Opening the Word: Presentation of Jesus

The Gospel of Luke contains many details and stories about the infancy of Jesus not found elsewhere. Today’s Gospel reading is one such story, an account of the presentation of Jesus in the temple and the prayer-response of Simeon. Luke, ever the careful and polished historian, provides a wealth of detail about this important event, offering insights into the person and mission of Jesus, the faith of Joseph and Mary, and God’s plan of salvation.

Jesus had been circumcised and named on his eighth day (Lk 2:21). Thirty-three days later, he was taken to the temple to be consecrated, as was prescribed by the “law of the Lord” (cf. Lev 12:2-8; Ex 13:2). In fact, the observance of the law is front and center; this is first time the law is mentioned by Luke, and five of his nine references to the law are found in this relatively short story.

Although Luke wrote for a Gentile audience, he never cut corners in emphasizing the centrality of the Jewish beliefs and traditions, knowing full well how fundamental they were to the person and work of the Christ. Jesus came to save Israel, and part of doing so meant keeping the law perfectly.

The sacrifice of the pair of doves or pigeons indicates the poverty of Joseph and Mary, since the more expensive option was a year-old lamb.

It also highlights their humble and pious desire to follow the law.

Mary, as St. Bede noted, was a virgin “who by singular privilege was above the law” and had no need for purification or temple sacrifices, yet she “did not shun being made subject to the principles of the law for the sake of showing us an example of humility.” It calls to mind the great Psalm 119, where the psalmist declares, “Blessed those whose way is blameless, who walk by the law of the Lord,” and also declares, “I delight in your commandments, which I dearly love” (Ps 119:1, 47). Certainly Mary embodied such blamelessness, delight, and love, and Joseph was, as St. Matthew wrote, “a righteous man” (Mt 1:19).

Pope Benedict XVI, in “Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives” (Image, $20), notes that the infant Jesus, rather than being “redeemed” at the temple — as the event was commonly understood — was “personally handed over to God in the Temple, given over completely to God.” Every Jew was called to obey God and to belong to him. But Jesus was offered in a unique way, befitting his singular identity, and his eventual sacrifice on the cross is already hinted at in the act of being presented to God.

This is further amplified by the reaction and words of the righteous and devout Simeon. The old man was, wrote Archbishop Fulton Sheen in his “Life of Christ” (Image, $17.95), “like a sentinel whom God had sent to watch for the Light.” And when that Light — described many times over the past several Sundays — appeared, Simeon was able to sing his canticle. He did not look back, explained Sheen, “but forward, and not only to the future of his own people but to the future of all the Gentiles of all the tribes and nations of the earth.”

When Simeon exclaimed that his “eyes have seen your salvation,” he was not speaking in the abstract. On the contrary, he really did see and even hold salvation incarnate. And this salvation was not just for the Jewish people, for all people, of every nation. “The Son, who is from God,” preached St. Basil the Great, “is our God. He himself is also the Savior of the human race.”

Carl E. Olson is the editor of Catholic World Report.