Joseph W. Koterski, S.J.
When Joseph and Mary carried the Child to the Temple for the rite of purification, they were carrying out what the Law required: “Every male that opens the womb shall be consecrated to the Lord.” For the first-born child, each family was “to offer the sacrifice of a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.” This was to be a special thanksgiving offering, not only to recognize that God is the source of all life and that He had blessed the family with a child, but also to cultivate a strong memory of what this blessing meant, in light of Israel’s history. In the last of the ten plagues, the first-born of the Egyptians were slain, but the angel passed over the households of the Israelites, who had been directed to mark their doorposts with the blood of the Passover lambs.
As members of the People of Israel, Jesus and His parents are subject to the same requirement. He was the first-born, and so Joseph and Mary were to make the commanded offering on His behalf. But, as we know, there is more to this story. Jesus would later offer His own life as the new Passover sacrifice. He will be the Lamb of God, sacrificed for the deliverance of all people from sin. In the course of His life, the events of Israel’s past will be taken up and transformed. The ritual of purification described here may well have seemed to the Hebrews as something that largely looked to their past. They were to be grateful for what God had already done for His people. But in this case it anticipates a much greater deed that was still to be done, and one that would have a consequence for all of human history.
In today’s Gospel we come to understand the significance of these events even more deeply by the account of the meeting of the Holy Family with Simeon and Anna. The Holy Spirit had inspired Simeon with a strong sense that he would himself see the Messiah, and now in the baby Jesus He recognizes that Messiah. As today’s passage from Malachi proclaims, “and suddenly there will come to the Temple the LORD whom you seek.” This Messiah would bring “the covenant you desire” and would “purify the sons of Levi, refining them like gold or like silver, that they may offer due sacrifice to the LORD.”
In the ever rich texts of the Scriptures there is often so much more than we first suspect. The ancient method of purifying silver involved placing the material directly into fire, but this operation required careful handling. Keeping it there too long would make it a runny liquid that would drip away. Well trained artisans would keep it there just long enough to purify it of any dross. Interestingly, they would know that it was the right moment to remove it from the flame when they could see themselves reflected in the purified silver. So too it will be that we need to be purified in the fire of the love of Jesus, for He will show us the truth about our lives and our hearts, and the purification that He brings to us will make us the more able and ready to offer the LORD due sacrifice of our lives.
The hymn that Simeon sang when he had taken Jesus into his arms is a thanksgiving to God that has become part of the Church’s prayer of Compline every evening: “Now, Master, you may let your servant go in peace, according to your word, for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you prepared in the sight of all the peoples: a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and glory for your people Israel.” It can be our prayer in thanksgiving for the coming of Jesus to us – His coming to us there as the baby in the Temple and His coming to us personally every time when we receive Him in Holy Communion, for in this union He will purify our hearts.
On this occasion Simeon also prophesies about the suffering that will be an integral part of the the work of our redemption. It is a suffering that will be part of Christ’s life, but also a suffering that will be part of the vocation of Blessed Mother: “Behold, this child is destined for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be contradicted — and you yourself a sword will pierce —so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.”
For all we know, this part of Mary’s vocation was only now being shown to her. Earlier she had been told that she would be the mother of the Son of God, and she had graciously said her Fiat. She would come to know still more about her vocation of spiritual motherhood when Jesus spoke to her from the cross and pointed to John, saying “Behold your son.” Now, at the time of the purification, she learns from the words of Simeon about the compassion to which she is called by this prophecy of a sword that will pierce her heart. In the continuing assent given by her Fiat she stores this prophecy in her heart.
We do well to pray this day – to pray in thanksgiving for the graces of faith and especially for our inclusion in the redemption that God brought about in this way. We should also pray to remain open, as Blessed Mother remained open, to whatever God intends to show us as our lives go on about our vocations. We want to continue to hear Him, as Blessed Mother continued to hear Him, and to say yes to His summons as she did, even when it means things that we did not before understand. By letting Him purify us, we will be able better to hear and to voice our own ongoing assent to His call, as she did.