February 2, 2003 Homily by Fr. Robert Altier Feast of the Presentation of the Lord
Reading I (Malachi 3:1-4) Reading II (Hebrews 2:14-18)
Gospel (St. Luke 2:22-40)
Today the Church celebrates the Feast of the Presentation of Our Lord. Traditionally, this was called “The Purification of Mary”. We see in the Gospel reading how, according to the law of the Lord, they brought the Child Jesus up to Jerusalem. On the fortieth day, the mother was to be purified from the flow of blood which takes place in the birth of a child; but when we consider this particular situation, we have to wonder what is happening. There were two things that would take place: not only was the mother purified, but because Jesus was the firstborn son – and the law says, “any male who opens the womb” so if there is a male who is the firstborn – he must be redeemed. The reason for that had to do with the death of the firstborn children in Egypt (back at the time of the Exodus) because it was supposed to be the firstborn of the Israelites whom Pharaoh had intended to kill, but instead it was the firstborn of the Egyptians. From that point on, God said that every male who opens the womb is consecrated to the Lord. If it was an animal, then that firstborn animal had to be slaughtered or the neck broken or whatever it happened to be. And if it was a human person, the firstborn male had to be redeemed, and it was to be redeemed either with a lamb, a sheep – or if the family was poor, with two turtledoves or two pigeons, which is precisely what we see happening.
Now when we look at these two things that are going on in this feast, we see that there is an immediate problem. The birth of Jesus forty days ago was miraculous. There was no flow of blood because there was no normal opening of the womb. It was not a normal birth. As Jesus got into the womb without the normal opening, so too He came forth from the womb without the normal opening. And so Mary had no need of being purified; indeed, she was still a virgin. Then we look at Our Lord and we ask ourselves, “For what reason did Jesus need to be redeemed?” First of all, He did not open the womb, therefore, the dictates of the law were not quite fulfilled in that sense. Secondly, He is the One who came to redeem; there was no need for Him to be redeemed. And so we ask ourselves, “Then what is it that is going on here?”
What is happening can be seen rather clearly if you read the Gospel very carefully. At the beginning of the Gospel reading today it says, “When it came time for their purification…” It does not say, “When it came time for her purification,” or, “for the mother’s purification,” or, “for Mary’s purification,” – it says, “for their purification.” There was no “they” who needed to be purified according to the law of Moses; it was the mother who needed to be purified. So who is this plurality that is being spoken of? And for whom is the sacrifice of redemption being offered if Jesus did not need to be redeemed?
Well, if we look, first of all, at the first reading from the Book of the Prophet Malachi, we are told that the messenger of the covenant, the one whom you are seeking, will suddenly come to the temple. But it asks the question, “Who will be able to stand on the day of his coming?” because he is going to come and purify. He is going to purify the sons of Levi. He is going to purify the children of Israel. We see the fulfillment of that. Jesus, the One Whom they were seeking, Whom Simeon proclaims and Anna recognizes and begins telling everyone about, suddenly comes to the temple, not to purify His mother because she needed no purification – she was perfect, not because He needed to be purified or He needed to be redeemed – because He is the Redeemer. But in Saint Luke’s Gospel, there is something very clear in Greek which we do not see at all in English, and it is that prior to this particular story of the Presentation of Our Lord in the Temple, anytime that Saint Luke speaks of the city of Jerusalem, he uses the secular spelling, and anytime He uses the term “Jerusalem” after the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple, he uses the sacred spelling for the city of Jerusalem. And so it is Jerusalem, the temple, and the people, who needed to be purified, not Mary. It was Jerusalem and the people who needed to be redeemed.
When we look at this in an extended form, we recognize that it was not just the ancient Jerusalem, not just the ancient temple, and not just the people who lived within the confines of the city of Jerusalem who needed to be purified, but rather it was for the purification of the New Jerusalem, the new temple of the Lord, the new people of Israel, the people of the New and heavenly Jerusalem. We are told, after all, in the second reading from Saint Paul’s Letter to the Hebrews, that Jesus, our High Priest, has come to expiate the sins of the people, to be the Redeemer, to be the One who would take on the sins of the people so that their sins could be removed. That is what we see happening today.
We are the citizens of the New Jerusalem, we are the new Israel, and He came to redeem us. We are the temple of the Most Holy Trinity. Each and every one of us is called to be a temple of God, and that temple needs to be purified. The sins need to be removed so that God can dwell within. And so the Lord came to purify the ancient Jerusalem and the ancient temple in order that the New Jerusalem and the new temple would also be purified. He came to redeem His own people of Israel, but He came also to redeem all of those who would be incorporated into the new Israel, those who would be citizens of the New Jerusalem. The purpose of the Presentation in the Temple was to purify us and to present us as members of the firstborn Son of Mary, because each one of us who is incorporated into Jesus Christ through Baptism is thereby a member of the Firstborn. And so while it was not Jesus Himself who needed any kind of redemption, it was us who needed to be redeemed. We are the ones who needed to be purified and redeemed. We are the ones whose sins needed to be expiated for. We are the ones who would not be able to stand on the day of the Lord’s coming, but He came to purify and that is what He has done.
His presentation in the temple was going to be a foreshadowing of what was going to come later on, because on the day of our Baptism, Our Lord was presented in this temple – the temple of our bodies, the temple which is made pure in Baptism so that Our Lord could come and dwell within. Through Baptism, our sins are forgiven because He expiated for us as our faithful High Priest. Just as in Saint Luke’s Gospel we see this change that happens in “Jerusalem” so too on the day of our Baptism there was a change that happened in us. Prior to being baptized, we were secular, pagan, heathen, whatever word you want to use. We were not Christian; we were not purified. And so any reference to us in that kind of a way would have to be understood that it is prior to being purified. But after we were baptized, we were consecrated to the Lord. We were now sacred; we were holy to the Lord, which is exactly what we see in Scripture. Saint Peter tells us very clearly that we are a royal priesthood, a kingly people. We are holy; we are chosen by the Lord. That is precisely what happened on the day that Our Lord was presented in the temple. The secular Jerusalem became the sacred Jerusalem. The temple was purified so that the Lord, who was sought in the temple, could now be found, not only by the holy man, Simeon, and by the extraordinarily holy woman, Anna, but by each one of us who is a temple of the Lord and a citizen of the New Jerusalem. We have been purified. We have been redeemed.
We see, then, the Holy Family bringing the Child Jesus, but in Jesus, bringing each one of us. Saint Joseph, who has adopted each one of us, the Patron of the Universal Church, he is the one who offers the sacrifice on our behalf. And we see Our Lady, who carried each one of us in her heart, coming forward so that we would be purified. So as we celebrate this feast today – the feast which is also called Candlemas, which was an English form of what this celebration was – it is a feast of light. Candles are blessed today, candles which represent the light of faith in the darkness of this world, candles which will represent that fire which Our Lord came to ignite upon the earth, the fire which He came to ignite within our hearts. The light of Jesus Christ shines brightly within us because we have been purified, we have been redeemed, our sins have been expiated, and the grace of God and the very light and the life of God, Who is Jesus Christ, dwells within each one of us if we are in the state of grace. We are made temples of the Lord. We are holy to the Lord; we are a royal priesthood, a chosen people. We are the people of God. We are the ones, who, in Jesus Christ, are presented in the temple. We are the ones in the heart of Our Lady who are purified. We are the ones who have sacrifice offered for us by Saint Joseph, our adoptive father, so that we could be truly a holy people, a people sacred to the Lord.
That is the importance of this feast. When you read, then, in Saint Luke’s Gospel, “When it came time for their purification…” you know who it is talking about. It is not talking about Mary. It is talking about you: You were presented to the Lord. You were made sacred to the Lord so that you could become a holy dwelling place for the Lord, a place which is purified, a place which is redeemed so that you could exercise your priesthood, so that you could exercise your kingship, so that you could exercise the prophetic office as a person, a temple, a member of the New Jerusalem, which is no longer secular, no longer pagan, no longer heathen, but is now redeemed and purified – and is sacred to the Lord.
* This text was transcribed from the audio recording of a homily by Father Robert Altier with minimal editing.