“When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord,” our passage today begins. “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord.” If you’re anything like me, you probably have your hand up already. Teacher, teacher: But, why?
To understand why we must begin with Mary, who according to Leviticus 12, is unclean from the moment of Jesus’ birth through the seventh day. On the eight day, Jesus is circumcised and Mary’s thirty–three days of blood purification begin. Had Jesus been Jessica, that time would’ve doubled to sixty–six days. In these days during the purification period, Mary, along with all other Jewish mothers, are forbidden to touch anything holy or to partake in any religious celebration. Then on the fortieth day—eightieth day if baby Jessica—Mary goes to the Nicanor Gate in the Court of Women at the Temple, where she is to be sprinkled with blood of the sacrifice as a sign of her purification.
The text tells us that Mary offers to the priest for sacrificial dedication a pair of turtledoves or pigeons. What the text doesn’t tell us is that the required offering is a lamb and a pigeon, which cost a month’s salary for the average person. So Mary offers up for Jesus what is called the offering of the poor.
According to a New Testament commentary that consults sacred Jewish texts written before and during the time of Jesus, what we call Hebraica, and commentary on a collection of Jewish law and interpretation called the Talmud, the offering of the poor could be used as a spiritual weapon against the rich and powerful. The offering of the poor is more pleasing to God, the rationale goes, because it is an act of faith overcoming great fear and uncertainty. Think of the parable Jesus will later tell about the widow who gives all out of penury and therefore displays a faith greater than those who give only out of their surplus.
So, for example, when King Herod Agrippa came with a thousand burnt-offerings, the Talmud tells us, a single poor man prevented him with an offering of two turtledoves. Even if Agrippa had kept the priests sacrificing around the clock, they would not have been as pleasing to the Lord as were those turtledoves.
What the passage also doesn’t inform us is that the redemption of the first–born child had at its roots practices of child sacrifice. Scripture is clear that the firstborn of most animal species are to be offered to God. Humans were to be no exception. One interpretation of God’s substitution of the ram for Isaac is that it marks an end to the practice of child sacrifice.
Something new emerges as a result, however, called the Redemption of the Firstborn, in which parents were required to make an offering of five shekels, nearly a month’s pay, in essence buying their son back from God. There were strict regulations regarding how and when the money could be offered. The mind boggles thinking about all those thousands of stories lost, tales of families feeling both joy and panic with each new pregnancy.
With Jesus, though, Mary walks into the Temple and with the offering of the poor. There is no ransom needed here, though, for the child already belongs to God. Once again, though, the mind boggles thinking about Mary going into the Temple. Is she steadfast? Confident? Confused? Overwhelmed?
The scene shifts and we meet a priest named Simeon. He is among the first nonviolent resistors. He engages in fervent prayer, waiting patiently upon the Lord, and fulfills his priestly duties. He is a disciple of Hillel, one of the most important rabbis of the Second Temple Period. Simeon sees the death and destruction wrought by the Romans, yet in the Temple he remains, praying and waiting. We are told that he has been contacted by God and assured that the long-awaited Messiah, the one who will redeem all of Israel, will be made known before Simeon’s eyes dim and he falls into the shadow world.
We are given the sense that the day Mary and Joseph arrive with Jesus, Simeon has the day off. It is the Spirit that guides him to the place of meeting, where he takes into his arms the promised one. His prayer, which is beautiful in any language, connects Jewish beliefs with what will become Christian orthodoxy. Salvation, he says, is available to all, even Gentiles, through the birth of the Messiah. More importantly, Simeon says, God has sent the one who will free Israel from the yoke of Rome.
Joseph and Mary are amazed—and let us remember that Mary is not omniscient, she is on the cusp of an incredible journey in raising Jesus, as is Joseph—but Simeon speaks plainly to the young mother. This boy is gonna shake things up, including your soul.
Suddenly, a scene shift once again. This time, the focus is on Anna, whom Luke tells us is a prophet. The Greek word here is the one used frequently in scripture, but also one that has many different applications. Literally, a prophet is a “mouthpiece” or “spokesperson.” We know of all sorts of prophets—from Moses to Jeremiah—but what is especially interesting is that the Sanhedrin, the high court of Jewish law, had declared in 400 B.C.E that the age of prophecy was over. Kaput. No more prophets.
Suddenly, here is Anna, more properly Hanna, one who also is able to identify Jesus. We’re told that she immediately begins to praise God and to speak of this child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.
But we’re not given a single, solitary word of what she says. Simeon’s words are recorded, if we take the passage literally, in great detail, but nothing from the wisdom of Hanna?
Maybe, maybe not. We are told that she is a widow. From the details available it seems that she was married for fourteen years and then upon the passing of her husband, she never remarried.
I do not know the pain of losing a spouse to death, but I do know what it is like to lose a sibling. I imagine each of you has grief events in your own autobiography. Such deaths face us with a choice. Do we become bitter? Do we become angry? Do we trust less, wallowing in the mire, and slowly kill ourselves with our rage?
Or do we, through God’s help, step into our faith and seek comfort through prayer, service, and a fervent belief that we are never alone? Do we see the Christ standing before us in the skin of a stranger? Anna is described as one who chooses to pray, to worship, to spend her time in a community in which she feels meaning and purpose.
Notice that Simeon, upon seeing Jesus, is ready to die. My race is run, he says. And we all have moments like that in our lives, don’t we? That moment when you know an important relationship has come to an end. I knew it a decade ago, the last time I saw a friend from college. We had outgrown the friendship, outgrown one another, turn mean toward each other, and were setting out on two very different paths. That day I was Simeon, ready for the relationship to die but remembering the good times we had.
I pray, though, that most of us seek to be like Anna. We never know how much of our lives may be spent waiting, hoping against hope, even wondering if God exists, but when we glimpse that hope, may we break out in song and prayer and may we seek to be examples to others about the great things God has done. In other words, may we get to work.
Even without knowing what she said, Anna’s temple presence and affirmation of Jesus seems the more important of the two. Couple it with Mary making the offering of the poor for the Son of God, and we have a potent female presence in otherwise male-dominated events. And I hope you find that my opinion does not come through a torturing of the text. I reflect on God’s word as it is presented.
What this says for us, as we leave behind a year that, by most accounts, was especially difficult, is that Jesus needs Annas. Now, more than ever. You never know when your steadfast patience and faith will touch another person’s heart. You may never know when God will call upon you to be a herald for Christ, a person who sings and proclaims the good news that none of us are outside of love and forgiveness. Faith, when practiced like Anna, can shield us from the anger, bitterness, and selfishness that arises when we think that we are accursed and life is bereft of meaning.
Friends, the hope, love, peace, and joy we have rekindled in our hearts through Advent may we now allow to grow in ourselves. Let us be Annas, ready to see and act when God is changing the world. Amen.