The Presentation of the Lord

The Presentation of the Lord

First Reading: Malachi 3:1-4; Response: Psalm 24:7, 8, 9, 10; Second Reading: Hebrews 2:14-18; Gospel: Luke 2:22-40

The first reading is part of the oracles of the prophet Malachi. The date of his ministry is sometime in the first half of the 5th century B.C. His name means, “my messenger.” Nothing is known of his origin or his life, but his interests can be discovered through the oracles attributed to him in the Book of Malachy. He proclaims a scathing denunciation of the corrupt practices of priests in the temple of the Lord. He attacks non-conformities to the laws of marriage. He has sympathy for wives rejected by their husbands, “Do not break faith with the wife or your youth.” He insists on the obligation of the people to support the Lord’s temple. Social justice is another of his interests. Those who wrong the defenseless will merit punishment from God. A major concern is that the Lord is weary of all the abuses, religious, civic, economic, social. He denounces cynics who were saying, “Any evildoer is good as far as the Lord is concerned. In fact, he likes them best.” He threatens a fiery “Day of the Lord,” which will be a major intervention from God to burn away evil.

Malachi envisions an ambassador from the Lord who will accomplish a fiery purification of temple, priests, and people, “Behold, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me.” This warning should sound familiar to us, since it is used in the New Testament to describe the person and ministry of John the Baptizer. See Mark 1:2; Matthew 11:10; Luke 1:17, 76; 7:27. The next lines are the motive for selecting this reading for the Presentation of Jesus in the temple: “The Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple . . . .” The rest of this reading describes the messenger, the Lord’s ambassador. He will accomplish the threatened purification. The original messenger turns out to be the prophet Elijah, who had been snatched up to heaven in a chariot of fire pulled by horses of fire. He had to come back anyway to die, so he might as well be given the kind of flaming work in which he already had some experience. See 2 Kings 1:9-12.

The Responsorial Psalm 24 was originally chanted as a processional hymn during a solemn entrance into the Lord’s temple. One hears echoes, especially in the people’s response, of our first reading’s references to the Lord coming into his temple: “Who is this king of glory? It is the Lord!” Although the original meaning of the Psalm was a reference to the Lord God of Israel entering or being present in his temple, by adopting the Psalm for the liturgy of the Presentation, it now refers to the entrance of the Lord Jesus being brought into the temple by his parents. The titles may be more fitting to the Old Testament concept of the Lord God of Israel as a warrior: “strong and mighty, mighty in battle, Lord of hosts (general of the heavenly armies).

The second reading is from the Letter to the Hebrews. The author is unknown, though the letter is sometimes mistakenly attributed to St. Paul. The letter was addressed to Christian Jews. A major theme is this, that the worship (rituals) of the Old Testament or Covenant have been replaced or perfected by the sacrifice of Jesus. The addressees may have been on the brink of abandoning their Christian faith to return to the ancient worship of the Old Covenant. They may have objected to Jesus’ humanity. Therefore the author insists that Jesus “had to become like his brothers and sisters in every way, that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest before God to expiate (atone) the sins of the people.” Thus the humanity of Jesus enables him to stand as a mediating priest between God and humankind. It is specifically his humanity that enables him to be tested (perfected) through suffering to help those who now are being tested through suffering.

The gospel reading for the Presentation of Jesus in the temple leaves us with a question of what exactly Luke has in mind, since he begins, “When the days were completed for their purification according to the Law of Moses (the Torah).” But the next sentence, “Mary and Joseph took Jesus up to Jerusalem to present him in the temple.” The question: Purification or Presentation. As far as we know, there was no law or custom of presenting a child in the temple. There was however a law in the Torah for the purification of a mother after giving birth. She needed to be purified because of the taboo about losing blood. This was to take place 40 days after the birth of a boy, 80 days after the birth of a girl. See Leviticus 12:2-8, as quoted in the gospel of this day. Luke, a Gentile convert, is not always clear about Jewish prescribed rituals, customs, Palestinian geography, and history of the Jews. He is after all not writing a history or biography of Jesus but a catechism to teach Christian doctrine or presents models to imitate. The models in this case are Mary and Joseph, who did everything “according to the law of the Lord,” as Luke notes five times.

While Mary and Joseph were engaged in temple rituals, a senior citizen named Simeon was prompted by the Holy Spirit to enter the temple. The same Spirit had promised him that he would not die until he had seen the Messiah (“the Christ of the Lord”). He took the child into his arms and broke out into a hymn which became a part of the official daily night prayer of the Catholic Church. It is named from the first two words of the hymn, Nunc Dimittis. Now dismiss, O Lord, your servant in peace, for my eyes have seen your salvation.” Next on stage is another senior citizen, Anna, a prophetess. She came forward and spoke about the child “to all who were awaiting the redemption of Jerusalem.” A word about Simeon’s oracle directed to Mary, “This child is destined for the rise and fall of many in Israel — and you yourself a sword will pierce — so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed.” Does Luke mean Mary’s presence at the foot of the cross? No, that is the theology of John’s gospel. In Luke’s theology it means that Mary herself will be tested “for the fall and rise of many in Israel.” She will pass the tests. One of those tests: her anguish at the loss of Jesus at age twelve in Jerusalem and his confusing answer to his parents when they found him. “And they did not understand what he was saying to them.”