, in turn, was presented to the Lord as a Victim before the altar; the priest received the ransom and, no doubt, intended to set Him at liberty. He knew not that this time substitution was not possible, for He Who was offering Himself was to substitute Himself for all man and to represent mankind in the service of God. Jesus was the only true Priest Whom all the tribe of Levi could not replace, and He gave Himself as the Victim of His own priesthood. Thirty years hence it will be seen, on the cross, that no one had dispensed Him from immolating Himself to the glory of His Father; it will be understood how He, the true sacrificial Priest and the sole Victim, supplanted, in a more perfect tabernacle,6 a barren priesthood and fruitless victims.
The ceremony was nearly ended, and there was nothing to lift the veil of seeming unimportance that enveloped two lives in reality so extraordinary and so full of God. It is not unusual for Heaven to be pleased to conceal beneath the modest exterior of the most humble creatures its own majesty and its mighty manifestations, in such manner that those alone may discover them who look with the eyes of the soul and listen with the ear of a pure heart. The official priesthood, the slave of Pharisaical formalism and in complete spiritual degeneracy, had laid hands on the Holy of Holies with no suspicion of His majesty; two just and deeply religious souls among the people were now to speak in its place and hail the Savior of Israel.
Simeon, whom some, without sufficient reason, have identified with Simeon the Pious,7 or with the son of Hillel8 and the father of Gamaliel, was an old man, just and fearing God. A faithful believer, he had long looked, with deep and indignant grief, upon the prevarications of Israel and her subjection under the yoke of the foreigner. In close communication with God, he had asked Him more than once what of His promises, and God had responded in the secrecy of His heart: "Have confidence, yet a little while and my Messiah cometh; thou shalt not see death before thou hast seen Him." And Simeon relied on this word.
Meanwhile long years fled away; a soul of less powerful character would have lost all hope; he, though near to the grave, bravely awaited.
On that day, under supernatural influence, he had entered the Temple. A firstborn was being offered to the Lord. He looks upon the child; he looks upon the mother, and his soul is stirred to its depths. He asks whence comes this infant. From Bethlehem? It is from thence that the Messiah is to come forth. It is thither that the pilgrims from the East have gone, guided by the miraculous star.9 He asks the honor of taking the newborn Child for a moment in his arms to scrutinize Him more closely, and while he contemplates Him, the Holy Ghost speaks deep down in his soul: "I have kept my promise; thou holdest the Savior of Israel." Immediately the faith of the new patriarch is exalted, his eyes rise up toward heaven with an expression of gratitude and wonder, his heart beats with enthusiasm and he cries:10
" Now dost Thou dismiss Thy servant, O Lord, According to Thy word in peace;
Because my eyes have seen Thy Salvation
Which Thou hast prepared before the face of all peoples,
A Light to the revelation of the Gentiles,
And the glory of Thy people, Israel."
Thus this saintly old man, under the inspiration of the Holy Ghost, assumed the solemn accent, the lyric phrase, the original and almost enigmatic words of the ancient prophet. He is the servant, Jehovah the Master; as long as it pleased the Master to suffer him to remain in this sad life awaiting the coming of the Savior, he bore his burden with faith and courage; now that he has contemplated with his own eyes the instrument of salvation, the means of deliverance placed by God at the disposal of mankind, both pagan and Israelite, let him be dismissed, let him go to rest in peace with his fathers. Better days are assured for all the world; what a consolation to a religious soul! None shall be excluded from the redemption, and, like Isaiah,11 like the Psalmist,12 like the patriarchs,13 he sees the heavenly benediction spread over all creation without distinction of race, of Israelite or pagan, of freemen or slaves.
For the Gentiles, who are wrapped in the gloom of a dark prison, the Messiah will be the light disclosing the truth; for the humbled Judeans He will be the glory restoring a downcast nation. The first to be called efficaciously to salvation are the pagans; the old man foresees the hostile attitude of the Jews toward the Messiah, and he announces the glorification of Israel as the final consequence of the conversion of the Gentiles. His thought is that Israel is to share in salvation only when the entire world shall have entered into the kingdom of the Messiah.
As they listened, Joseph and Mary were filled with wonder. Suddenly the old man, whose timeburdened brow seemed lighted with a heavenly glory, turned, and, blessing them, spoke to Mary. The prophetic instinct told him that, true mother as she was, she alone was united to Jesus by the ties of blood, while Joseph, as His adopted father, was attached to him merely by the bonds of the heart: "Behold," he adds, "this child is set14 for the fall and for the resurrection of many in Israel, and for a sign which shall be contradicted. And thy own soul a sword shall pierce, that out of many hearts thoughts may be revealed."
All this is to be fulfilled just as the holy man foretells. From the beginning of His public life and in the first impression He makes on Israel, Jesus becomes for some a cause of scandal, for others a principle of resurrection. At once two camps are formed, widely separated; between them Jesus is raised upon the cross as the sign which the latter will defend and the former contradict. Mary, at the foot of the cross, will experience the anguish of death.
This terrible drama, no longer localized in the Israelitic people, which is disappearing, will be enacted before all mankind, the true Israel, since it is eminently the child of God; and even today we still see some fall and some rise again around the cross; and the great sign for the contradiction of all ages, of all lands, of philosophy, of science, of literature, of eloquence, of our political institutions, of thought under all its forms, is the Christ. Permitting indifference to no man, He brings forth into the light of day the good or evil that is hidden in the depths of souls, and fatally does He inspire love or hate. The holy old man had indeed read the history of the future.
In the background of this stirring scene stood a woman who, perhaps, was the means of preserving for us these precious details.15 She too was initiated into the secrets of Heaven by the Holy Spirit, and awaited on earth the reward of the tender virtues that filled her long life. This was Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Aser,16 a prophetess, that is, a woman of good counsel in Jerusalem, who by her discourses defended God's law, reproving vice and encouraging virtue. It may be that she too had the privilege of knowing the future: God frequently rewards the generous fidelity of His servants with extraordinary gifts. The daughter of Phanuel, then at the age of eightyfour years,17 had been a widow since the seventh year of her marriage. She no longer left the Temple, but honored God with her fasts and prayers, and labored for His glory day and night. With what joy must she have beheld the new Ruler of Israel, Who came to visit the second Temple and thus make it more glorious than the first!
The Evangelist does not give us the words of happiness and of love that came forth from this faithful soul. He merely says that she paid homage to God, like Simeon, and that she spoke of Jesus to all those who looked for the redemption of Israel.
Thus Israel, by the voice of two aged, holy souls, heirs of the ardent faith of olden times, saluted heaven's Envoy in the Temple in the midst of a silent priesthood. When God sees that His priests do not discern His hand and His work, He raises up religious souls with the extraordinary mission of speaking for them.
1 St. Luke ii, 22; Levit. xii. 2.
2 If a daughter was born, the impurity lasted two weeks and the seclusion eighty days (Cf. Michaelis, Mos. R., # 192.)
3 Exod.. xiii, 2.
4 Numbers iii. 12, 13.
5 Levit. xii, 68.
6 Heb. Ix,11.
7 Josephus (Ant., xiv, 9, 4) gives us a fine portrait of this Simeon, a prophet, a member of the great council, a citizen beloved and blessed of all his people, who forced Herod himself to bend before the prestige of his piety and justice.
8 This is not probable, for Hillel's son, who was influential in Jerusalem and renowned for his wisdom, became chief of the Sanhedrim in the year 13 A.D Hence he could not have been an old man at the time of the birth of Jesus.
9 The chronological order, which we are following and which is moreover the most natural, explains several points which have given rise to difficulties. The Magi having gone to Jerusalem, we see why Simeon's hopes revived. The scene of the Purification being noised abroad, the anxiety and fury of Herod are also understood. Besides, the two omissions which must be supplied in St. Luke, viz.: the visit of the Magi and the flight into Egypt, can only be placed immediately before and after the Purification.
10 One is struck with the power of these six verses. They may be divided into two strophes. In the first, v. 29 and 30, the holy old man expresses his joy at having lived to see Him who brings salvation, awthrion. In the second, v. 31 and 32, he predicts what salvation shall be for the nations and for the Israelites.
11 Isa. xi, xix, xiii.
12 Ps. lxxxvii.
13 Gen. xiii, 3; xviii, 18; xxviii, 14; xix, 10
14 This picture is borrowed from Isa. xxviii, 16; from Dan. ii, 54; and from Zach. iii, 9, where the Messiah is likened to the stone that bruises the wicked and saves the just.
15 The modest part she took in this affair and the peculiar tone of the narrative make this opinion probable.
16 This genealogical detail deserves notice. It proves the existence of registers kept in Israelitic families.
17 We follow the most common interpretation, but it may be that the best reading is as follows: "Having lived seven years with her husband since her virginity, a widow for eightyfour years, she was quite advanced in age." Seven years of marriage and eightyfour of widowhood, with fifteen of virginity, would give a total of 106 years, which would justify the text: probebhkuia en hmerais pollais.
Return to Contents
Return to home page.