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4th Sunday in Ordinary Time: A Light for All

John W. Martens

Presentation of the Lord (A), Feb. 2, 2014

“For my eyes have seen your salvation” (Lk 2:30)

The Presentation of the Lord places us in the midst of the Law of Moses that governed the sacrifices due for the purification of a mother following the birth of a male child (Lv 12:1–8) and the regulations concerning the consecration of a firstborn male child (Ex 13:1–2, 13, 15). There are in fact no Old Testament rules that insist upon the presentation of the child in the Temple. Rather, the presentation of Jesus in the Temple marks the public recognition and reception of Jesus Christ.

 

Mary’s purification is fulfilled according to the Old Testament laws about when a woman who has given birth to a male child should make her sacrificial offering. According to Leviticus 12, this would be after 40 days, which is why the church’s celebration takes place on Feb. 2, 40 days after the date marked as the nativity of Jesus. By narrating Mary’s rite of purification, Luke’s account demonstrates Joseph’s and Mary’s fidelity to God’s law. The salvation that accompanies the Messiah does not disregard the Law of Moses but walks in obedience to it.

Jesus’ presentation in the Temple, however, is not an essential component of the Old Testament laws governing the consecration of the firstborn; that is accomplished with the payment of a redemption price of five shekels (Nm 18:15–16), which Luke does not explicitly mention, though there may be an allusion to it in Lk 2:27. Luke instead focuses on the Christological implications of the presentation of Jesus in the Temple in Jerusalem, his father’s house, the place in which the people of Israel, signified by Simeon and Anna, recognize the Messiah. The Temple and Jerusalem are fulcrums to which God’s promises lead and from which the Messiah’s fulfillment will progress.

There are certainly allusions in the passage to the prophet Samuel, as there are throughout Luke’s infancy narrative, especially his dedication to the Temple by his mother Hannah (1 Sm 1), which evoke parallels to Mary’s presentation of Jesus. Malachi 3:1–4 has also been understood by Christians to announce the arrival of the Messiah as it says, “The Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple” and “purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness.” Finally, Heb 2:14–18 explains Christ’s incarnation as essential, for “he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people.”

The Temple, destroyed by the Romans in A.D. 70, with only the ruins of the retaining walls marking its former splendor, remains central to Christian understanding of Jesus and his role. The Messiah and the salvation he brings would go forth from the Jerusalem Temple for all the nations. Simeon, Luke says, was a righteous man who had received a revelation through the Holy Spirit that “he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah.” When he saw Jesus, he took him in his arms and uttered a prayer known from the Latin as the Nunc Dimittis: “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.” In the heart of the Temple, as the Law of Moses is being fulfilled, prophetic words are spoken that speak not just to the salvation of Israel but to the entire world. Jesus’ light not only illuminates Jewish hopes but will also shine on the nations.

But there was still more. The aged prophet Anna, Luke says, “never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day.” When she saw Jesus, she “began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.” In this prophetic reception of Jesus, Anna also points to the child’s mission. In the presentation in the Temple, it is revealed that in Jesus the hopes of the Temple, Law and Prophets would not be cast aside but would be re-presented to all the nations by the one who was priest, prophet and king.

John W. Martens is an associate professor of theology at the University of St. Thomas, St. Paul, Minn.

Readings: 

Mal 3:1-4; Ps 24:7–10; Heb 2:14–18; Lk 2:22–40

Prayer: 

 

Place yourself with Mary, Joseph and Jesus at the Temple in Jerusalem. Meditate on the words of Simeon and Anna regarding God’s plan for Jesus.

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