Lord, now let your servant depart in peace…
In today’s feast, we have a recently born baby being recognized as the Light of the World by a man who will soon depart this life. And we have the first real acknowledgment of the end of the old order and the beginning of the new.
How is this?
Jesus was presented in the temple on this day, 40 days after his birth, in fulfillment of the Mosaic law as we read in Exodus 13:13–16: “Every firstborn of man among your sons, you shall redeem.” This act was supposed to occur on the 31st day after the birth, but for various reasons the Church Fathers attributed it to the 40th day. The first born was to be “redeemed.” That is, through the payment of 5 shekels, the firstborn male child was to be freed from his obligation to serve the Lord as a priest, according to ancient Hebrew practice.
You’ll have to read about the Golden Calf and the refusal of the Tribe of Levi to participate in this abomination to get the full meaning of this idea.
But here, we have Mary and Joseph obliged by the Law of Moses coming to Jerusalem to present their son in the temple. Which is contrary to what the author of Hebrews tells us in today’s second reading:
…therefore, he had to become like his brothers and sisters
in every way,
that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest before God
to expiate the sins of the people.
So even though Jesus had been redeemed from priestly functions shortly after his birth, we now know him as a priest, one who redeemed us from our sin by becoming a sacrifice himself. Why did he become a high priest? Wasn’t he redeemed from this obligation by the ceremony celebrated today?
The Feast of the Presentation of the Lord acts as a crossroads for us and for the world. It is foretold in today’s second reading from Malachi: “But who will endure the day of his coming? And who can stand when he appears….Then the sacrifice of Judah and Jerusalem will please the Lord.” It is where Simeon realizes that God’s promise to him that he would not come to the end of his days before seeing the Messiah, who is a newborn baby just starting his life, has been fulfilled. And Anna, also in the temple that day, prophesies the redemption of Jerusalem. And the law is upended since the redeemed firstborn of Mary and Joseph is actually a high priest in the line of Melchizedek. And the world is made new now and forever, as we read in 2 Corinthians 5:17: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!”
And by this, I think St. Paul means that with each person coming to Jesus, there is a new creation and a further erosion of the old order.
So although all this is not realized until the establishment of the Eucharist and the Resurrection, it is here, on this feast day, The Presentation of the Lord in the temple that the funnel of the old world closes down to its narrowest point and the trumpet of the new creation sounds out the clarion call for us all: “Repent! The Kingdom of God is at hand.”
Let me go back to Simeon’s idea that Jesus was to be a sign that will be contradicted. Listen to Psalm 24 from today:
Lift up your heads, O ye gates; and be ye lift up, ye everlasting doors; and the King of glory shall come in.
Who is this King of glory? The LORD strong and mighty, the LORD mighty in battle.
Lift up your heads, O ye gates; even lift them up, ye everlasting doors; and the King of glory shall come in.
Who is this King of glory? The LORD of hosts, he is the King of glory.
On the one hand, we have Jesus, gentle and mild. On the other, Jesus the lord of armies. If this isn’t a contradiction, what is?
My brothers and sisters, this will also have to wait for another sermon. Along with references to Candlemas and Groundhog Day which are also celebrated today.
But finally, we know that Jesus was taken back to Nazareth by his mother and father and there he grew in wisdom and strength. In one month we will enter the Lenten season. Then we shall know the real meaning of the end of today’s second reading:
Because he himself was tested through what he suffered,
he is able to help those who are being tested.
Lord, help us to recognize our salvation which you have prepared in our sight. Help us to revel in his glory and bring that light to the rest of our world.