A Dramatic Moment in Biblical History that Almost Everyone Missed

Presentation in the Temple – L. Carracci (1605)

Continuing our reflection on the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple, let’s ponder a moment that was glorious in its significance and fulfilment, yet was missed by nearly everyone.

Joseph and Mary had brought Jesus to the Temple to present Him there. As they ascended the glorious steps to the Temple Mount, they were fulfilling a 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).

Although they were fulfilling an obligation, something much more dramatic was taking place. To understand what, we must look back to 587 B.C.

The Babylonians had invaded Jerusalem and the unthinkable had happened: the Holy City of Jerusalem had been destroyed and along with it the Temple of God. Inside the Temple had been housed the precious Ark of the Covenant.

Recall what the Ark of Covenant was in the Old Testament. It was a gold-covered box of acacia wood, inside which were the two tablets on which God had inscribed the Ten Commandments, the staff of Aaron, and a vial of the manna. Even more important, in this ark dwelt the very Presence of God in Israel; here He was present as nowhere else. This is certainly our belief today regarding the tabernacle in Catholic churches: though present everywhere, God has a true, substantial, and real presence in the Eucharist reserved there.

The Lost Ark – Incredibly, the Ark of the Covenant was lost when the Babylonians destroyed the Temple and Jerusalem in 587 B.C. Some thought that Jeremiah had hidden it in the mountains. Others, that the priests had hastily secreted it in the maze of caves beneath the Temple Mount. Still others argued that it was taken to Ethiopia. But the Ark was gone.

Empty Temple – When the Temple was rebuilt some eighty years later, the Holy of Holies was restored, but the Ark was still missing. The high priest still performed the yearly ritual and entered the Holy of Holies, but the room was empty. Some argued that there was a spiritual presence in the Temple, but in fact the Ark and the certain presence of God were missing after 587 B.C. 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, was 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. Mountains surround Jerusalem and it sits at a higher altitude than the area around it. As the ancient Jews made the climb, they sang the psalms of ascent (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 (Ps 121). I rejoiced when they said to me let us go up to the House of the Lord (Ps 122). To you O Lord I have lifted my eyes (Ps 123). Like Mount Zion are those who trust in the Lord (Ps 125). Out of the depths I call unto you O Lord (Ps 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 when carrying a newborn, but the burden was sweet. Then came the final ascent up the stairs to the Temple Mount. They probably entered on the southern side through the Huldah gates. They went up the steep stairs, through the tunnel in the walls, and emerged on the bright Temple platform.

God had returned to His Temple. He and the Ark who carried Him were now found: Mary, the Ark, carrying Jesus in her arms. Jesus, very God Himself, true God from true God. Yes, God and the Ark had been found; 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, yet remarkably understated by God! If I had directed the moment I would have called for blaring trumpets, claps of thunder, and a multitude of angels. Everyone would have fallen to his knees in recognition of the great fulfillment and the great return of God to His Temple.

Despite the significance of this moment, only an elderly man and woman (Simeon and Anna) recognized it. They alone understood that they were in the presence of greatness and marveled in it.

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, this was the moment that had been anticipated for centuries. The Ark of God (Mary) had been found and God (Jesus) had returned to His temple, but only Simeon and Anna noticed, understood, and celebrated.

What about us? At every Mass, Jesus, God Himself, is present. Do you notice? Do you really see Him or do you see only the priest and the human elements of the Mass? Are you Simeon? Anna? Mary? Joseph? Or are you like the many on the Temple Mount who missed the dramatic moment of God with us?

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: A Dramatic Moment in Biblical History that Almost Everyone Missed

The Churching of Women and its Relation to the Feast of the Presentation

On Saturday we celebrated the Feast of the Presentation. I thought it might be appropriate to describe a related liturgy of the Church that has been largely lost: The Churching of Women. To some extent it is subsumed in the modern Rite of Baptism with the blessing of the mother, but it is not what it used to be. We may still celebrate this for women who ask, and I often do so, especially in extraordinary form baptisms.

The Churching of Women is rooted in the Feast of the Presentation. Biblically this feast commemorates the Jewish practice of a woman presenting herself at the temple forty days after the birth of a male child in order to be “purified” and blessed by the priest. As an observant Jew, Mary fulfilled this obligation and it is recorded in Luke’s Gospel:

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).

The Jewish practice of “purifying” a woman after childbirth was set forth in the Book of Leviticus:

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” (Leviticus 12:1-8).

As you can see, there is a fairly negative concept at work here: A woman becomes ritually “unclean” by giving birth due to the flow of blood and other fluids. (Note that ritual impurity is not the same as moral impurity.) And a woman who gave birth to a daughter was considered ritually unclean for even longer! It is well that the Church’s power to bind and loose has freed us from this thinking. Keep in mind that this was ceremonial law, not moral law, so the Church is not setting aside immutable moral law in abrogating this notion of ritual impurity.

Nevertheless, the custom and instinct of blessing women after childbirth was retained in the Church, albeit with an altered understanding from Jewish teaching. The rite came down through the centuries and was largely intact until very recent times. (The official Latin title of the Rite was Benedictio Mulieris Post Partum, the blessing of women after giving birth. The rite was largely discontinued in the 1960s in the wake of the Second Vatican Council. The Book of Blessings published in 1984 does contain a “Blessing of a Woman after Childbirth,” but it is seldom used and is significantly altered from the old rite that was use until the mid-1960s. There is also a blessing of the mother at the Rite of Infant Baptism.

There are many reasons for the discontinuance. I remember my mother and other women of her generation saying they had been taught the Jewish history of this rite and rejected it for that reason, but the Catholic Church was clear to distinguish its practice from the Jewish roots. As early as the 6th century, Pope Gregory protested the notion that childbirth caused defilement. Further, the prayers of the old Churching of Women Rite did not mention a need for purification, speaking only of blessing and thanksgiving. So, those who taught women of my mother’s generation against this practice were probably engaged more in polemics than anything else. Another reason for the discontinuance was probably just because so many things were dropped after the Council.

I would like to recommend this beautiful ritual to your attention. In an extended sense it fulfills what Mary did forty days after the birth of Christ. We do not understand it in an Old Testament way, but we rescue and fulfill the tradition with the beauty of Christian faith and the dignity of mothers.

A PDF version of the ritual can be found here: The Churching of Women. Though it has never been required by the Church, it is a beautiful way to welcome back and bless a woman who may have been away for a few weeks after giving birth. She has labored well for her family and this ritual can serve simultaneously as a blessing and thanksgiving extended by the Church to the noble women who are our mothers. The blessing can be given after a baptism or after Mass, collectively to recent mothers or individually. While the current baptismal rite contains a blessing for the mother, this older rite is a more special blessing. Pope Benedict’s Motu Proprio Summorum Pontificum, which permits the use of the older forms of the sacraments, has made these older rituals more available. Here is the concluding prayer of the rite:

Almighty, everlasting God, through the delivery of the blessed Virgin Mary, Thou hast turned into joy the pains of the faithful in childbirth; look mercifully upon this Thy handmaid, coming in gladness to Thy temple to offer up her thanks: and grant that after this life, by the merits and intercession of the same blessed Mary, she may merit to arrive, together with her offspring, at the joys of everlasting happiness. Through Christ our Lord.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: The Churching of Women

A Dramatic Biblical Moment That Nearly Everyone Missed

The moment of the Presentation of Jesus was one of the most dramatic in biblical history, yet almost no one noticed.

The first part of this post is review for those of you who read my blog regularly. To skip to the newer insights, skip down to the sentence in red.

Joseph and Mary have gone to Jerusalem to fulfill two ancient mandates: the Rite of Purification for a woman after childbirth and the Rite of Presentation for a firstborn male child. These rites set the stage for a dramatic moment in biblical history, a moment missed by almost everyone.

Jewish law considered that after a woman gave birth she was ritually impure for a period of time. This was based on the flow of blood that occurred during childbirth. At that time, 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).

Some see a fairly negative concept at work here: a woman becomes ritually unclean by giving birth. This was due not to giving birth per se but to the flow of blood and other fluids during the process. Even more distressing to modern sensibilities is that a woman who gave birth to a daughter was considered ritually unclean for an even longer period of time. 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; 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 with the Son of God carried in Mary’s arms. It has been 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 fulfill 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).

Something even more dramatic takes place here. To understand what it is, let’s look back to 587 B.C.

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 had inscribed the Ten Commandments. Also in it was the staff of Aaron and a vial of the manna. Even more important, 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. Some thought that Jeremiah had hidden it in the mountains. Others, that the priests had hastily hidden it in the maze of caves beneath the Temple Mount. Still others argued that it was taken to Ethiopia. But the Ark was gone.

Empty Temple – When the Temple was rebuilt some eighty years later, the Holy of Holies was restored but the Ark was still 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 B.C. 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, was 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. Mountains surround Jerusalem and it sits up at a higher altitude than the area around it. As the ancient Jews made the climb they sang the psalms of ascent (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 (Ps 121). I rejoiced when they said to me let us go up to the House of the Lord (Ps 122). To you O Lord I have lifted my eyes (Ps 123). Like Mount Zion are those who trust in the Lord (Ps 125). Out of the depths I call unto you O Lord (Ps 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 when carrying a newborn, but the burden was sweet. Then came the final ascent up the stairs to the Temple Mount. They probably entered on the southern side through the Huldah gates. They went up the steep stairs, through the tunnel in the walls, and emerged on the bright Temple platform above.

God had returned to His Temple. He and the Ark who carried Him were now 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 had directed the moment I would have called for blaring trumpet, claps of thunder, and multitudes of angels! And everyone would have fallen to his knees in recognition of the great fulfillment and the great return of God to His Temple.

Yet it would seem that only an elderly man and woman (Simeon and Anna) took any note at all. They alone understood that 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, this was the dramatic moment that had been anticipated 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.

What about us? At every Mass, Jesus, God Himself, is present. Do you notice? Do you really see Him? Or do you see only the priest and the human elements of the Mass? 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?