Today’s passage Luke 2:21-38.
Taken from, Jesus the Messiah
Written by, Alfred Edersheim
Foremost amongst those who, wondering what it all meant, and who had heard what the shepherds had been told, was she whom most it concerned; the Mother of Jesus.
At the very outset of this history, and increasingly in its course, the question meets us, how, if the Angelic message to the Virgin was a reality, and her motherhood so supernatural, could she have been so apparently ignorant of what was to come –nay, so often have even misunderstood it? Might we not have expected, that the Virgin-Mother from the inception of this Child’s life would have realized that He was truly the Son of God? The question, like so many others, requires only to be clearly stated, to find its emphatic answer. For, had it been so, His history, His human life, of which every step is of such importance to mankind, would not have been possible.
Apart from all thoughts of the deeper necessity, both as regarding His mission and the salvation of the world, and of a true human development of gradual consciousness and personal life, Christ could not, in any real sense, have been subject to His Parents, if they had fully understood that He was Divine; nor could He, in that case, have been watched as a child, as He grew in wisdom and in favor with God and men.’
Such knowledge would have broken the bond of His Humanity to ours, by severing that which bound Him as a child to His mother. And we could not have become His brethren, had He not been truly the Virgin’s Son. The mystery of the Incarnation would have been needless and fruitless, had His Humanity not been subject to all its right and ordinary conditions. In short, one, and that the distinctive New Testament, element in our salvation would have been taken away at the beginning of His life He would have anticipated the lessons of its end –nay, not those of His Death only, but of His Resurrection and Ascension, and of the coming of the Holy Ghost.
In all this we have only considered the earthward, not the heavenward, aspect of His life. The latter, though very real, lies beyond our present horizon. Not so the question as to the development of the Virgin-Mother’s spiritual knowledge. Assuming her to have occupied the standpoint of Jewish Messianic expectancy, and remembering also that she was so ‘highly favored’ of God, still there was not as yet anything, nor could there be for many years, to lead her beyond what might be called the utmost height of Jewish belief. On the contrary, there was much connected with His true Humanity to keep her back.
Thus it was, that every event connected with the Messianic manifestation of Jesus would come to the Virgin-Mother as a new surprise. Each event, as it took place, stood isolated in her mind, as something quite by itself. She knew the beginning, and she knew the end; but she knew not the path which led from the one to the other; and each step in it was a new revelation. And it was natural and well that it should be so. For, thus only could she truly, because self-unconsciously as, a Jewish woman and mother, fulfil all the requirements of the Law, alike as regarded herself and her Child.
The first of these was Circumcision, representing voluntary subjection to the conditions of the Law, and acceptance of the obligations, but also of the privileges, of the Covenant between God and Abraham and his seed. The ceremony took place, as in all ordinary circumstances, on the eighth day, when the Child received the Angel given name Yeshua (Jesus). Two other legal ordinances still remained to be observed. The firstborn son of every household was, according to the Law, to be ‘redeemed’ of the priest at the price of five shekels of the Sanctuary. (Numbers 18:16) The earliest period of presentation was thirty-one days after birth, so as to make the legal month quite complete. The child must have been the firstborn of his mother; neither father nor mother must be of Levitic descent; and the child must be free from all such bodily blemishes as would have disqualified him for the priesthood –or, as it was expressed: ‘the firstborn for the priesthood.’ It was a thing much dreaded, that the child should die before his redemption; but if his father died in the interval, the child had to redeem himself when of age. The value of the ‘redemption-money’ would amount to about ten or twelve shillings. The redemption could be made from any priest, and attendance in the Temple was not requisite. It was otherwise with ‘the purification’ of the mother. (Leviticus 12)
The Rabbinic law fixed this at forty-one days after the birth of a son, and eighty-one after that of a daughter, so as to make the Biblical terms quite complete. But it might take place any time later –notably, when attendance on any of the great feasts brought a family to Jerusalem. Indeed, the woman was not required to be personally present at all, when her offering was provided for –say, by the representatives of the laity, who daily took part in the services for the various districts from which they came. But mothers who were within convenient distance of the Temple, and especially the more earnest among them, would naturally attend personally in the Temple; and in such cases, when practicable, the redemption of the firstborn, and the purification of his mother, would be combined. Such was undoubtedly the case with the Virgin-Mother and her Son.
For this twofold purpose the Holy Family went up to the Temple, when the prescribed days were completed. The ceremony at the redemption of a firstborn son was, no doubt, more simple than that at present in use. It consisted of the formal presentation of the child to the priest, accompanied by two short ‘benedictions’ –the one for the law of redemption, the other for the gift of a firstborn son, after which the redemption-money was paid.
As regards to the rite at the purification of the mother, the scantiness of information has led to serious misstatements. Any comparison with our modern ‘churching’ of women is inapplicable, since the latter consists of thanksgiving, and the former primarily of a sin-offering for the Levitical defilement symbolically attaching to the beginning of life, and a burnt-offering, that marked the restoration of communion with God. Besides, as already stated, the sacrifice for purification might be brought in the absence of the mother. The service simply consisted of the statutory sacrifice. This was what, in ecclesiastical language, was termed an offering, ‘ascending and descending,’ that is: according to the means of the offerer.
The sin-offering was, in all cases, a turtle-dove or a young pigeon. But, while the more wealthy brought a lamb for a burnt-offering, the poor might substitute for it a turtle-dove, or a young pigeon. The Temple-price of the meat and drink-offerings was fixed once a month; and special officials instructed the intending offerers, and provided them with what was needed. There was also a special ‘superintendent of turtle-doves and pigeons,’ required for certain purifications. In the Court of the Women there were thirteen trumpet-shaped chests for pecuniary contributions, called ‘trumpets.’ Into the third of these they who brought the poor’s offering, like the Virgin-Mother, were to drop the price of the sacrifices which were needed for their purification. As we infer, the superintending priest must have been stationed here, probably to inform the offerer of the price of the turtle-doves, and to see that all was in order. For the offerer of the poor’s offering would not require to deal directly with the sacrificing priest.
At a certain time in the day this third chest was opened, and half of its contents applied to burnt-offerings, the other half to sin-offerings. Thus sacrifices were provided for a corresponding number of those who were to be purified, without either shaming the poor, needlessly disclosing the character of impurity, or causing unnecessary bustle and work. Though this mode of procedure could, of course, not be obligatory, it would, no doubt, be that generally followed.
We can now, in imagination, follow the Virgin-Mother in the Temple. Her Child had been given up to the Lord, and received back from Him. She had entered the Court of the Women, probably by the ‘Gate of the Women,’ on the north side, and deposited the price of her sacrifices in Trumpet No. 3, which was close to the raised dais or gallery where the women worshipped, apart from the men.
And now at the sound was heralded which announced throughout the vast Temple-buildings that the incense was about to be kindled on the Golden Altar, and which also summoned those who were to be purified. The chief of the ministrant lay-representatives of Israel on duty (these so-called ‘stationmen’) arranged those, who presented themselves before the Lord as offerers of special sacrifices, within the wickets on either side the great Nicanor Gate, at the top of the fifteen steps which led up from the Court of the Women to that of Israel. The purification-service, with such unspoken prayer and praise as would be the outcome of a grateful heart, was soon ended, and they who had shared in it were Levitically clean. Now all stain was removed, and, as the Law put it, they might again partake of sacred offerings.
The coincidences are manifestly undesigned on the part of the Evangelic writers, and hence all the more striking. And so, when now the Mother of Jesus in her humbleness could only bring the ‘poor’s offering,’ the witness to the greatness of Him Whom she had borne was not wanting.
The ‘parents’ of Jesus had brought Him into the Temple for presentation and redemption, when they were met by one, whose venerable figure must have been well-known in the city and the Sanctuary. Simeon combined the three characteristics of Old Testament piety: ‘justice,’ as regarded his relation and bearing to God and man; ‘fear of God,’ in opposition to the boastful self-righteousness of Pharisaism; and, above all, longing expectancy of the near fulfilment of the great promises, and that in their spiritual import as ‘the Consolation of Israel.’ And now it was as had been promised him. Coming ‘in the spirit’ into the Temple, just as His parents were bringing the Infant Jesus, he took Him into his arms, and burst into thanksgiving. God had fulfilled His word. He was not to see death, till he had seen the Lord’s Christ. Now did his Lord ‘dismiss’ him ‘in peace’ –release him from work and watch –since he had actually seen that salvation, so long preparing for a waiting weary world: a glorious light, Whose rising would light up heathen darkness, and be the outshining glory around Israel’s mission.
But his unexpected appearance, the more unexpected deed and words, and that most unexpected and un-Judaic form in which what was said of the Infant Christ was presented to their minds, filled the hearts of His parents with wonderment. And it was as if their silent wonderment had been an unspoken question, to which the answer now came in words of blessing from the aged watcher. But now it was the personal, or rather the Judaic, aspect which, in broken utterances, was set before the Virgin-Mother –as if the whole history of the Christ upon earth were passing in rapid vision before Simeon. That Infant was to be a stone of decision; a foundation and corner-stone, (Is. 8:14) for fall or for uprising; a sign spoken against; the sword of deep personal sorrow would pierce the Mother’s heart; and so to the terrible end, when the veil of externalism which had so long covered the hearts of Israel’s leaders would be rent, and the deep evil of their thoughts laid bare.
Nor was Simeon’s the only hymn of praise on that day.
A special interest attaches to her who responded in praise to God for the pledge she saw of the near redemption. A kind of mystery seems to invest this Anna. A widow, whose early desolateness had been followed by a long life of solitary mourning: one of those in whose home the tribal genealogy had been preserved. We infer from this, and from the fact that it was that of a tribe which had not returned to Palestine, that hers was a family of some distinction. Curiously enough, the tribe of Asher alone is celebrated in tradition for the beauty of its women, and their fitness to be wedded to High-Priest or King.
These many years had Anna spent in the Sanctuary, and spent in fasting and prayer –yet not of that self-righteous, self-satisfied kind which was of the essence of popular religion. Nor yet were the ‘fasting and prayer’ the all-in-all of religion, that some thought to be sufficient in themselves, and sufficient also before God. The seemingly hopeless exile of her own tribe, the political state of Judaea, the condition –social, moral, and religious –of her own Jerusalem, all kindled in her, as in those who were like-minded, deep, earnest longing for the time of promised ‘redemption.’
No place was so suited to such a one as the Temple, with its services; no occupation so befitting as ‘fasting and prayer.’ And there were others, perhaps many such, in Jerusalem. Though rabbinic tradition ignored them, they were the salt which preserved the mass from festering corruption. To her, as the representative of such, was it granted as prophetess to recognize Him, whose Advent had been the burden of Simeon’s praise.