Gospel for the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord (2 February 2020)
Gospel Notes by Michael Whelan SM
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” (Luke 2:22-32 – NRSV).
This is the shorter version. The longer version – with verses 33-40 – may be used.
Luke situates the birth of the Messiah firmly within the Jewish tradition. This traditional context has already been indicated. For example, Mary’s Song of Praise – Luke 1:46-55 – clearly echoes the Song of Hannah in 1 Samuel 2:1-10. In today’s Gospel there are five references to the fulfilment of the Mosaic Law – see verses 22, 23, 24, 27 and 39.
purification according to the law of Moses: The need for purification applies to the mother. “According to Lev 12:2–8 a woman who bore a male child was considered unclean for forty days; after seven days the child had to be circumcised (on the eighth), and the mother had to wait at home for thirty-three days, ‘until the days of her purifying were completed’ (12:4), before she could touch anything sacred or enter the Temple courts. The time was doubled for a female child, fourteen + sixty-six days. After the fortieth (or eightieth) day she was to bring to a priest serving that week in the tent/Temple a one-year old lamb for a whole burnt offering (or holocaust) and a young pigeon or turtledove for a sin-offering to make expiation. If she could not afford the lamb, then she was to offer two turtledoves or two young pigeons” (Joseph A Fitzmyer, The Gospel according to Luke I–IX: introduction, translation, and notes (Vol. 28), New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2008, 424).
to present him to the Lord: Luke is not always precise in his linking the rituals associated with Jesus birth and the traditions of the Mosaic Law. (This may be explained by the fact that Luke is neither Jewish nor Palestinian.) We are reminded of the presentation of Samuel by his mother, Hannah, in 1 Sam 1:22–24. Then Luke seems to imply that this in accord with the Mosaic Law. In Exodus 13:1-2 we read: “Yahweh said to Moses, ‘Consecrate to me every firstborn—whatever is the first to open every womb among the people of Israel, both human and animal, is mine’.” However, the primary focus for Luke is the “presentation of the child in the Jerusalem Temple, a custom about which nothing is said either in the OT or in the Mishnah. Such a custom for a firstborn son is simply unknown in Jewish tradition. Moreover, there is nothing either about the need of a purification of the firstborn son” (Joseph A Fitzmyer, op cit, 425).
a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon: Simeon was the name of one of the sons of Jacob – see Genesis 49:5 – and of one of the tribes of Israel – see Numbers 1:23. The description of Simeon as “upright and devout” “places him, along with Zechariah and Elizabeth, Joseph and Mary, and Anna, among the representatives of faithful Jews of Palestine in the period immediately preceding the birth of Jesus” (Joseph A Fitzmyer, op cit, 426).
looking forward to the consolation of Israel: Luke not only looks back, drawing on the traditions of the Mosaic Law, he looks forward to what Israel expects of God. The faithful of Israel trusted God’s promise to redeem Israel. And so the prophetess Anna “began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem” (2:38). Later we meet Joseph of Arimathea: “He came from the Jewish town of Arimathea, and he was waiting expectantly for the kingdom of God” (23:51). “Luke does not further explain the ‘consolation of Israel, but it is to be understood as the postexilic hope for God’s eschatological restoration of the theocracy to Israel” (Ibid).
the Holy Spirit rested on him: The Holy Spirit of God book-ends Luke’s Gospel – the Holy Spirit comes upon Mary at the Annunciation (1:35) and the disciples are clothed with “the power from on high” (24:49). Then Acts records the beginning of the spread of the Good News with the Pentecost event (2:1-10).
In today’s Gospel – Luke 2:22-32 – we are given a glimpse inside the symbolic world of Mary and Joseph and their newborn baby: “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 etc”. Life is a mystery to be lived not a problem to be solved. Symbols – in their different forms – enable us to live the mystery. This is central to the Incarnation – Mary and Joseph, with their newborn, enter fully into the symbols of their time and culture.
The English word symbol comes from the Greek words sum meaning together and ballein meaning to throw. Symbols gather together multiple meanings and “throw” them together. In symbols, those multiple meanings are grasped by us as one. Symbols, like jokes, lose much of their potency if they have to be explained.
Symbols are created by communities and in turn create communities. Thus, the raising of a national flag can be a gathering point. We could think similarly about other symbols, such as a wedding ring, a police officer’s badge, a flight attendant’s uniform, a family barbeque, standing in reverent silence, kneeling before the Blessed Sacrament or making the sign of the Cross. The symbolic takes us beyond the limits of rational thought, allowing us to encounter and engage dimensions of the real world that the rational mind can never reach.
Without an appreciation for the symbolic, we lose touch with the real world, except those parts of it that are immediately available to sense perception and the rational mind. And this is not good for our health as individuals or as a community. The eminent psychiatrist, Rollo May, notes that healthy, life-giving cultures provide symbols – in various forms and ways – that “individuals need to face the crises of life – birth, adolescence, marriage, procreation, death – so that they do not experience the profound insecurity, self-doubt and inner conflict which we associate with anxiety” (Rollo May, “Myths and Culture: Their Death and Transformation”, Cross Currents, XXXIII, 1 (Spring 1983), 1).
Rollo May then goes on to offer a critique of the cultures that dominate in the Western world today: “But scarcely do we propose a discussion of myth and culture when we are confronted by an almost insurmountable obstacle – that is, the myth that we live a ‘mythless existence’. Myths and symbols are scorned and rejected or, at best, taken as unreal, imaginary, and, at worst, become synonyms for ‘falsehood’. The wide prevalence of anxiety and alienation in our society is, I believe, bound up with our rejection of the language of myth .... Psychotherapy, and the problems which lead people to come in numbers for psychological help, emerge at a particular point in the historic development of a culture – that is the point where the myths and symbols of the culture disintegrate. The values of the culture are mediated by these myths and symbols, and with their breakdown comes the inner conflict which sends people to psychotherapy” (Ibid). How do symbols function in your life?