January 1, 2012

Isaiah 61:10 – 62:3 – I will rejoice in the Lord. My whole being shall exult in my God… The nations shall see your vindication and the kings your glory.

Psalm 148 – Praise the Lord, heavens, heights, angels, moon, earth, sea monsters, deep, fruit trees, cedars…

Galatians 4:4-7 – When the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, under the law, so we might receive adoption.

Luke 2:22-40 – Jesus’ presentation in the Temple. Simeon’s Song. A light to reveal you to the Gentiles. And the child grew in stature and wisdom.

Presentation in the Temple

Light to the Nations

The photo above is a painting of the Presentation in the Temple (ca. 1502) by the high Renaissance artist known as Raphael. It is part of an altarpiece Raphael painted (oil on wood) for the Oddi family chapel in the church of San Francesco al Prato in Perugia, Italy. It is now at a museum in the Vatican.

According to Jewish custom, the child was circumcised on the eighth day (verse 21, not in our reading). Also according to tradition, the child would be presented a month later at the temple after the mother’s purification. This is spelled out in Leviticus 12:2-8: 

1 The LORD spoke to Moses, saying, 

2 “Speak to the people of Israel, saying, ‘If a woman conceives and bears a male child, then she shall be unclean seven days. As at the time of her menstruation, she shall be unclean. 

3 And on the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised. 

4 Then she shall continue for thirty-three days in the blood of her purifying. She shall not touch anything holy, nor come into the sanctuary, until the days of her purifying are completed. 

5 But if she bears a female child, then she shall be unclean two weeks, as in her menstruation. And she shall continue in the blood of her purifying for sixty-six days. 

6 “‘And when the days of her purifying 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 a year old for a burnt offering, and a pigeon or a turtledove for a sin offering, 

7 and he shall offer it before the LORD and make atonement for her. Then she shall be clean from the flow of her blood. This is the law for her who bears a child, either male or female. 

8 And if she cannot afford a lamb, then 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 for her, and she shall be clean.'” 

So after the birth of a male child, a woman was unclean for seven days. On the eighth day the child would be circumcised. Then she would be unclean for another 33 days of “purification.” This is a total of 40 days.  If a the baby was female she would be unclean for 14 days at first, and then 66 days for purification. A total of 80 days.

Of course these Bible verses never show up in the three-year lectionary cycle of readings, so if the only texts one reads are lectionary texts, one might never stumble upon this passage. (In fact, Leviticus is almost never used in the lectionary. There is only one Leviticus text in our three-year cycle of readings: Leviticus 19:1-18, a retelling of the 10 Commandments and an admonition to not strip one’s field or vineyard bare, but to leave some fruits of the harvest for the poor and for immigrants.)

Luke 2:22-24 says, 

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.” 

Luke’s account is set over a month after the birth of Jesus. The family is still in Bethlehem, just 5–6 miles from Jerusalem. They have not yet made the trek back north to Galilee. He wants us to understand that Mary and Joseph are devout Jews performing their religious obligations: the purification and the dedication. This takes place in the Temple, in Jerusalem. (See also Numbers 3:13 and Exodus 13:2.)

This passage also reinforces the poverty of the holy family. Mary and Joseph clearly cannot afford a lamb, so they sacrificed two birds. The child is offered to the service of the Lord, like Samuel. That Mary and Joseph are poor should come as no surprise to us. 95% of Judea, Samaria, and Galilee likely lived in a subsistence level.

Along comes Simeon. He is “righteous and devout,” and the Holy Spirit rests upon him. God has promised him he will not die until he sees the promised Messiah. Seeing Jesus prompts a song. Not only has he seen salvation, this revelation clearly signals to him that his death is near, for God has fulfilled his promise.

This song is known as the Song of Simeon, the Nunc Dimittis (“Now you dismiss”). Liturgically it was sung at night prayer, compline, just as Mary’s song, the Magnificat, is sung for morning prayer, matins, and the Benedictus is sung at evening prayer, vespers. Brian Stoffregen points out that compline is our “going to bed” liturgy. We are dismissed in peace. In our Lutheran Eucharistic liturgy it is often sung as the post communion canticle. Having seen the salvation of Christ in the sacrament, we can go in peace to serve the Lord.

Lord, now you let your servant go in peace,
Your word has been fulfilled
My eyes have seen your salvation
Which you have prepared in the sight of all peoples
A light to reveal you to the nations
And for glory to your people Israel.

To this the doxology was added:

Glory to the father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit,
As it was in the beginning, is now and will be forever. Amen.

Professor Joy Moore of Fuller Theological Seminary points out that Luke often uses male and female couples as witnesses to the Gospel. Joseph and Mary’s faithfulness. Elizabeth and Zechariah. Simeon and Anna in the Temple. All of them respond with songs. True to Luke’s account of Pentecost in Acts, the Spirit is poured out on all flesh, men and women, young and old.

Pastor John Stendahl says:

Man with babyPicture the old man with the baby in his arms. He stands chuckling with giddy joy, or perhaps he gazes with streaming tears on his cheeks, or is lost in transfixed wonder; in whatever way, he is so very happy. Then he says that this is enough now, he is ready to die. He has seen salvation and he can depart in peace.

But what has happened? Nothing yet. Caesar is still on his throne. Herod is still wreaking havoc. Salvation has not yet been realized. Simeon has simply caught a glimpse of it, and that is all he needs. He has seen it. He has touched it.

Might not the same be true for us? As I’m writing this, the news is awash with violence:

  • The Taliban storm a military run school in Pakistan, mowing down 130 people, mostly children.
  • Hostages are taken Sydney, Australia. Three dead.
  • Russia invading Ukraine.
  • Gang activity in Central America driving thousands of unaccompanied minors to our southern border.
  • School shootings — 74 in just the last 18 months, since the Sandy Hook massacre where 20 children and six adults were shot to death.
  • A rash of police shootings of unarmed black men, and a 12-year-old boy with a plastic gun. None have resulted in disciplinary action of any kind.
  • Massive demonstrations in New York and across the country. Some in the streets are throwing rocks at store windows, smashing public property, looting.
  • The police respond, more violence. Reports of police brutality against protestors.
  • Monday five dead in Pennsylvania shootings. The gunman is still at large in Philadelphia.

Salvation is clearly not yet here, but can we see it? Have we glimpsed the hope of the world? Can we say:

My eyes have seen your salvation
Which you have prepared in the sight of all peoples
A light to reveal you to the nations… 

And if so, if we have seen the future, will it not manifest itself in considerable dissatisfaction with the present? Will it not magnetically draw us to live into that future? Are we not called then to give witness now with our lives to God’s future, which is coming?

For Simeon, and Anna, and us, here is the light for the nations, the light of the world. It is the way of Christ, or it is curtains for the world.