Friday, 2 February 2018

The Presentation of the Lord as Accessible Mystery

Mary and Joseph present Jesus to Simeon, with Anna the prophetess looking-on

It has now been forty days since Christmas, and today marks the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord.

In accord with the laws handed down to Moses, the ancient Israelites would consecrate their firstborn son to God. The decree extended to firstborn males, both man and beast alike. We read in Exodus:

The LORD said to Moses, "Consecrate to me all the first-born; whatever is the first to open the womb among the people of Israel, both of man and of beast, is mine."

Mary and Joseph, as obedient and faithful practising Jews, heeded this command, and hence forty days following the birth of Jesus, Mary and Joseph “brought him up to Jerusalem [to the temple] to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every male that 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 2:22b-24).

The context of this law governing the consecration of the first-born, is explained in Exodus. It relates to the final plague on Egypt involving the killing of their first-born; a plague which was the blessing by which God spared the first-born of the Israelites and so won their deliverance from the oppressive grip of Pharaoh who until then refused to let God’s People go. It’s a reversing of the tables, since in the past it was the Israelite’s first-borns who were put to death at the command of Pharaoh. Signifying the contrast between the eternal death resulting from sin, and eternal life bestowed by grace.

The element of redemption won through sacrifice is central to the law of the consecration of the first-born and to the mystery of the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple. Since the first-born of the Israelites were spared from death, unlike the Egyptian’s, only because of the blood of the lamb which they smeared across their doorposts—for which reason, the hand of God passed over them, leaving them unharmed.[1] It was only through the sacrifice of a lamb, therefore, that God’s grace brought temporal redemption to the Israelites.

In imitation of this, the ceremony for the consecration of the first-born likewise involved a sacrifice—either a lamb, or as a concession for those too poor to afford a lamb, a pigeon or a turtle dove (Lev 5:7). Mary and Joseph offered the latter, because of their poverty. Yet the force of its meaning is greater than bearing witness to a profound humility on the part of the Holy Family, and above all on the part of God in Christ, who “‘although he was rich, became a poor man’” choosing “both a poor mother” and father.[2]

For as Abraham said in response to Isaac’s question, “Where is the lamb?”— “God will provide himself the lamb… my son.” (Gen 22:7,8); so too we can say in accord with an ancient understanding, and applying it to this feast, that Mary and Joseph offered a pair of pigeons or turtle doves, and not a lamb, because God Himself had provided the Lamb: His Son, Jesus Christ, “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world (Jn 1:29). Or more precisely, Mary and Joseph did offer a lamb, but not a literal lamb, but the Lamb of God who was spotless and without the blemish of sin.

It is at this moment that we consider the Holy Mass. When do we hear reference made to Jesus, as the Lamb of God? At least twice.

Lamb of God you take away the sins of the world, have mercy on us… Lamb of God you take away the sins of the world, grant us peace.

Behold the Lamb of God, behold him who takes away the sins of the world. Blessed are those called to the supper of the Lamb.

This all takes place during the Liturgy of the Eucharist, and directly unfolds the mystery of the Eucharist which is this: that here in the Eucharist, Jesus is being offered to the Father for the remission of our sins, and the deliverance of ourselves from the Egypt of the world, so that by receiving Him who is offered for us, and to us, we might share in His resurrection and attain the life to come; even here and now within our souls where the Promised Land of heaven, with its milk of consolation and honey of bliss, already abides in us and overflows in abundance.

Yes, in the Eucharist, during the Mass, through the ministry of the priesthood, Jesus is presented to the Father as the Lamb of God; and by our reception of Holy Communion, we are covered with the Precious Blood by which we are purchased and ransomed (1 Pet 1:19), delivered from the death of sin, and adopted and confirmed as firstborn sons in He who is the Firstborn of the Father, and the Firstborn from the dead (Heb 12:12; Col 1:18).

This brings us back once again to the event of the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple. Here we see not just a mere symbolism of the Mass, and the mystery of our redemption, but the Mass itself, spiritually being carried out. We know that Mary and Joseph, being the mother and father of Jesus, belong to the Hypostatic Order—the highest order in the Church, surpassing both in office and dignity even that of the Apostles.[3] Mary is thus hailed as the Mother and Supreme Typus of the Church, and Joseph as the Father and Universal Patron of the Church.

In the humble scene of the Presentation, recorded in Luke’s Gospel, we can therefore see in Mary the whole Church being signified, who by virtue of the baptismal priesthood offers Jesus to the Father through the ministerial priest. In Joseph we can see the representation of the ministerial priesthood, in his giving of Jesus over to Simeon—the embodiment of Israel, signifying the Church in her individual members. Alternatively, and both interpretations can be applied, Joseph is representative of God the Father, who gave His Son to us—a giving which perpetuates itself in the Eucharist, and on this level, Simeon represents the priesthood which in the Holy Mass, receives the Son from the Father, and offers the Son back to the Father, on behalf of the People of God.

Yet beyond all this signification, Mary and Joseph are spiritually participating in the Mass, by truly and really offering Jesus up for the glory of the Father and the salvation of souls.

The Presentation is thus the first mystical Mass, carried out in time before the Last Supper and the sacrifice on Calvary, and before the resurrection, but a re-presentation of these singular events, and inseparable from them in the Holy Spirit.

After all, what God did in His humanity in time, His humanity did with His Godhead in eternity—so that the Presentation of the Lord in the Temple is not a mere symbolic gesture of the Paschal Mystery, of events to come, rendering it void of salvific power and sanctifying impact; but, anticipating the power of His Paschal Mystery, it is in fact a profound moment that is salvific and extends its sanctifying influence into our daily lives of prayer, through the Sacrament of the Eucharist, and accessed through our devotion (CCC 1115).[4]

So we can say—the Presentation of the Lord takes places within us, shedding light and casting glory into the temple of our soul, all through the intercessory power of Mary and Joseph. And here in the temple of our soul, our human will, like Simeon, holds tightly onto the Infant Jesus—the Light and Glory of God enfleshed—content in peace, and desirous to be consumed by this Being of Love; as the faculty of our intellect, like an Anna, torn from its marriage to the pseudo-wisdom of the world, and wedded to the Word in meditation and adoration, is compelled to give thanks to God and to speak of Him to all who are looking for the redemption that is found in Him who is Lamb of God (Luke 2:28-38).


[1] At this point, the mind of the modern man cannot help but think, “Is this not a cruel God? What kind of loving God would bring about and permit the death of the innocent first-borns of the Egyptians?” To this, one thing must be kept in mind—the first-born applied to man and beast alike, no matter their age at the time of the plague; so indeed, some were innocent children, others a broad range of men, the good, bad and the ugly. Furthermore, what God carries out can only by seen in the light of His Goodness. If he allowed it to happen, it was for a greater good—the power of a sign of sin which results in death, and the gift of life won through sacrifice, above all in the Lamb of God, Jesus Christ. The power of such a sign, which would henceforth serve as a benefit for the salvation of countless souls. Nor must one conclude those who died were consigned to hell—for perhaps indeed these very ones who died were shown special mercy and hence, the hope of their salvation cannot be cast aside.
[2] Origen, Homilies on Leviticus 8.4.3, in Arthur A. Just, Jr., and Thomas C. Oden eds. Luke, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, New Testament, p.48.
[3] Edward Healy Thompson, The Life and Glories of Saint Joseph, chp. II, p.5-6.
[4]Jesus' words and actions during his hidden life and public ministry were already salvific, for they anticipated the power of his Paschal mystery. They announced and prepared what he was going to give the Church when all was accomplished. The mysteries of Christ's life are the foundations of what he would henceforth dispense in the sacraments, through the ministers of his Church, for "what was visible in our Savior has passed over into his mysteries."”