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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The Prophetic Voice

Since we are delving into the prophets for a couple of months, I think it good to remind ourselves of the prophets’ mission and methods. Understanding the writings of the prophets will also give us a greater appreciation for what Jesus was doing in His ministry and what the apostles were doing in theirs.

“Prophet” is a loaded word in English vernacular. We most commonly use it to mean “a person who tells the future.” This definition reduces prophecy to predictions and fortune-telling. A meteorologist is a “prophet” in this sense. We are not surprised, then, that the Bible means something different by the word “prophet.”

A biblical prophet is a spokesman for God. Consider the introductions to each of the prophets we’ll study this quarter: “In the second year of Darius the king, in the sixth month, on the first day of the month, the word of the Lord came by the hand of Haggai the prophet…” (Hag 1.1a); “In the eighth month, in the second year of Darius, the word of the Lord came to the prophet Zechariah…” (Zech 1.1a); “The oracle of the word of the Lord to Israel by Malachi” (Mal 1.1). Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi begin their writings the same way all the prophets do: by invoking the word of the Lord. The prophet’s mission is to speak God’s words to His people.

In this sense, Moses is Israel’s original prophet. The Law is a prophecy, i.e., the word of the Lord. Therefore Moses says, “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brothers” (Dtr 18.15, emphasis mine). Moses’ last words to Israel are a prophetic warning: “Take to heart all the words by which I am warning you today, that you may command them to your children, that they may be careful to do all the words of this law. For it is no empty word for you, but your very life, and by this word you shall live long in the land that you are going over the Jordan to possess” (Dtr 32.46-47).

It’s useful to think of the prophets as preachers of the Law. The prophets don’t come up with new rules or new standards. Instead, they direct Israel’s attention to the words that God has already spoken through Moses. The creative work of the prophet is to show the people of his time how they have broken faith with God.

The prophet’s mission might include foretelling, but the predictions serve the message and not the other way around. The biblical prophet doesn’t perform parlor tricks or give a ten-day weather forecast. He preaches the Law to Israel then tells what will befall them if they disobey. Even in this point, the prophet’s message depends on the Law, because the Law lays out the blessings for obedience and curses for disobedience (Dtr 28).

The prophets speak truth to power. Haggai addresses Zerubbabel the governor and Joshua the high priest. Malachi addresses the priests. The older prophets addressed the kings of Israel and Judah. The prophets preach from the top down, because the rulers of the people have an enormous impact on the faith of the people. Malachi upbraids the priests for causing the people to stumble: “For the lips of a priest should guard knowledge, and people should seek instruction from his mouth, for he is the messenger of the Lord of hosts. But you have turned aside from the way. You have caused many to stumble by your instruction. You have corrupted the covenant of Levi, says the Lord of hosts, and so I make you despised and abased before all the people, inasmuch as you do not keep my ways but show partiality in your instruction” (Mal 2.7-9).

We might also think of prophecy as reducing the Law to its essential features. They make things simple to make them applicable. Consider again the words of Malachi: “Then I will draw near to you for judgment. I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired worker in his wages, the widow and the fatherless, against those who thrust aside the sojourner, and do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts” (Mal 3.5). What does it mean to be faithful to the covenant? Malachi takes a host of laws and boils them down to true religion, sexual purity, civil justice, and social justice.

Prophecy did not cease with the Old Testament. The people we encounter in the New Testament anticipate that God’s Messiah will bring them the word of the Lord. Jesus picks up the mantle of prophet in His ministry, and He passes that mantle on to His apostles and disciples (1 Cor 12.1-11). What exactly that looked like is a matter for another week, so I want to close with some questions for self-examination. The Church exists to deliver the words of God to the world. Have you submitted yourself to God’s word? Can it be said of your message, “Thus saith the Lord,” or is it merely your own devising? Are you willing to speak truth to power on behalf of the powerless? Will you witness against impurity and ritualism in the Church? May God bless us all with pure faith worthy of our calling.

Honoring the Hoary Head

Most biblically literate people know that the Law of Moses commands, “Thou shalt rise up before the hoary head, and honour the face of the old man, and fear thy God: I am the LORD” (Lev 19.32, KJV). I want to consider this week why the Law commands us to respect the elderly, because I think that it will inform the way we follow the commandment out.

My impression growing up was that the elderly merited respect because of the wisdom and status gained from long, fruitful years. This sentiment is consistent with the Proverbs: “Gray hair is a crown of glory; it is gained in a righteous life” (Pro 16.31, ESV); “The glory of young men is their strength, but the splendor of old men is their gray hair” (Pro 20.29). The idea is that men and women age like wine.

The sentiment strikes us as unusual, though, when we consider that the Law of Moses was Israel’s statutory law which God implemented for the governing of the nation. One generally does not write laws against things that people aren’t doing, which is why the Law of Moses doesn’t explicitly prohibit one from chopping off one’s own head. It follows that the Israelites tended not to respect the aged, and there must have been a reason for their not doing so.

The commandment also strikes us as odd when we consider that the Law doesn’t ask Israel to respect the wealthy or the powerful. It doesn’t even explicitly ask Israel to honor the priests, though it may be implied in Exo 28.2, 40. In short, nowhere does the Law tell Israel to honor people because they have merited respect according to worldly standards.

The Law does command Israel to honor certain people based on their status. It explicitly commands Israel, “Honor your father and your mother,” because they are father and mother. It implicitly commands Israel to honor the Lord because He is the Lord. It also implicitly commands Israel to honor another set of people for an entirely different set of reasons: the poor, the widow, the orphan, and the foreigner.

Consider the context of Leviticus 19, which is the only place in the Law that commands respect for the aged. “When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the foreigner. I am the LORD your God” (Lev 19.9-10). “Do not curse the deaf or put a stumbling block in front of the blind, but fear your God. I am the LORD” (Lev 19.14). Most importantly, consider the commandment immediately following the commandment about respecting the aged: “When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the LORD your God” (Lev 19.33-34). In Leviticus 19, “Thou shalt rise up before the hoary head” isn’t about honoring someone who is especially wise or high-status; it’s about protecting someone who is relatively helpless and potentially a target for abuse.

We look for people to age like wine; the Law recognizes that most people age like milk. To the world, gray hair means frailty and senility. It means becoming a burden. To the unscrupulous in the world, advanced age sounds like the “ka-ching” of a cash register.

I invite you to read Rachel Aviv’s article, “How the Elderly Lose Their Rights.” Aviv describes a system of court-sanctioned private “guardians” who can force seniors out of their homes, sell their assets, control their lives—and charge their estates for the privilege. Be sure to sit down when you read it, because it will make your blood boil.

The system of guardianship in this country is abhorrent, but it’s nothing new. It is not uncommon for Americans to abandon an aged parent to a nursing home, and it is not uncommon to see videos of nursing home staff abusing their wards. In the ancient world, the elderly were just another mouth to feed. Like young children, they couldn’t produce anything to make up for the effort of looking after them. Ancient Near Eastern law codes offered them no protections. Then, as now, the world often saw the aged as human refuse. God calls us to better things.

We are to honor not just the “shiny-looking” elderly, the ones who have accomplished great things, who are enjoying a luxurious retirement, who are still “setting the world on fire” in their life’s winter—the ones the world is proud to show off. The Law commands us to honor the feeble, the frail, the senile—the “useless” according to the world. Not just care for them but honor them by doing things like standing in their presence.

Some of the first to recognize the glory of the newborn Messiah were an elderly man and an elderly widow (Luke 2.25-38). The Gospels honor and bless the elderly along with the poor, the widow, and the foreigner. In the spirit of the Gospels, look to “rise up before the hoary head, and honour the face of the old man.”

Continue reading “Honoring the Hoary Head”