Purification.  Trinity, Port Charlotte, FL.  2 February 2020.

Saint Luke ii, verse 22 – And when the days of her purification according to the law of Moses were accomplished, they brought him to Jerusalem, to present him to the Lord….

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen.

Today is the feast known commonly as the Purification of Saint Mary the Virgin and also as the Presentation of Christ in the Temple.  It also is called Candlemas, for on this day in many places there is a blessing of candles for use in the church in the coming year.

The gospel for today refers several times, both by reference and by quotation, to the law of Moses. According to Exodus 13, Israel was to ‘Sanctify unto [God] all the first-born, whatsoever openeth the womb among the children of Israel, both of man and of beast: it is mine.’ (13.2)  The law provided that the first-born of clean animals were to be sacrificed to God upon his altar.  The first-born of unclean animals, such as donkeys, and the first-born human child was to be redeemed:  that is, a lamb or, for the poor, two pigeons or doves were to be offered in place of the child (Leviticus 12.8).  This sacrifice was to be performed in Jerusalem on the fortieth day after the birth of a son and on the eightieth day after the birth of a daughter (Lev. 12.2-4).  This explains the timing of this feast.  February 2nd is the 40th day after Christmas, and in some liturgical respects Christmastide extends up until today.

This offering had two main purposes.  First, it was to serve to the cleansing or purification of the mother ‘from the issue of her blood’ (Lev. 12.7).  In Old Testament thought contact with blood rendered a person ritually impure.  Thus women were impure monthly, as were those who touched a wound, as was the woman with an ‘issue of blood’ who touched the hem of Christ’s garment.  Since child-bearing involves blood, it required ‘an atonement’ for ritual cleansing.  That explains the common name for today, the Purification of Saint Mary the Virgin.  Of course this purification has no moral overtones.  The impurity was purely and merely cultic.  Our Lady’s spotless conception and the Virgin Birth tells us that the Holy Family is simply fulfilling the requirements of the law in humble obedience to God’s will.

Secondly, the offering of a lamb or two doves served as a sin offering for the child, to present the child to God as an acceptable part of Israel’s service and covenantal community.  Israel belongs to God, and the Presentation in the Temple and the offering that goes with the Presentation embrace our Lord in his people’s communal relationship with his Father.  The Father already truly possesses the Son, and the Presentation does not change their relationship with each other.  But the Presentation joins Christ to his people and so joins those people to him as he begins his life of self-offering back to the Father.

Or put it another way.  Normally the rites of purification and presentation served to atone for human sins and to cover Israelite with the promises of God’s covenant.  But in our Lord’s case there are no sins to atone for and there is no need for Christ to be redeemed through the covenant.  Rather by submitting to these ordinances Christ sanctifies them.  He is not blessed by coming to the temple in Jerusalem.  Rather he blesses the temple by coming to it.  His sins are not atoned for; rather he makes atonement himself and gives power to human rites and sacraments to atone for us.  He is not presented to his Father with whom he dwelt from all eternity.  Rather through his Presentation the Father presents grace and salvation to Israel and the world.  He does not need to be purified from sins under the old Law.  Rather he submits to and fulfills himself perfectly that old Law, and so opens up for us the way to salvation through mercy and grace in him.

Our Lord became man, not to debase God but to elevate humanity.  Our Lord was baptized, not for forgiveness of sins but rather to empower the waters of baptism to wash away our sins.  Our Lord later will submit to crucifixion and a cursed death, not to pay for his sins but rather for ours and to deliver us from the curse and to make our deaths occasions of birth into eternal life.  Likewise today our Lord was presented to the Father, not because he before was alienated from or unknown to the Father, but rather in order to present the Father to us.  The Lord, as said the prophet Malachi, whom we sought, has suddenly come to his temple with an offering of righteousness (Malachi 3).

And so we see that this occasion in the gospel is filled with joy.  Old Simeon rejoices and is now ready to die in peace.  Anna ‘gave thanks likewise’.  All is done to fulfil the law.  The lovers of the law rejoice.  They are ancient, they are passing from this world – for the old Testament had grown old and now is ready to give way to the new.  The baby comes, and with him comes the new Testament with its law of love and grace and salvation.  The law of Moses is accomplished, its rites fulfilled, its symbols complete.  The shadows depart, for the Light that lighteneth all men that come into the world has shined forth to lighten the Gentiles and to be the glory of Israel.  The day has dawned in Jerusalem.  Night is passing, and the day begins that shall never end.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen.

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