Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Feast of the Presentation

"Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God..." (Luke 2:27-28)

And then, of course, Simeon sings: "Nunc dimittis servum tuum, Domine, secundum verbum tuum in pace - Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace..."

In my mind's eye I see this scene much as it is portrayed in the icon to the left. It's like an infant Baptism, or if you are a Baptist then it's like a Dedication. But behind Luke's story is a Jewish practice, and that practice is rooted in a Jewish mindset.

In the world of the Priestly writer that permeates the Book of Leviticus, tum'ah is all around us. The word "impurity" in English is deceptive and words like "contaminated" or "defiled" or "polluted" or "unclean" are worse. It's helpful to remember that excrement is not tum'ah. That's because tum'ah is really about life-forces, not dirt. It's about those manifestations of death, or more exactly the escape of the forces of life, that are all around us--and a part of life itself. Unlike some distortions of Christian spirituality, semen and menstrual flows are not shameful or dirty or impure; but the "residue" they leave behind, the way they invisibly envelope a person is tum'ah because they are so obviously part of human life, and precisely for this reason they must therefore not come into contact with the Holy, the Sacred.

And so after a woman gives birth to a son, she goes to the Temple to be made ritually clean again. (See Leviticus 12) The reason for this trek to Jerusalem, in other words, is more about Mary than it is about Jesus. The Holy Family travels more than sixty miles to Jerusalem to go to the Temple "in order to present a lamb for a burnt-offering , and a pigeon or turtledove for a sin offering." (Leviticus 12:6) Leviticus makes provision for people who can't afford a lamb, however. "If her means do not suffice for a sheep, she shall take two turtledoves or two pigeons..." (Leviticus 12:8)

Twenty-first century Christians may not know much about these practices and may even critique the Priestly-writer's worldview. But before we critique it, we do well to try to understand it. For my own part, I don't pretend to fully understand that world-view, or those practices. But it seems to me that this is precisely the point: for me this day serves as yet another reminder that Jesus and his family were observant Jews: not Roman Catholics or Episcopalians or Baptists!

And secondly, while it's subtle in Luke's reporting of the day's events, his reporting that they offered "two turtledoves or two pigeons" (Luke 2:24) makes it clear that Jesus was not only a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief, but that he also grew up poor.

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