Luke 2: 22-40
Today’s gospel reading from Luke Chapter 2 comes near the end of Luke’s telling of Jesus’s early life. We have heard of the birth first of John the Baptist and then of Jesus, and here Luke goes on to describe how Mary and Joseph observed the ritual practices after childbirth required by Jewish law.
Luke’s writings, first his gospel and then the book of Acts, form a single narrative arc which will take us far across the gentile world. But his telling of the story of Jesus starts firmly rooted in Judaism: he will go on to show how Jesus as the Messiah is the true fulfilment of the Hebrew Scriptures.
So we hear how the 5-week old baby Jesus accompanies his parents to the Temple in Jerusalem, to observe two requirements of Jewish Law.
Firstly, Mary and Joseph present Jesus at the temple because he is the first born male. This is to fulfil the provisions of Exodus 13, which draw on the story of how in Egypt God killed all the first born of Egypt but passed over the houses of the Israelites, leaving their first-born unharmed. So, the law of Moses then required that the first-born son, if he was not a Levite, was offered to the Temple to become a priest, but then redeemed back though the provision of a sacrificial offering.
Secondly, Mary attends for her purification. This is to fulfil the provisions of Leviticus 12, which states that after a woman has given birth she is unclean, in the same way as she is at the time of her period. If the baby is a boy, she shall be unclean for 33 days, if it is a girl, two weeks. At the end of this time she shall present herself at the temple with an offering and the priest will make atonement on her behalf and then she shall be clean once more.
The purification of women continued into the church and finds expression in the Book of Common Prayer as the “churching of women.” Although the emphasis shifts to giving thanks to God for bringing her through the dangers of childbirth. But today it is largely obsolete in both Anglican and Roman Catholic churches.
Jesus was sharply critical in his teaching of the way Jewish purity laws were applied by Temple officials. At this point in the story he is too young to pass comment, but I imagine he would not shed a tear for these traditions.
I come to this reading with the birth of our first grandchild on Monday uppermost in my mind. Whilst I was spared all the details, I am newly aware that birth is messy and, even today, not without fear of danger. But messy need not mean impure in the sight of God, and in this I suggest lies the imperfect understanding of the men whose ideas are found in Leviticus 12. To my 21st Century mind, it is unwise for men, especially male priests, to think they should legislate over a part of life which is the preserve of women, amongst whom there is a bond of understanding we are not party to. Thankfully their writ no longer rules.
In saying that the law here is obsolete, I do so with confidence that as Christians we are stewards together of an evolving understanding, that we keep faith with the teaching of our forebears but in so doing we also revise and interpret in the light of new knowledge. In this, Christ is our model and our companion. He invites us to share with him in in the responsibility of co-creators of a world which is being changed and perfected.
Luke also includes in his story a prophecy as to the coming greatness of the child. Such prophecies were not uncommon in stories of the time, but Luke paints a picture of special poignancy: An old man, faithfully waiting for the fulfilment of a prophetic vision, that before he died he would see Israel’s Messiah. He holds a baby and looks into its young face. Here, he senses is one who will fulfil the hopes which have sustained his waiting, and more.
He knows that he will not live to see the boy reach adulthood, but feels a sense of peace, that with this child God is shaping a new future for the world and it will be good.
His is a gentle vision, of the consolation of Israel and of light to all the world. Yet there is also the shadow of pain not yet identified.
And out of his beautiful vision of light to all the world we have the tradition of Candlemas, when candles are taken out from the churches into our homes, a living sign of the light of hope and love which will carry us through dark times.
Later, we will light the candles up here on this baby font. This year, we are not able to share the candle-light from person to person, but I invite you to share that one light as you take away the candles on your seats and light them at home in the coming days. And if you are watching from home, you might wish to get out a candle and join us by lighting it in a window as well.
Richard Young (Rector)