The Purification

It is well to be clear what is happening here. First, we hear of purifying after childbirth. This is a reference to one of the laws in Leviticus about bodily purity and bodily discharges, one of which apparently is childbirth, placed in the same class as a nocturnal emission of semen, menstruation, or any other sort of bodily discharge. Each of these requires that a person be purified. The timing of the visit to Jerusalem is set to this schedule, eight days until the circumcision, and then thirty three until the purification of the mother of a male child.

But Luke places a different interpretation on the event, setting it into the context of the Passover law in Exodus that every firstborn is to belong to the Lord. This comes directly from the last plague of Egypt in which all the firstborn of Egypt died, but the firstborn of Israel survived. The law commands that a firstborn human be brought to the Lord and redeemed, that is bought back instead of being sacrificed.

So we can set a more positive connotation on this event, we can see a child being brought to the Temple where the Lord lives, the sacrifice in exchange being paid, and the child taken by the priest into his arms, as was the custom, and being blessed, that is set apart for the Lord, and returned to his parents. And after all, that was probably the real intent of the law of purification we find difficult. It was a way of declaring holy and special the person of a woman who had given birth in a way that seemed disgusting, that is, unclean, It was a way of saying that this too was acceptable to the Lord, in that what happened could be redeemed, that is purified.

But there is an irony in this blessed family event, an irony we readers know, that the one today redeemed from sacrifice at the hands of his human parents will be the supreme sacrifice at the hands of the Lord, his Parent with a capital P. This redeeming of the child, in looking back toward Passover looks ahead to the final "Passover," in quotes. It looks to the Passion of Jesus, this child, and it looks to Resurrection, the final redemption at the hands of the divine Parent, in which the child redeemed is identical with the sacrifice.

Of course, there is something else we readers know, and that is the secret identity of the Child, the son of Joseph and Mary. We know that Jesus is a special child, and the priest who is on Temple duty that day, for that is who Simeon was, recognizes it too. There is the little Psalm he says as his blessing, which we call the Nunc Dimittis, which we sang in our Temple just a minute ago. Simeon has been granted by God the favor of not dying until he sees the Messiah. Now, he says, after seeing this child, I can die. Here, he says, is the one who will bring salvation to all, gentiles and Israel alike. Likewise one of those older ladies who spent their time in church praying speaks of him to all who were awaiting the redemption of Jerusalem.

But we know more. We have heard the prophecy of Malachi: "The Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple." "But who can endure the day of his coming and who can stand when he appears?" He will purify and refine the sons of Levi, the priests, such as Simeon, till they present right offerings to the Lord, offerings that are pleasing and acceptable, as Simeon shows he does in his Song. Mary and Joseph come and offer Jesus, the acceptable sacrifice to the Lord. Here again we see the Passion, and Resurrection, foreshadowed. The pointer is sharpened in Simeon's word to Mary about a sword piercing her heart also.

Unfortunately, we know still more. I say unfortunately because it would be so much more comfortable to leave things right where they are. We have a redeemer, and a way of redemption right out there where we can see and understand, which we can consider and reflect on and use a guide for our living. Unfortunately, we know what the author of Hebrews knows, that Jesus was God in human flesh, like we are in every respect, in flesh and blood like us. And we know what this Incarnation must mean, that there is an exchange, that he became human, partook in our humanity, that we might partake in his divinity, become in some sense divine. Today in this little body brought up to the temple, the body of us, all of us as one in him, is brought to the Lord for redemption. And sacrifice.

Today our humanity in his goes up to the temple to be redeemed and set apart for sacrifice at the same time. The one who today is a passive child redeemed will one day become an active agent in the sacrifice that will redeem himself and all. So we too. We come up to this temple to offer our lives to be redeemed when we come to this Eucharist, and so we also come to be sacrificed, like it or not. But it is not a sacrifice we can see and plan for. The act of presenting ourselves to the Lord here today, like the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple, is only a foreshadowing of the sacrifice. Like the reader who sees the foreshadowing, we don't know quite what to expect, but we know to expect something. That is what this period between Advent and Lent, Advent and Easter, is for, to watch and wait, to watch the child grow up and teach, and heal and pray, and go up to Jerusalem and die and rise again. And to watch our own lives for the signs of sacrifice and redemption.