Simple Obedience: A Meditation on Candlemas

Today is the Feast of the Presentation of Our Lord Jesus, known commonly as Candlemas. Luke records the event which the Feast commemorates:

And 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 male who first opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord”) and to offer a sacrifice according to what is said in the Law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons.”

Luke cites two commandments from the Law which Joseph and Mary obeyed on that journey. The first is the law of redemption of the firstborn, which we find in Exodus 13:

The Lord said to Moses, “Consecrate to me all the firstborn. Whatever is the first to open the womb among the people of Israel, both of man and of beast, is mine.” Then Moses said to the people: … “When the Lord brings you into the land of the Canaanites, as He swore to you and your fathers, and shall give it to you, you shall set apart to the Lord all that first opens the womb. All the firstborn of your animals that are males shall be the Lord’s. Every firstborn of a donkey you shall redeem with a lamb, or if you will not redeem it you shall break its neck. Every firstborn of man among your sons you shall redeem. And when in time to come your son asks you, ‘What does this mean?’ you shall say to him, ‘By a strong hand the Lord brought us out of Egypt, from the house of slavery. For when Pharaoh stubbornly refused to let us go, the Lord killed all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both the firstborn of man and the firstborn of animals. Therefore I sacrifice to the Lord all the males that first open the womb, but all the firstborn of my sons I redeem.’ It shall be as a mark on your hand or frontlets between your eyes, for by a strong hand the Lord brought us out of Egypt.”

Moses explicitly links the redemption of sons to the Passover. Thus, Joseph and Mary buy Jesus back from God, sparing the Son from the strong hand of the Father in the same way that the lambs’ blood spared the firstborn in Egypt. Redeeming Jesus in this way creates a dramatic irony with the central drama of the Gospels, the Crucifixion. The Presentation anticipates Jesus’ Passion, where He offers Himself as the Passover sacrifice, sparing all of humanity from the strong hand of the Father.

This might cause us to wonder, Why does the Son of God have to be redeemed from His own Father? Why bother buying Him back when His whole life’s mission is to give Himself as a sacrifice for man’s sin? We will return to these questions shortly.

First, let us consider the second law cited by Luke, which comes from Leviticus 12:

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “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. 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 anything holy, nor come into the sanctuary, until the days of her purifying are completed. 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.

“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, 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. 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.”

It should shock us that Mary goes to the Temple to fulfill this commandment. She has just given birth to the Son of God. Do we really mean to say that bearing Jesus made Mary unclean? How is it that the Mother of God could “not touch anything holy, nor come into the sanctuary” when she held the Son of God in her arms and nursed Him at her breast? More shocking still, the sacrifices for purification include a sin offering! Surely this commandment was not meant for her. How could it possibly apply to her?

These questions about the redemption of Jesus and the purification of Mary may call the whole enterprise of the Presentation into question. We could scratch our heads wondering why these sacrifices and rituals were necessary in the case of Jesus. But here’s the truly wonderful thing about the Presentation: Mary and Joseph knew that Jesus was the Son of God, and still they didn’t scratch their heads or doubt the necessity of their obedience.

As we keep the Feast this year, let us remember the quality that has always made the Holy Family exemplars of the Faith: their simple obedience. They did not bother with reasons why they should not obey. They simply did “as it is written in the Law of the Lord.” And so should we.

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