Sunday reflection: Luke 2:22-40
posted at 10:01 am on February 2, 2014 by Ed Morrissey
“Sunday Reflection” is a regular Green Room feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection only represents my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion.
Today’s gospel reading is Luke 2:22-40:
When the days were completed for their purification according to the law of Moses, Mary and Joseph took Jesus up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord, just as it is written in the law of the Lord, Every male that opens the womb shall be consecrated to the Lord, and to offer the sacrifice of a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons, in accordance with the dictate in the law of the Lord.
Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon. This man was righteous and devout, awaiting the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he should not see death before he had seen the Christ of the Lord. He came in the Spirit into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus to perform the custom of the law in regard to him, he took him into his arms and blessed God, saying:
“Now, Master, you may let your servant go in peace, according to your word, for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you prepared in sight of all the peoples: a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and glory for your people Israel.”
The child’s father and mother were amazed at what was said about him; and Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, “Behold, this child is destined for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be contradicted —and you yourself a sword will pierce— so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.” There was also a prophetess, Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was advanced in years, having lived seven years with her husband after her marriage, and then as a widow until she was eighty-four. She never left the temple, but worshiped night and day with fasting and prayer. And coming forward at that very time, she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were awaiting the redemption of Jerusalem.
When they had fulfilled all the prescriptions of the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.
Once again, we have a prophetic cycle, starting with our Old Testament reading of Malachi 3:4-1, which predicted that “the Lord you seek” would “come to the temple.” The reading of Malachi promised that the Lord’s anointed would “purify the sons of Levi,” who were the priestly caste of Israel, “refining them like gold or like silver so that they may offer due sacrifice to the Lord,” restoring Israel’s relationship with God “as in years gone by.”
We have seen similar prophetic cycles the last two weeks, both dealing with the plan for salvation. In last week’s readings, Isaiah prophesies that the “degraded” paths of Zebulon and Naphthali will bring salvation, and Jesus begins his ministry there on the Sea of Galilee. Two weeks ago, Isaiah speaks of Israel becoming “a great light to the nations,” and Jesus is baptized by John the Baptist in the Gospel according to John. In Matthew’s narrative (3:14), John states that he feels that Jesus should baptize him rather than the other way around. Jesus says in response, “Let it be so now; for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.”
Here we have “all righteousness” fulfilled again, except in this case it is being fulfilled by Mary and Joseph. Mary might have wondered whether Jesus, as the Son of God, would need to be consecrated in the temple as were all first-born sons in Israel. After all, Jesus was already consecrated at His conception by His conception of the Holy Spirit. John the Baptist, who only knew Jesus as the Messiah upon his arrival at the Jordan, knew enough about Jesus’ nature to question the need for His baptism at all.
This consecration and Jesus’ baptism both fulfill all righteousness, but they do more than that; the rituals make Jesus a part of the shared human experience in worshiping and serving God. Had God so chosen, He could have manifested himself on Earth in all his glory, forcing us as slaves to worship without the bother of the Incarnation. But God does not present us with salvation to enslave us; salvation comes as a gift to make us more human, as God intended humanity to be before its fallen state, a salvation which frees rather than enslaves us. Jesus lives a fully human life to lead us to that end through worship and sacrifice. Thus, in both these readings and in those from two weeks ago, the Christ condescends to full humanity as well as full divinity. Only in this way can Jesus redeem the priesthood, refine it like gold or silver, in order to offer God His “due sacrifice”–which Jesus would redefine at the Last Supper.
The New Testament reading today, Hebrews 2:14-18, distills this and explicitly links Jesus to the redeemed priesthood:
Since the children share in blood and flesh, Jesus likewise shared in them, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who through fear of death had been subject to slavery all their life. Surely he did not help angels but rather the descendants of Abraham; 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.
These passages do more than just link Jesus to the prophecies of the Messiah in the Old Testament, though. The purpose of this cycle of salvation is formation. Malachi prophesies that the sacrifices of the priests will be made worthy through the Messiah, and Jesus takes great care to have fulfilled all the requirements of a priest of Israel throughout his life (even later studying in the Temple while his parents frantically search for him).
These are not empty gestures. They speak to the importance of worship and sacrifice by all humanity in their service of God, and also to the purpose of worship. Jesus spends three or more years ministering to people and spreading the word to “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.” Repent meant not just to offer atonement for sins committed but to change, to form ourselves to refuse the temptation of sin altogether.
As sharers in the priesthood, we are the silver and gold which Jesus came to refine. That starts with committing to attendance at church and prayer, both of which form us toward God and salvation just as Jesus demonstrated with his adherence to the temple rites and baptism. We owe God our worship, but it’s not for mere flattery or obsequiousness. It’s to remind ourselves of our mission in life: to serve Him and prepare ourselves and others to live in His divine presence through eternity, and to change ourselves — repent — to meet that mission through His grace.
Update: Removed reference to Paul as author of Hebrews (see my comment below).