Sunday, Feb. 2, is the feast of the Presentation of the Lord (Year A). Mass readings: Malachi 3:1-4; Psalm 24:7-10; Hebrews 2:14-18; Luke 2:22-40 or 2:22-32.
As the Gospel opens today, we see Mary and Joseph doing something that, at least in one respect, is quite familiar to us: They are going to worship God as a family. As faithful Jews seeking to observe the law of Moses, Mary and Joseph were required to offer a “ransom,” or vicarious sacrifice, for their son, Jesus. Since they were rather poor, the law stipulated that they could offer a pair of turtledoves to ransom their firstborn (Luke 2:24; Exodus 13:15).
But, we might ask, why was it so important for them to do this? What was its deeper significance? Well, the answer to that question lies in Israel’s foundational experience of God’s salvation, which is recorded in the Book of Exodus:
“And when your son asks you later on, ‘What does this mean?’ you will tell him, ‘With a strong hand the Lord brought us out of Egypt, out of a house of slavery. When Pharaoh stubbornly refused to let us go, the Lord killed every firstborn in the land of Egypt, the firstborn of human being and beast alike. That is why I sacrifice to the Lord every male that opens the womb and why I ransom every firstborn of my sons’” (13:14-15).
As these lines from Exodus show, this kind of animal sacrifice served as a reminder of what God had done for his people all those centuries ago. When the people were languishing under the harshness of their Egyptian overlords and were on the brink of utter destruction, it was precisely then that God acted in dramatic fashion on their behalf. As revelatory and forceful as the experience of God’s salvation was, however, there was still a danger that God’s action might be forgotten by future generations. God thus commanded his people to observe the practice of offering a sacrifice of ransom for their firstborn children along with an explanation of its origins. This sacrificial ritual was meant to serve as a symbolic reminder of God’s mighty acts of salvation in Egypt for all generations to come.
This is precisely what we see in today’s Gospel when Mary and Joseph offer their sacrifice in the temple; they acknowledge that the merciful and almighty God of Israel acted on behalf of his people all those years — centuries — ago. Yet there is more to it than that. In presenting their sacrifice after having received the revelation of Jesus’ divine origin, they also acknowledge God’s immanent saving activity in their own age. Although they were not fully aware of it when they went to the temple, Mary and Joseph point to God’s definitive act of salvation in history when they offer their sacrifice of ransom because it connects the birth and presentation of Jesus with God’s past mighty acts of salvation. In fact, it is presented as the culmination of the same divine plan of salvation begun in Egypt. This becomes explicit when Simeon identifies Jesus as the Christ, or Messiah — the Anointed One through whom God would bring definitive and lasting salvation to his people.
We would do well to emulate Mary and Joseph’s eagerness to acknowledge God’s past saving action as well as their wisdom in recognizing God’s continued activity in their own lives. Too often, we think of God’s activity in the world as something that is largely a thing of the past. While it is true that the Incarnation is the definitive moment of God’s accomplishment of the salvation of humankind, there are still many ways — from the bestowal of grace through the sacraments to the mysterious inner workings of the Holy Spirit — that God works in the world to bring about our salvation. It is important for us to pray for both the wisdom to recognize these workings and the gratitude to thank God for them.
Dominican Father Jordan Schmidt is an instructor in sacred
Scripture at the Pontifical Faculty of the
Immaculate Conception at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C.