Presentation of Jesus in the Temple and Purification of the Virgin
Candlemas: Light for the Gentiles and Glory for Israel
(C): Pittura di Elena Giménez Balmori
In the second chapter of Saint Luke’s Gospel, beginning from verse 21, the evangelist tells us about the Circumcision and Presentation of Jesus in the Temple. Circumcision was performed eight days after the birth. The Presentation of Jesus and the Purification of the Virgin was held forty days after Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem. By celebrating Christmas on the 25th of December, the Presentation falls every year on the 2nd of February.
Saint Luke’s Gospel adds that the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple was a prescription of the Law of Moses. The Book of Exodus states: “Consecrate to me all the first-born; whatever is the first to open the womb among the people of Israel, both of man and of beast, is mine” (13:2) and further on: “You shall set apart to the Lord all that first opens the womb. All the firstlings of your cattle that are males shall be the Lord’s.” (13:12). And to explain what all this means, added in the same chapter is: “For when Pharaoh stubbornly refused to let us go, the Lord slew all the first-born in the land of Egypt, both the first-born of man and the first-born of cattle. Therefore I sacrifice to the Lord all the males that first open the womb, but all the first-born of my sons I redeem.” (13:15). Thus understood better is why the Jews, and in this case, Mary and Joseph go up to the Temple to present the Child. The law of Moses also prescribed that a woman remained impure after birth and had to remain secluded in her home for forty days if she gave birth to a boy. The twelfth chapter in the Book of Leviticus tells us the following: ”The Lord said to Moses, ‘Say to the people of Israel, “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. And on the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised. Then she shall continue for thirty-three days in the blood of her purifying; she shall not touch any hallowed thing, or come into the sanctuary until the days of her purification are completed’” (1-4). Once the time of Purification had passed, she had to present herself in the Temple to be purified legally, taking with her a year-old lamb for the holocaust and a pigeon or turtle dove as an expiatory sacrifice for sin. If it was a poor family, it was enough to present two pigeons or turtle doves (Cf. Leviticus 12:6-8).
Why was this so? The Law of Moses ordered that the first-born should be kept for the service of divine worship, as a perennial remembrance of the great prodigy wrought by the Lord in Egypt, when the exterminating Angel eliminated in one night all the first-born of the Egyptians and saved all those of the Hebrews. Later on, it was established that the members of the tribe of Levi should be the ones to serve in the Temple and be dedicated to priestly actions for the service of the Temple. The first-born offered to God had to be redeemed symbolically through the previous payment of an amount of money. So states the Book of Numbers in chapter eighteen: “Everything that opens the womb of all flesh, whether man or beast, which they offer to the Lord, shall be yours; nevertheless the first-born of man you shall redeem, and the firstling of unclean beasts you shall redeem. And their redemption price (at a month old you shall redeem them) you shall fix at five shekels of the sanctuary, which is twenty gerahs” (15-16).
Mary and Joseph do all this forty days after Jesus’ birth. The example of Mary and of Jesus is impressive, how they obey the Law, how they subject themselves as if they were stained when they were the new Adam and the new Eve of the Kingdom of Heaven, which was beginning here on earth. This is an example for all of us of how we must behave, despite all the personal sacrifices that the holy Law of God might exact.
Mary and Joseph arrive in Jerusalem from Bethlehem with Jesus in Mary’s arms. The Law does not oblige to take the child materially to the Temple, but mothers usually did so, to invoke upon them heavenly blessings. Once having passed the courtyard of the Gentiles, one arrives at the women’s courtyard, where the mothers that were going to be purified waited for their turn. The Virgin Mary, as one more woman, puts herself in the queue, which advances slowly to the Specious or Nicanor’s door, located between the women’s courtyard and that of the Israelites. The Levite priest would be there, who was in charge of that ceremony every week: he receives the offering for the sacrifice, blesses the mother, and purifies her through the Rite of Aspersion.
Then, when the Rite has over, they hand over the five shekels, price to redeem the first-born. The sum of money wasn’t small, as it was equivalent to the salaries of a day laborer for twenty days of work. But married couples, Mary and Joseph also, gave it with the joy of those that saved it for nine months, full of excitement to redeem their Son and return home.
Then, two very interesting as well as curious personalities enter the scene: Simeon and Ana, the daughter of Phanuel. It’s as if God did not want the first entrance of the Word of God, made man, to remain obscured and ignored. The divine plan of salvation was beginning on earth, the great mystery of our Redemption was being carried out. The prophet Malachi had already announced it: ”Behold, I send my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming says the Lord of “ (3:1).
Saint Luke tells us that Simeon was a just man who feared God, who awaited the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was in him. He knows that the Messiah will bring forgiveness and peace to earth for all men. He had spent a long time praying to the Lord for that moment to arrive and he had received a revelation of God’s Spirit that he would not die before seeing the Saviour, Christ the Lord. Moved by His grace, he approaches Mary and Joseph, takes the Child in his arms, and blesses God.
Full of fervor, Simeon pronounces solemn words in which he blesses God and thanks Him for the unspeakable consolation that He is giving him in these moving moments. And issuing from his mouth were the prophetic words that would become the Nunc Dimittis hymn, which are the first words of the hymn in Latin: “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace . . . “
The hymn is a jewel that priests recite every day before going to sleep, and it says: “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word; for mine eyes have seen thy salvation which thou hast prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to thy people Israel” (Luke 2:29-32).
The first teaching of this prophecy of the Holy Spirit is that Christ is the Saviour of all men: a gift for the Jews and Gentiles, finally twinned in the fulfillment of the divine plan of salvation. God Himself had already announced it many centuries before through the prophet Isaiah: “I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations” (42:6), and later: “I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth” (49:6).
God sent His Son to the world to save all, thus restoring God’s original salvific plan through which we are all called to take part in that love of God through His Holy Spirit. Hence this feast is the feast of God’s Light, called popularly Candlemas. The faithful receive their candles, which are blessed, and walk to the altar to renew the mysteries of our faith.
Simeon adds something very mysterious and prophetic: “Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is spoken against (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), that thoughts out of many hearts may be revealed” (Luke 2:34-35). Thus he reminds Mary that all those close to Jesus Christ will have to take part in his Paschal Mystery (Passion, Death, and Resurrection), thus to enter His glory and participate in the salvation of the human race.
Our Lord Jesus Christ is the Light of the world; our candles are a sign of this wonderful reality. It’s not strange that, as Saint Luke reminds us, Mary and Joseph “marveled at what was said about him” (Luke 2:33).