Forty days after the birth of her first-born son, according to Mosaic Law, the mother must both present her child in the temple for redemption, and herself be ritually purified of the childbirth.
So Mary and Joseph bring Jesus to Jerusalem to redeem him. Jesus submits himself to the law, as He would at his baptism, even though the Redeemer of Men needs no redemption. Christ is presented, and so presents us to the Father; the Redeemer is redeemed, and so redeems humanity. The Mother of God also submits herself to the law, undergoing ritual purification, even though the Immaculata needs no purification. Both mother and Son show us the value of the law, of humble submission to legitimate authority. In this mystery, the Fifth Joyful Mystery of the rosary, it is we who are presented to God, it is we who are redeemed, it is we who are purified.
This feast, 40 days after Christ’s Nativity, brings the Christmas season an end. The concluding rituals associated with a newborn child are completed, and we leave Christmas joy behind to prepare for another 40-day season, the time of Lent, which this year will begin on March 5. Jesus is born; he is presented to God and mankind in the temple; he grows in strength and wisdom before men; he carries his cross and dies; he rises from the dead.
The Return of the King
Birth and Growth and Death and Rebirth. This is the annual sweep of the liturgical year, the cycle of the Christian mysteries. It is the story of every human life, and every nation on earth. And it all centers around the temple of God on earth, the meeting point between life and death, between time and eternity. The Jerusalem temple was everything for the Jews; their national identity their reason for living, far more important than, say, the capitol dome in Washington for us Americans. It was the only real sacred place on earth, the portal into heaven, the axis of the planet around which everything else revolved. Without the temple, life had no direction or meaning. We can scarcely imagine what catastrophic impact that the destruction of the Temple in 586BC had on the people. The 9-11 terrorists had meant to fly the fourth plane into our capitol building, but they failed. King Nebuchadnezzar did not fail in completely destroying the temple in 587 BC. He deported the entire Jewish nation and wiped their nation off the map. God had left his temple and abandoned his people. From that point, the survivors in exile cried out day and night for God to return to his Temple, to his People. The first reading is from the Prophet Malachi, the last book of the Old Testament. “And suddenly there will come to the temple the Lord whom you seek, and the messenger of the covenant whom you desire.” The last word of the Old Testament is that God would one day return to his people.
And then, one day around the year 6AD by our reckoning, two poor newlyweds bring their little baby into the temple. They can only afford two little pigeons with which to redeem the child. Our dear friend Simeon, a righteous and devout old man, had been faithfully praying for the return of God to his temple all his life. Indeed, the Holy Spirit had assured him that he would not die before seeing the return of the King. Moved by that same Spirit, he enters the temple, looking about, and spies the young couple with their baby. He moves toward them. “Nunc dimmittis,” he whispers, tears streaming from his old eyes. He takes the baby in his arms, and the Mother does not refuse him this joy. Now you may dismiss your servant, he prays, for my eyes have seen the return the King.
We long for God’s return to our land. Like the unfaithful Jewish nation in the 6th Century BC, we too have denied his laws, we have offended him, we have banished him from the Public Square. We have denied his very existence, paying only feeble lip service to religion to keep the conservatives quiet. But even the most strident secularist longs for the Kingdom of justice and peace that only God can bring the human race.
God returns to his temple every day
The good news is that God does return to his temple every day, at every Mass. No priest is worthy, no son of Levi is pure enough, to bring God from heaven to this temple, to bring about reconciliation between God and man, but this same Lord sits in his temple, refining and purifying the sons of Levi, the priests, that they may offer due sacrifice to the Lord.
Let us thank God the Father, and thank his Holy Mother, for giving Jesus to us, freely giving the child into our arms, at every Mass. Let us thank them by never missing one single Sunday Mass, if we can possibly attend. Let us be like Simeon, and Anna, who prayed in the temple every day, praying for God’s return to his people, and the people’s return to God. Let us pray that God’s spirit fill this temple, this church, and that the people fill the Church in response. Indeed, God will purify the sons of Levi—all of us are priests of the new covenant—so that we may offer due sacrifice to the Lord. Right worship at Mass and throughout the week is the only way to get to heaven, and to enjoy a bit of the peace and joy of heaven on earth. Your homework is to pray the Fourth Joyful Mystery today, praying for mercy and reconciliation between God and man right here in America.