When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”), and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”
Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying, “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.”
And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”
There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.
When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him. (Luke 2:22-40 – NRSV)
It was not until the middle of the 19th century that medical science discovered the ovary in the female. For centuries conception and childbirth were regarded with a mixture of fear, superstition and mystique. In societies all around the world it was normal practice to separate the woman during and after childbirth. It should not surprise us then, to read the prescriptions of Leviticus 12:1-8:
“If a woman conceives and bears a male child, she shall be ceremonially unclean seven days; as at the time of her menstruation, she shall be unclean. On the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised. Her time of blood purification shall be thirty-three days; she shall not touch any holy thing, or come into the sanctuary, until the days of her purification are completed. If she bears a female child, she shall be unclean two weeks, as in her menstruation; her time of blood purification shall be sixty-six days. When the days of her purification are completed, whether for a son or for a daughter, she shall bring to the priest at the entrance of the tent of meeting a lamb in its first year for a burnt offering, and a pigeon or a turtledove for a sin offering. He shall offer it before the LORD, and make atonement on her behalf; then she shall be clean from her flow of blood. This is the law for her who bears a child, male or female. If she cannot afford a sheep, she shall take two turtledoves or two pigeons, one for a burnt offering and the other for a sin offering; and the priest shall make atonement on her behalf, and she shall be clean.”
Mary, after the birth of Jesus, observes these prescriptions. The text is not so much about the prescriptions as it is about incarnation. Jesus is born in a certain time, a certain place and therefore in a certain culture. That place, that time and that culture are the context for the incarnation.
The incarnation continues today through you and me in time, place and culture. It takes time and effort – and often enough wisdom and learning – to penetrate the revelation that is here in the given text. The human thing – culture and politics, ignorance and prejudice, silliness and sin – can be such a nuisance, can’t it? We must never forget that it is precisely in the human thing that God is revealed.
Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying, “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel”.
Simeon is enabled to “see” what is happening – “my eyes have seen your salvation”. No one else present could see, except the old lady, Anna. And Simeon, moved by what he “sees”, gives us one of the most beautiful images from the Bible – “he took him in his arms and praised God”.
When we “see” we tend to act spontaneously and beautifully. When we are unable to “see” and when we do not want to “see” and when there is no struggle to “see”, we can get caught in the culture and politics, ignorance and prejudice, silliness and sin. In fact, it may be that our inability or lack of will to “see” is a signal that we are already caught, unfree.
The Christian life begins with “seeing”. Everything else depends on that. And seeing is ultimately a work of the Spirit, not an achievement but a grace, not the conclusion to an argument but a being taken hold of (see Philippians 3:12).
Michael Whelan SM
“The first is exterior, that which the spectators’ senses and perceptiveness can immediately derive from the Gospel scene. It is the impression gained by those who look merely at externals, who study and examine only the philological and historical trappings of the holy books, that part of which in Biblical terminology is called “the letter.” This study is important and necessary, but it is opaque to one who stops there, and even capable of engendering illusions and intellectual pride in the observer who approaches the external elements in the Gospel without clear vision, humility, a good intention, and a prayerful spirit.” (Pope Paul VI, “Reflection at Nazareth” (January 05 1964) from Papal Encyclicals Online.)