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.
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.
I noticed Mikeal Parsons’ 2015 commentary on Luke (Luke, Paideia series) is now under $20 at Amazon, both in paperback and on Kindle. This has been my favorite commentary on Luke recently. It’s worth having.
Parsons divides Our Text into four parts:
- Setting (2:22–24)
- Simeon (2:25–35)
- Anna (2:36–38)
- Conclusion (2:39)
22 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 23 (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”), 24 and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”
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 the vineyard bare, but to leave some for the poor and for immigrants.)
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. Luke 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.)
The firstborn male (a male who opens the womb) is holy to the Lord. Parsons says,
… the firstborn child should be consecrated to the Lord (Exod. 13:2, 11–16) and redeemed, or bought back, at a price of five shekels (Num. 18:15–16) as a reminder of the exodus (Reicke 1978). Like Samuel, who at his birth was dedicated to God’s service by his mother, Hannah (1 Sam. 1–2), Jesus is dedicated by Mary and Joseph to the Lord’s service. That no mention of “ransom” money is made by the narrator is intentional. Jesus is left “unredeemed” in order that he may be fully dedicated to God’s service…
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.
Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon;[d] this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. 26 It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah.[e] 27 Guided by the Spirit, Simeon[f] came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, 28 Simeon[g] took him in his arms and praised God, saying,
29 “Master, now you are dismissing your servant[h] in peace,
according to your word;
30 for my eyes have seen your salvation,
31 which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel.”
33 And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. 34 Then Simeon[i] 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 35 so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”
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, but 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”). It draws heavily on imagery from Isaiah (Isa. 40:5; 42:6; 46:13; 49:6; 52:9–10).
Liturgically it is sung at night prayer, compline, just as Mary’s song, the Magnificat is sung for morning prayer, matins, and the Benedictus it 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.
There was also a prophet, Anna[j] 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, 37 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. 38 At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child[k] to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.
Amy Jill Levine, in The Jewish Annotated New Testament, points out that Anna is in a line of Jewish female prophets. Miriam is a prophetess in Exodus 15:20. Deborah in Judges 4:4. Huldah in 2 Kings 22:14. Isaiah’s wife in Isaiah 8:3. This makes Isaiah and his wife a prophet couple. Anna, which can also be rendered “Hannah,” is reminiscent of Samuel’s mother Hannah (Samuel 1-2), who is also a prophetess.
Professor Joy Moore of Fuller theological Seminary (http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1180) 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 have songs. True to Luke’s account of Pentecost in Acts, the Spirit is poured out on all flesh, men and women, young and old.
When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth.
Luke reminds us that all are attentive to the Torah.
Pastor John Stendahl says (http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=2631):
Picture 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 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? Our world is still awash with violence. The song of the angels can seem mocking, “Peace on earth, good will to all people.”
Salvation is clearly not here, but can we see it? Have we glimpsed the hope of the world? Can we say:
My eyes have caught a glimpse of 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.
I’ll leave you with Frederick Buechner’s poignant words, from his book Peculiar Treasures: A Biblical Who’s Who, which pick up Simeon’s ominous statement to Mary that a sword will pierce her soul. In Luke, we are never very far from the crucifixion.
Jesus was still in diapers when his parents brought him to the Temple in Jerusalem “to present him to the Lord” (Luke 2:22), as the custom was, and offer a sacrifice, and that’s when old Simeon spotted him. Years before, he’d been told he wouldn’t die till he’d seen the Messiah with his own two eyes, and time was running out. When the moment finally came, one look through his cataract lenses was all it took. He asked if it would be all right to hold the baby in his arms, and they told him to go ahead but be careful not to drop him.
“Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word, for mine eyes have seen thy salvation,” he said (Luke 2:29), the baby playing with the fringes of his beard. The parents were pleased as punch, and so he blessed them too for good measure. Then something about the mother stopped him, and his expression changed.
What he saw in her face was a long way off, but it was there so plainly he couldn’t pretend. “A sword will pierce through your soul,” he said (Luke 2:35).
He would rather have bitten off his tongue than said it, but in that holy place he felt he had no choice. Then he handed her back the baby and departed in something less than the perfect peace he’d dreamed of all the long years of his waiting.