Purification of Mary and Presentation of Our Lord
February 2, 2014
Trinity Lutheran Church—New Haven, MO
In the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
According to the Old Testament Levitical Law, people, places, and things were distinguished in a theological sense as holy or common. Something that was holy was something that was near to God’s presence, something dedicated to the service of God, something set apart for God’s use. Common things, on the other hand, were things that were not dedicated to God’s service, things not in the peculiar presence of God, things that were not for God’s use. Common things—or profane things—were not necessarily bad things; they were simply the things of everyday life. For example, the breakfast you ate this morning is profane—it’s not bad, but it’s not a meal set apart for God’s holy use. You don’t get any particular spiritual blessing from God by eating a bowl of Cheerios.
Most things in the Israelite community were common. In order to be fit, though, for service to God, a common thing would need to be sanctified—set apart and dedicated to the service of God. God’s Law prescribed various rituals and ceremonies by which a person, place, or thing would be made holy (each of them with their own theological significance).
One person that God commanded to be set apart is the firstborn sons of Israel. Though some were dedicated to a particular service of God (like Samuel, Hannah’s son), the dedication of the firstborn had to do with what God did for Israel in Egypt. The LORD spoke to Moses: “Set aside as holy every firstborn of any mother in Israel, among both people and animals; they are Mine” (Ex 13:1 AAT).
Recall that the Lord visited Egypt with ten plagues, the last of which the Lord struck down the firstborn in all of Egypt. He passed over the houses of the Israelites, but not because He gave them a special pass or was easier on them. Death also came to the houses of the Israelites—but it was not their firstborn sons, it was the lambs who died in their places.
“When the LORD brings you to the land of the Canaanites, as He swore to you and your fathers, and gives it to you, give the LORD every firstborn, also every firstborn of your animals; if they are males, they belong to the LORD. Redeem every firstborn donkey with an animal from the flock, and if you don’t redeem it, break its neck. And redeem every firstborn of your children. In the future when your son asks you, ‘What does this mean?’ tell him, ‘With a mighty arm the LORD took us out of Egypt, where we were slaves. When Pharaoh was too stubborn to let us go, the LORD killed every firstborn among men and animals in Egypt. This is why I’m sacrificing to the LORD every firstborn male and redeeming every firstborn of my children.’ Make this a sign on your arm and a mark on your forehead, because the LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty arm” (Ex 13:11-16).
This is why Mary and Joseph bring Jesus to the temple in today’s Gospel—to fulfill this Law of presenting the firstborn son to God as holy. And when the days of their cleansing were fulfilled according to the Law of Moses, they carried Him up to Jerusalem to present Him to the Lord, just as it is written in the Law of the Lord, that every male who opens a mother will be called holy to the Lord (vv22-23).
Because Jesus was born into the house of Israel, He was incorporated into this Law of presentation, but also the promise of redemption that went along with it. Although His presentation is different. For 1,400 years, the Israelites had been bringing their firstborn sons to the temple to present them to God, and all of them were found in need of redemption. But when Christ is presented to God, He is set apart in a different way—not as one in need of redemption, but One who will be the redemption of the world. His presentation is begun at the temple, but completed on the cross. There He is presented before God as the Substitute for mankind. The blood Jesus sheds and the death He dies is an acceptable sacrifice on behalf of all.
In addition to the realms of holy and common, the Levitical Law also made a distinction between clean and unclean. Clean things were things that were healthy and living, but unclean things were associated with disease, sickness, and death, such as blood or other bodily discharges, certain diseases, corpses—generally things that turn our stomach anyway. Where the distinction of holy and common is something strictly revealed by God, the distinction of clean and unclean is something we kind of know by nature—you don’t need to read your Bible to know to wash your hands after you use the restroom.
The realms of holy and common, clean and unclean overlapped. Most things were common and clean. A common and clean thing could be sanctified to become holy and clean; conversely, a common and clean thing could be defiled to become common and unclean. But no unclean thing could also be holy; it first needed to be purified by the rituals prescribed in the Law of Moses.
The presentation of Jesus in the temple was also done in conjunction with the ritual for purification for Mary following childbirth—and to give a sacrifice according to what has been said in the Law of the Lord, a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons. Leviticus 12 specifies a period of 40 days following the birth of a boy as a time of cleansing for a mother (for girls, it was extended to 80 days). This time period ensured full post-partum healing. Today is February 2, and if you count backwards, we’re now 40 days after Christmas.
The ritual for purification was the sacrifice of a young lamb and a turtledove, or in the case of the poor, two turtledoves or young pigeons. The blood shed by these animals marks the transition from the realm of sickness and death to health and life, in conjunction with forgiveness for the mother’s sins.
All of the above is ancient history, however. The presentations of firstborns and purifications of mothers have not been able to be done since the destruction of the temple in 70 A.D.—even observant Jews can only follow a shadow of the Levitical Law without the temple. But there is an ever greater reason why these rituals have come to an end—because the presentation of Jesus and the purification of Mary point to the true cleansing and redemption that is available for all.
The Blood of Christ Is Your Purification and Your Redemption
The sicknesses, the diseases, even the death of the body are only symptoms of the greater uncleanness that infects you. You didn’t have to come into contact with anything disgusting, or repulsive. It was a congenital defect—something you were born with. Disease is an infection or corruption of the body, but that which makes you unclean is an infection and corruption of your whole self.
Sin is the infection; rebellion is the corruption. We’ve all become like an unclean person, and all our righteousnesses are like filthy rags, writes the Prophet Isaiah (64:6a AAT). It’s not something you can cleanse with soap or sanitizer. You can’t wait for it to just go away after 40 days. This is an uncleanness that can, ironically, only be cleansed by blood. For, the blood of Jesus, [God’s] Son, cleanses us from all sin (1 John 1:7a). Filthy rags dipped in this blood are washed white as snow.
The sacrifice of Christ and the blood He shed marks the transition from sickness and death to health and life. For if the blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of heifers sprinkled on defiled persons sanctify the body for cleansing, how much more the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself unblemished to God, will cleanse our conscience from dead works to the living service of God? (Heb 9:13-14).
Not only does the blood of Christ purify you, but it also sets you apart as holy and suitable for the presence of God. You are no common person, but you are one who has been set apart—not because of your birth order, but because a Substitute has died in you place.
You are redeemed now because of the blood of Christ—He has taken your place and given you His. But Scripture often also talks about redemption as something that is yet to come. Jesus speaks of redemption when He speaks of His return on the Last Day (Lk 21:28). St. Paul says we are eagerly awaiting the redemption of our bodies (Rom 8:23).
Christ was not only presented as the firstborn son of His mother, but three days after His blood marked the beams of the cross, He was presented as the Firstborn from the dead. This is your final redemption, the resurrection from the dead. Christ is the Firstborn, but you will follow in the same way as your old Brother.
The Holy Family went up to Jerusalem for the ritual purification of Mary and the presentation of Jesus as firstborn of His mother. By the sacrifice of Christ on the cross, you also are purified from sin and sanctified as one set apart as one of God’s own.
In + Jesus’ name. Amen.
Rev. Jacob Ehrhard