Sunday Sermon for February 2, 2020, the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord
Readings: Mal 3:1-4; Heb 2:14-18; Lk 2:22-40
Today is a rare occasion when a regular Sunday is superseded by a Feast. When this occurs, it is because the Feast is associated with our salvation. Today we celebrate the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord, the fortieth day after the Birth of Jesus at Christmas. According to the Mosaic Law, on the fortieth day after the birth of the firstborn male child, the mother is presented for purification due to the flow of blood that took place in the birth and sacrifice is offered for the redemption of the son because the firstborn sons of the Israelites were spared when the angel of death took the lives of the firstborn sons of the Egyptians. God had decreed that from that time forward, the firstborn males, both human and animal, of the Israelites had to be redeemed.
When we look at what St. Luke presents in the Gospel reading today, he is clearly calling our attention to the obedience of our Lady and St. Joseph to the Law of Moses; he refers to their obedience four time in the reading! However, St. Luke adds an unexpected twist to the story. He does not refer to the purification of the mother; rather, he says: “When the days were completed for their purification.”
Mary did not need to be purified because the birth of our Lord was a miraculous birth without the normal opening of the womb. Consequently, there was no flow of blood and our Lady’s physical virginity remained intact. The Fathers of the Church considered this a divine prerogative of Jesus prefiguring the freedom from physical limitations that would come only in the resurrection. So, who are the “they” of whom St. Luke speaks? It is Jerusalem and the people of Jerusalem. This is the holy city, the place where the Temple of the Living God was located. Notice in the Gospel reading that Anna speaks of Jesus to “those who were awaiting the redemption of Jerusalem.”
So, we have an occasion when the Holy Family was perfectly obedient to the Law of Moses and fulfilled all the rites of the Jewish people even though the two reasons for being there did not apply: the mother, our Lady, did not need purification and the Son, the Redeemer, did not need to be redeemed. This being the case, why did they do these things? As we have seen, Mary went through the purification rites on behalf of the people who awaited the Lord and for the purification of the holy city. Jesus, the first-born of our Lady and the first-born of all creation, was redeemed for the same reason He would be baptized thirty years later: the Head of the Mystical Body led the way for the members of the Body who needed to be redeemed.
As we see in the first reading, when the Lord comes to the Temple, He will refine the sons of Levi so they could offer due sacrifice to the Lord. Only after this purification of the priests would the sacrifices of Judah and Jerusalem be pleasing to the Lord. This is true for the people of our Lord’s time, but on the Cross Jesus offered the perfect sacrifice that was most pleasing to His Father. In order to participate in this sacrifice, not only do the priests need to be pure, but since every baptized person participates in the priesthood of the Faithful, everyone needs to be purified in order to take part in this blessed and perfect sacrifice.
St. Paul speaks of this in the second reading when he explains how Jesus had to become like us in order to be a faithful high priest and expiate the sins of the people. But, in the New Covenant, which is Jesus Himself, we have become His members in a mystical sense. If He had to become like us in order to be a faithful high priest, then it stands to reason that we need to become like Him in order to be united with the sacrifice He offers for our redemption and salvation.
St. Paul speaks of the blessings that accrue to us because of our incorporation into Christ and participation in His victory. He tells us the devil, who has power over death, was destroyed in the death of the Lord. More than this, we who had been slaves to the devil have been freed from both our subjection and our fear of death. Simeon prophesies that Jesus is the Light of the revelation to the Gentiles and the glory of Israel. Being freed from the kingdom of darkness, we are now children of light. In accordance with this Feast, we have been redeemed and purified; we have been made pleasing to God and bearers of the Light of Christ.
Fr. Altier’s column appears regularly in The Wanderer, a national Catholic weekly published in St. Paul, Minn. For information about subscribing to The Wanderer, please visit www.thewandererpress.com.