Friday, February 2, 2018

The Presentation and God's Strong Hand

"Moses Striking the Rock", by Francesco Bacchiacca
    Today in the secular world (at least in the United States) we observe the venerable tradition of Groundhog Day, which involves allowing an earth-dwelling rodent to forecast our weather for the next few weeks. Nobody really takes it seriously, and yet it receives an enormous amount of attention.
The Church, as we should expect, has something much more substantial for us. Today, forty days after the birth of Jesus at Christmas, we observe the Feast of the Presentation, in which we commemorate Mary and Joseph bringing the infant Jesus to the Temple in Jerusalem to consecrate Him to God, as was the Jewish custom with first-born sons. In this event we can see how the Old Covenant foreshadows the new, and how the New, in turn, casts its shadow upon the Old; similarly, we can catch a glimpse of the whole of the life and mission of Jesus on earth, from beginning to end.
Let's start with the depiction of the event in Luke 2:22-40, the Gospel reading at today’s Mass, which begins as follows:

When the days were completed for their purification according to the law of Moses, Mary and Joseph took Jesus up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord, just as it is written in the law of the Lord, Every male that opens the womb shall be consecrated to the Lord, and to offer the sacrifice of a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons, in accordance with the dictate in the law of the Lord.  (Luke 2:22-24)

The passage from Exodus to which Luke refers above appears in today’s Office of Readings.  There we see the origin of the mandate that Jewish families offer up their eldest male child to the Lord:

And when the LORD brings you into the land of the Canaanites, as he swore to you and your fathers, and shall give it to you, you shall set apart to the LORD all that first opens the womb. All the firstlings of your cattle that are males shall be the LORDs. Every firstling of an ass you shall redeem with a lamb, or if you will not redeem it you shall break its neck. Every first-born of man among your sons you shall redeem. And when in time to come your son asks you, 'What does this mean?' you shall say to him, 'By strength of hand the LORD brought us out of Egypt, from the house of bondage. For when Pharaoh stubbornly refused to let us go, the LORD slew all the first-born in the land of Egypt, both the first-born of man and the first-born of cattle. Therefore I sacrifice to the LORD all the males that first open the womb; but all the first-born of my sons I redeem.'  (Exodus 13:11-15)

   The injunction to consecrate the first-born males sends a powerful, and serious, message: that the chosen people were saved not through any virtue of their own, but through the favor, and by the power, of God.  By dedicating to the Lord their eldest sons, who will someday become the head of their families, they are putting God at the head of every family.  It is a reminder that future generations are in God’s hands as much as the generation that he liberated from Egypt.

   As we commemorate the Presentation of Jesus, we might also want to consider the passage above in its larger context in the Book of Exodus.  The Hebrews have been released by Pharaoh, but their struggle is just beginning; they have a long road ahead of them.  Here are the verses that immediately follow the reading in today’s Office:

When Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although that was near; for God said, "Lest the people repent when they see war, and return to Egypt." But God led the people round by the way of the wilderness toward the Red Sea. And the people of Israel went up out of the land of Egypt equipped for battle. (Exodus 13:17-18)

The Israelites will not be able to simply walk in and take up residence in the land the Lord is giving them; they will need to fight, but God knows they’re not ready for that yet.  Before that time they will be prepared and tempered by a close escape from Pharaoh’s army (again, only by the “strength of the hand the LORD”), and forty years of struggle and hardship in the Sinai desert, punctuated by transcendent reminders of God’s Grace (Manna, Water from the Rock, the Ten Commandments).  God makes his Grace available, but the recipients are expected to cooperate actively with it.
   Now let’s look at Luke’s Gospel.  God has shown his strong hand again, in the birth of Jesus, the firstborn (and only born) son of The Father.  The Holy Family encounters a prophetic old man in the Temple named Simeon, who says:

       Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace,
according to thy word;
for mine eyes have seen thy salvation
which thou hast prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and for glory to thy people Israel. (Luke 2:29-32)

And yet, as was the case with the escape from Egypt, this is only the beginning.  He also tells Mary:

Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is spoken against (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), that thoughts out of many hearts may be revealed. (Luke 2:34-35)

"The Presentation", Hans Holbein the Elder
Simeon says that he can die content now after seeing the Savior, but also reveals that, here as in Moses’s day, salvation can only come after trial and suffering.

   We can see this reality reflected in the Liturgical Calendar: today is our last celebration of the Christ Child, and so our last glance back at the Christmas Season; in less than two weeks it will be Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent.  We can’t separate the Incarnation from the Via Dolorosa and Calvary.  And it’s no different for any one of us: God doesn’t make his Grace available to spare us our forty years in the desert, or release us from our own Way of the Cross.  Rather, it is to help us through them, because there’s no other way to get the Promised Land beyond.