Joseph and Mary have ascended to Jerusalem to fulfill two ancient mandates: the Rite of Purification for a woman after childbirth and the Rite of Presentation of their firstborn male child, Jesus. These rites set the stage for a dramatic moment in Biblical history, a moment missed by almost everyone. We shall explore this dramatic moment shortly but first a little background.

Jewish law considered that, after a woman gave birth she became ritually impure for a period. While this seems unjust to us, the Jewish notion was rooted in the flow of blood that occurred in childbirth and just about anyone who came in contact with blood incurred a ritual uncleanness for a period of time. The Book of Leviticus has this to say regarding a woman who has given birth:

The LORD said to Moses, “Say to the Israelites: ‘A woman who becomes pregnant and gives birth to a son will be ceremonially unclean for seven days, just as she is unclean during her monthly period. On the eighth day the boy is to be circumcised. Then the woman must wait thirty-three days to be purified from her bleeding. She must not touch anything sacred or go to the sanctuary until the days of her purification are over.  If she gives birth to a daughter, for two weeks the woman will be unclean, as during her period. Then she must wait sixty-six days to be purified from her bleeding. ” ‘When the days of her purification for a son or daughter are over, she is to bring to the priest at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting a year-old lamb for a burnt offering and a young pigeon or a dove for a sin offering. He shall offer them before the LORD to make atonement for her, and then she will be ceremonially clean from her flow of blood.” ‘These are the regulations for the woman who gives birth to a boy or a girl. If she cannot afford a lamb, she is to bring two doves or two young pigeons, one for a burnt offering and the other for a sin offering. In this way the priest will make atonement for her, and she will be clean.’ ” (Lev 12:1-8).

As you can see, there is a fairly negative concept at work here from a modern viewpoint. A woman becomes ritually unclean by giving birth. This was due not to birth per se but  to the flow of blood and/or other fluids at birth. Even more distressing to modern notions is that a woman who gave birth to a daughter was considered ritually unclean for even longer! Alas, it is well that the power of the Church to bind and loose has freed us from this thinking. Keep in mind that this was ceremonial law, not moral law and, hence, the Church is not setting aside immutable moral law in abrogating such notions of ritual impurity.

Obedient to the Law – Nevertheless Joseph and Mary, obedient to law make the dramatic ascent to the Temple, the Son of God carried in Mary’s arms. It is forty days since the birth of the Lord in fulfillment of the Law. As they ascend the glorious steps to the Temple Mount they also fulfil another requirement of the Law:

You are to give over to the LORD the first offspring of every womb. All the firstborn males of your livestock belong to the LORD.  Redeem with a lamb every firstborn donkey, but if you do not redeem it, break its neck. Redeem every firstborn among your sons.   “In days to come, when your son asks you, ‘What does this mean?’ say to him, ‘With a mighty hand the LORD brought us out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.  When Pharaoh stubbornly refused to let us go, the LORD killed the firstborn of both people and animals in Egypt. This is why I sacrifice to the LORD the first male offspring of every womb and redeem each of my firstborn sons.’ (Ex 13:12-15)

Hence we have two simultaneous feasts commemorated today: the Feast of the Purification of Mary, and the Feast of the Presentation of Jesus. As Scripture records:

When the time of their purification according to the Law of Moses had been completed, Joseph and Mary took him to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male is to be consecrated to the Lord”and to offer a sacrifice in keeping with what is said in the Law of the Lord: “a pair of doves or two young pigeons.” (Luke 2:22-24)

But something even more dramatic takes place here.  To understand what it is,  let’s look back to 587 BC.

The Babylonians had invaded Jerusalem and the unthinkable had happened. The Holy City was destroyed and, along with it, the Temple of God. Inside the Temple something even more precious than the building had been housed: the Ark of the Covenant.

Recall what the Ark of Covenant was in the Old Testament. It was a box of Acacia wood, covered  in gold. Inside it were placed: the two tablets on which God inscribed the Ten Commandments. Also in it was the staff of Aaron, and a vile of the Manna. More importantly, in this box, this ark, dwelt the very Presence of God in Israel. God mysteriously dwelt within, much as is the case today in our understanding of the tabernacle in our Catholic Churches.

The Lost Ark – Incredibly however, the Ark was lost when the Babylonians destroyed the temple and Jerusalem in 587 BC. It was never found again. Some thought Jeremiah had hid it in the Mountains, others that the priests had hastily hid it in the maze of caves beneath the Temple Mount. Others argue it was taken to Ethiopia. But in the end, the Ark had gone missing.

Empty Temple – When the Temple was rebuilt some eighty years later, the Holy of Holies was restored but the Ark was missing. The High Priest still performed the yearly ritual and entered the Holy of Holies, but the room was empty. Some argued for a spiritual presence in the Temple, but in fact the Ark and the certain presence of God were missing in the Temple after 587 BC. The Ark was never found and returned there. Something, someone, was missing. The very Holy of Holies was an empty room, the Ark, and the presence of God it carried were missing: the Ark, the mercy seat, gone. Would it ever be found? Would it ever be returned to the Temple? Would the Holy Presence of God ever find its way to the Temple again?

The ascent to Jerusalem is a steep one. The mountains surround Jerusalem and the City sits up at a higher altitude than the area around it. As the ancient Jews made the climb they sang the psalms of ascent: Psalms 120-134. As Joseph and Mary ascended they too sang the words that instilled joy: I Lift up mine eye to the mountains from whence cometh my help (121)…..I rejoiced when they said to me let us go up to the House of the Lord (122)…..To you O Lord I have lifted my eyes (123)….Like Mount Zion are those who trust in the Lord (125)….Out of the depths I call unto you O Lord! (130)…..Let us enter God’s dwelling, let us worship at the Lord’s footstool. Arise O Lord and enter your dwelling place, You and the Ark of your strength! (132)….Come and bless the Lord, You who stand in the House of the Lord Lift your hands to the Sanctuary and bless the Lord. The Lord bless you from Zion (134).

Singing these songs, Mary carried Jesus. The climb was even more difficult carrying a newborn babe. But the burden was sweet. A final ascent up the stairs to the Temple Mount. Likely they entered on the southern side through the Huldah gates. Going up the steep stairs, through the tunnel in the walls and emerging on to the bright Temple platform above.

God had returned to His Temple. He, and the Ark who carried him, were found. Mary the Ark, carrying  Jesus in her arms. Jesus, very God, true God from True God. Yes, God and the Ark had been found and God was once again present among His people on the Temple Mount. Scripture says:

And the Lord, whom ye seek, shall suddenly come to his Temple, even the messenger of the covenant, whom ye delight in: behold, he shall come, saith the LORD of hosts. But who may abide the day of his coming? and who shall stand when he appeareth? (Mal 3:1-2)

What a dramatic moment. And yet what a remarkable understatement by God! If I were to direct the moment I would have called for trumpet blasts, peals of thunder and multitudes of angels! And everyone would fall to their knees in recognition of the great fulfillment and the great return of God to his Temple.

Yet, it would seem only an elderly Man and woman took any note at all: Simeon and Anna. They alone understood they were in the presence of greatness and beheld the drama of the moment:

Now there was a man in Jerusalem called Simeon, who was righteous and devout. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. Moved by the Spirit, he went into the temple courts. When the parents brought in the child Jesus to do for him what the custom of the Law required, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying:  “Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you now dismiss your servant in peace. For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all people, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” The child’s father and mother marveled at what was said about him.  Then Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, his mother: “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against,  so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.”  There was also a prophetess, Anna…Coming up to them at that very moment, she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem. (Luke 2)

Yes, here was the dramatic moment awaited for centuries. The ark of God was found (Mary), and God (Jesus) returned to his temple. But only a few noticed. Just a few understood and celebrated.

And what of us?  At every Mass Jesus, God himself is present. Yet how many notice? Do they really see him? Or do they see only the human priest and the human elements of the Mass. Do you see? Do you notice? Are you Simeon? Anna? Mary? Joseph? Or are you just among those on the Temple Mount who miss the dramatic moment of God with us?

28 Responses

  1. Vijaya says:

    I didn’t realize the Ark was never found … and how beautifully you tie all the prophesies and the story of Simeon and Anna.

    When I read the Christmas story, I always think they take flight into Egypt right away … but that’s not true. First there is the circumcision, Epiphany, the presentation, and then the Holy Family flees while Herod does the massacre …

  2. Cynthia BC says:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mDJzQ7p0QYw

    “Lift Thine Eyes” from Mendelssohn’s Elijah

  3. Nick says:

    Jesus – the Law incarnate, the New Manna, the High Priest-King and Prophet – comes! But only those in the gutter – the poor, the blind, the lame – see Him; those whom He invites to the wedding feast do not see Him but make excuses as why not to come.

    Finally, the Lord did not actually sit in the Ark but atop it, on the seat of mercy. This was a foreshadowment of Jesus’ reigning Mercy and of God coming to speak to His People Himself: No more would He intervene through prophets but govern Israel Himself.

    • I wonder if we can simply conclude that the Lord sat atop the ark? The Israelites carried the Ark in to Battle etc because they thought the Ark contained the presence of God. Further the word “ark” implies a box that carries something within, not just atop. The Ark that Noah built contained the people and animals within. Surely there is also the tradition of the propitiatory (mercy seat) formed by the angel’s wings, but I think there is more at work than just that.

    • Thomas says:

      There is no connection between Noah’s ark and the Ark of the Covenant. The word is the same in English, but not in the original Hebrew. “Tevath” is the Hebrew term for Noah’s ark, while “Aron” is the word used for the Ark of the Covenant.

  4. Tony in Central PA says:

    Thanks so much for this, Monsignor. So many things in the Old and New Testament fit together like perfect puzzle pieces if we are able to understand their true significance.

    • Dismas says:

      I believe this quote has been attributed to St. Augustine, but i’m not sure:

      “The New Testament is The Old Testament revealed; the Old Testament is the New Testament concealed.”

  5. jj says:

    May God help us to recognized Christ in His infancy (the small and seemingly insignificant moments of our lives). He is there. Amen.

  6. Regine says:

    Thank you, Msgr. Paul! This is such a moving meditation on the Presentation of Our Lord. I have not heard any priest gave a background that you have given, and it is so awe-inspiring. I praise God for being with us in the Eucharist and ever present to us even if we don’t physically see him. Msgr. Paul, could you enlighten me about the passage where Mary and Joseph were amazed when Simeon and Anna recognized the child as one who would bring salvation to Israel? Both Joseph and Mary knew who this child is, but why were they amazed? I have been baffled by this. I would look forward to your thoughts on this.

    I try to see Christ in the Mass, and if I am honest, I must say that I only see the priest who represents him, and the wafer and wine as they are (even if I try hard to envision Christ!!).. But I can say in all honesty that despite this, I firmly believe that Christ stands before us, and that the wafer and wine is the Body and Blood of Christ.

  7. Regine says:

    Msgr. Pope, I apologize. I addressed you as Msgr. Paul. I have been following your blog as I am learning a lot from you. I do know that you are Msgr. Charles Pope, and not Paul. I am not sure if I am subconsciously comparing you to the Apostle Paul. Thanks.

  8. MichaelP says:

    Outstanding Msgr. Pope. Thank you for your service.

    Just to add something I just learned about concerning the longer period of uncleanliness for a woman birthing a female child. When a female baby is born and done so via natural means, they experience a lessor form of bleeding or losing fluid, like the mother, from the breasts and from the “lower region”. Since both mother and child bleed independently from each other, the time period for uncleanliness was doubled.

    michael

    • Brandy M. Miller says:

      I had suspected there might be some biological motivation behind the longer period of uncleanliness. Thanks for this :)

  9. brencel says:

    A new (for me) and beautiful insight. Thank you, Msgr. God bless.

  10. WebPoppy8 says:

    Msgr, just for your information – the OT ritual purification after childbirth was timed based on the *continuing* flow of blood which continues for every mother after birth. I’ve seen this seven times quite closely! It takes weeks for the womb to get itself back in shape after childbearing. Oddly, this natural “impurity” continues much longer after bearing a daughter than a son.

  11. TeaPot562 says:

    A minor quibble: the contents of the Ark before 587 B.C. would have included a VIAL of manna, not a “vile”.
    TeaPot562

  12. shortstuff says:

    Thank you for the insight – you are putting “bone and flesh” on the scriptures for me. thank you and God Bless
    shortstuff

  13. paul coffey says:

    Excellent Monsignor – thank you!!
    vijaya – there are a few dreams that intercede to the Great St. Joseph as well …. it may be as long as 2 years after Jesus’ birth that the Holy Family flees to Egypt= see http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/09527a.htm

    ….” It was “in the days of King Herod” (Matthew 2:1), i.e. before the year 4 B.C. (A.U.C. 750), the probable date of Herod’s death at Jericho. For we know that Archelaus, Herod’s son, succeeded as ethnarch to a part of his father’s realm, and was deposed either in his ninth (Josephus, Bel. Jud., II, vii, 3) or tenth (Josephus, Antiq., XVII, xviii, 2) year of office during the consulship of Lepidus and Arruntius (Dion Cassis, lv, 27), i.e., A.D. 6. Moreover, the Magi came while King Herod was in Jerusalem (vv. 3, 7), not in Jericho, i.e., either the beginning of 4 B.C. or the end of 5 B.C. Lastly, it was probably a year, or a little more than a year, after the birth of Christ. Herod had found out from the Magi the time of the star’s appearance. Taking this for the time of the Child’s birth, he slew the male children of two years old and under in Bethlehem and its borders (v. 16). Some of the Fathers conclude from this ruthless slaughter that the Magi reached Jerusalem two years after the Nativity (St. Epiphanius, “Haer.”, LI, 9; Juvencus, “Hist. Evang.”, I, 259). Their conclusion has some degree of probability; yet the slaying of children two years old may possibly have been due to some other reason — for instance, a fear on Herod’s part that the Magi had deceived him in the matter of the star’s appearance or that the Magi had been deceived as to the conjunction of that appearance with the birth of the Child. Art and archæology favour our view.

  14. Alan says:

    Thankyou Father for a wonderful post.

    My wife is Greek Orthodox and 40 days after her giving birth we had to go to the church to present her and the child according to eastern orthodox tradition. The priest took my male child and held him aloft while facing the tabernacle (as I recall) and chanted a prayer. I always connected it with that bible passage.

    The part about sacrificing the firstborn to God is a tough read… (Ex 13:12-15). Was this rite ignored because of the Levites being consecrated to God in their place? I seem to remember hearing something like that…

  15. pete salveinini says:

    I believe that the Presence was ABOVE the Ark, as it was His FOOTSTOOL.

  16. Blanche says:

    I agree that most believers miss the significance of the Presentation. But it seems that the Church does too. It was never treated to more than a passing reference in my Catholic school days, & I’ve never heard a homily about it or much discussion in bible study.

    It just seems to me that this should be a Holy Day of Obligation. At one time, January 1st was a Holy Day in commemoration of the Circumcision of Jesus, which I suppose included the Purification & the Presentation. But at least in my diocese, the 1st day of the year is no longer a Holy Day. We used to thank God for the gift of our time on the earth on this day.

    • Yes, in recent times the Feast of the Presenatation has slipped from the radar of most Catholics. In times past it was more prominent and marked the official end of Christmastide

      • Cynthia BC says:

        As we were driving home from a church activity yesterday (Feb 2nd) evening, my fourth-grader pointed out a neighbor who still had Christmas lights on. I told her that perhaps this neighbor had decided to leave the lights up for Candlemas, in observance of the Presentation (about which my daughter had heard that very evening) but she looked at me askance.

        One of the things I miss about the liturgical music of my youth (in the 1970s, or the Bronze Age as far as my daughter is concerned) is the Nunc Dimittis that was sung after Communion. As a young person the significance of the Nunc Dimittis and its place in the service went clean over my head, but now I appreciate the ND’s reminder that we have been in the presence of Christ, that we have received Christ.

        I still can sing that Nunc Dimittis, and insisted that it be included after Communion at my mother’s funeral.

  17. Mary O says:

    I will never forget the special meaning of the Nunc Dimitis to my own life. My mother had lived for two years with a type of cancer which usually takes a person’s life in two months. But she was mobile and enjoying visits with her children and grandchildren in Kentucky, Tennessee, and Florida for nearly two years. Pregnant with my youngest daughter, I asked to be prayed over in proxy for my mother. I asked that my mother might live long enough to see her 23rd grandchild. Months later, after I gave birth, she and my oldest sister visited me in my hospital room. My mother smiled with great joy as she held her little Maria. The following day, after attending Mass and receiving the Eucharist, she died suddenly. After I received the news, I lay in my hospital bed and looked out at the blue sky that was framed by the window like a motion picture. As the feathery clouds blew across, the Scripture came to my heart like a soft whisper: “now, O Lord, Let Your servant go in peace.”

  18. Josie Ray says:

    Thank you so much for this wonderful meditation today on the Ark and God Himself returning to the temple. I, also, as many who have commented here, have never seen it that way. It is deeply moving to consider.

    Josie Ray
    http://www.appalachiandream.blogspot.com/

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