Most new parents like to take it easy immediately after the arrival of a new baby, and limit the number of visitors and outings for the first little while. Today, our own preferences determine the length of this “babymoon”, unless there is a medical reason to do otherwise; though this has not been the case always and everywhere. For instance, I went home with my babies after 2 days in the hospital, and was out and about buying groceries the next day; but my mother had to wait 3 weeks to take me home! I don’t know how you retain sanity in the maternity ward over all that time, but Mary had to spend twice as long before she could venture away from the place she delivered Jesus, and she had no choice over the matter, which was dictated by her religion. While this afforded her a sensible amount of time for the recovery and, very importantly, a quarantine, I sure hope that they found an actual guest room soon after Jesus’ birth. In the meantime, Joseph was also struggling to support his family, unable to return to his tools and client base in Nazareth, and taking whatever odd carpentry jobs he could find in the area. I wonder if all those numerous relatives and acquaintances they must have had in Bethlehem continued to shun the unwed parents under the pretext of “having no room” for them, or whether they took pity on the new family, especially considering that the baby’s circumcision was coming up on the 8 th day. The scriptural accounts are strangely silent about such details; though an apocryphal gospel claims that Jesus was circumcised while still in the cave, while our western art usually shows his circumcision to take place at the temple. Either way, Mary’s outing on the 40 th day would have been one of Jesus’ earliest public appearances -- not only before his people, but before the God of his nation.
The reason for this temple visit was twofold. Mary’s own postpartum ritual uncleanness required an animal sacrifice. In addition, a sacrifice called “the redemption of the firstborn son” in the form of money was also required for the baby. This custom went back to the early days of the Jewish nation, when the firstborn sons in all tribes were destined for priestly responsibilities, unless they were redeemed for another kind of life. It was only after the golden calf incident in the post-exodus wilderness that the Levites were to serve exclusively as priests in their portable temple. But the custom did not go away because it also reminded the Israelites about their time in the Egyptian bondage, when the Pharaoh dismissed them only after the deaths of all the firstborn sons in all Egyptian families, while the Israelite firstborns were spared in exchange for the blood of the sacrificial lambs. So, these were the ritual reasons for Mary and Joseph’s nearly ten-mile trek from Bethlehem to Jerusalem on the morning of our story from Luke. Little did they know that their compliance with these customs would neither relieve Jesus from the role of a “high priest” that was part and parcel of his messianic status, nor spare him from becoming the ultimate “Passover lamb” foreshadowed by the Exodus! And that Mary, far from merely becoming ritually “clean”, would be regarded the holiest woman who ever lived.
They knew none of this as they entered Jerusalem from the south through its Fountain Gate, passed the pool of Bethsaida (where the sacrificial sheep were washed, the disabled hoped for a healing stir of the water, and where Jesus would one day heal a paralyzed man), and walked northwest to the Temple Mount, bustling with the morning commerce. Outside the temple complex, Joseph bartered with the merchants for two turtledoves - a poor man’s sacrifice. Was he angry at the inflated prices? Did he feel ashamed that he couldn’t afford a lamb, as men’s sense of pride is often intensified when they first become fathers. Did Mary feel sad, looking at the erratic movements of the cloth bag containing the birds? Was her sense of empathy heightened by childbirth, or has she always recoiled at the sacrifices: the struggle, the fear, the violence, the blood — an innocent life killed because of another’s guilt. These two frightened little creatures would soon die to make her clean, foretelling the fate of her son. With these birds and the infant, the parents now enter the temple complex and make their way across the noisy Court of the Gentiles toward the Eastern Gate of the inner wall.
Hundreds are praying there, and suddenly, out of this crowd, an ancient-looking man emerges: “Let me hold the child!” Can you just see Joseph step up and shield his wife? What thoughts were going through Mary’s mind? I was never one to fret over germs and dirt and babies being too hot/too cold; but, I know many people who do, and I can just imagine what Mary was thinking as some eccentric old man asked to hold her 6-week-old, amidst all that dirt, strangers, animals – maybe not as bad as it was in the cave, but were his hands clean? Would he know to hold the baby’s head? The man now looks at Joseph, and smiles: “You must forgive old Simeon. Your child is in no danger from me. I’ve just been waiting for him so long.” Mary has no idea just how long and how eagerly Simeon had been waiting – in fact, according to an Eastern-orthodox legend, he was one of the 70 authors of the Septuagint, the first translation of the Hebrew scriptures into Greek! Supposedly, he hesitated over his translation of Is 7:14 ("Behold, a virgin shall conceive"), but just as he was going to correct it to “woman”, an angel appeared and told him that he would not die until he had seen the Christ born of a virgin. Now, that may be unlikely, given that it would make him well over 200 hundred-years-old... but still, the man was an ancient and devout priest.
Upon taking the child in his arms, the old man mutters, “Lord, now you are letting your servant die in peace”. He gently rocks Jesus, tears streaming down his beard, and breaks into praise: “The salvation of all! The glory of Israel! This child will enable those who die rise again”. Luke has Simeon say the Greek word anastasis for “rise” here, same as he uses for “resurrection” elsewhere. So, because of this child, Simeon will not only finally die, but will do so in peace, assured of his hope of eternal life. Once again, Mary must have felt the goosebumps on her skin, thinking that her baby, the one she daily nursed, changed, bathed and cradled, was to fulfil these promises. All parents have certain expectations for their children, and most try to fulfil our obligations to them imposed by our love -- as well as by our culture. As children, we exceed some of these expectations, and fail to meet others. Either way, I’m convinced that God does infinitely more through each of his children than anyone ever asks or imagines of them; but the extent of it will likely stay beyond our comprehension.
But Simeon was not finished. He turns to Mary and says, "And a sword will pierce your own soul, too", as he softly places Jesus back in her arms. She holds her baby tighter, as she instinctively understands that, as any mother does, she would experience hundreds of soul-piercing moments with each step her growing child takes towards independence. What she does not know then is that none of these would prepare her for the final anguish that exceeded them all -- her son's passion and death. In our own lives, at times we experience agonizing pain, for which nothing else prior could have fully prepared us. When it does, we can remember Mary. The darkest moment of her life, the sword that stabbed deepest into her soul, was the moment that God used most to bring salvation and joy to the world — and to her. Our own deepest wounding sometimes becomes the channel through which the most profound grace flows, for us and for others. As Simeon dries his eyes with a sleeve, he lays his hands upon Mary and Joseph’s shoulders, and concludes with the final, most mysterious words, “because of this, the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed”. The way we deal with pain while maintaining hope in God’s gift of grace does reveal the nature of our faith. With one last look at the child, Simeon moved away slowly through the crowd, while an elderly woman came to greet them, as she too began to praise the arrival of their child. This event in the early life of Jesus fits perfectly into the overall pattern of God’s self-revelation as presented to us in the Gospels. In Russian, the name of this feast is simply, “the meeting”. Beginning with Jesus’ birth, it was always the “smallest”, marginalized, hopeless people who were first to meet him – the shepherds in the cave, the elderly people at the temple, the uneducated fishermen on the bank of Jordan, and the women at the empty grave. The “last shall be first” pattern is the only one with the power to give us the ultimate hope that one day we shall all meet him face to face. Amen.