And after the days of her purification, according to the law of Moses, were accomplished, they carried him to Jerusalem, to present him to the Lord: As it is written in the law of the Lord: ‘Every male opening the womb shall be called holy to the Lord’ [Ex. 13:1, 12]: And to offer a sacrifice, according as it is written in the law of the Lord, ‘a pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons’ [Lev 12:8] (Luke 2:22-24)
St. Luke’s Gospel, written by a Gentile, is the only one that recounts that Joseph and Mary observed this most Jewish law. In the following remarks I hope to shed some light on this text and to explain its meaning for Christian believers, thus hopefully enriching our meditation on the Fourth Joyful Mystery. It is a mystery of priesthood, redemption, the Old and New Covenants, the Temple, of poverty, and of sacrifice.
Jesus the Infant Priest
Notice that St. Luke focuses on the original consecration of the firstborn son, and less on the ‘redemption’ from the Levitical priesthood. He does not specifically mention the five shekels paid to the priests on this occasion and quotes from Exodus on consecrating the sons but not from Numbers on the required redemption. However, by his repeated emphasis on Mary and Joseph’s obedience to the Law we know that they would have observed that commandment also.
In His Presentation Jesus was reversing Israel’s ‘original sin’ of worshipping the Golden Calf which caused God to temporarily take away the firstborn sons’ priestly function and restrict it to the Tribe of Levi. Jesus is redeemed from the Levitical priesthood and thereby restores the priesthood to the firstborn son — in fact to God’s eternal Son and eternal Priest. Hebrews explains that God introduced a new priesthood after the Order of Melchizedek since the Levitical priesthood could bring nothing to perfection (Heb. 7:11-28).
To this end, St Luke draws numerous parallels with the baby Samuel who was also presented in the Temple and served a priestly function as a child. Hannah, Samuel’s mother, was barren and childless but conceived by God’s intervention, just as Mary the Virgin was barren by nature but conceived Jesus by the Holy Spirit. Hannah vowed her child to the Lord’s service (1 Ki. [1 Sam.] 1:22) and when he was ‘yet very young’ brought him to the Temple to present him with sacrifices (1 Ki. 1:24) just as Mary did. Hannah’s Song of Thanksgiving is of course the direct model for Mary’s Magnificat from Luke’s Gospel, and the parallels are very extensive, including exultation in the Lord, bringing the proud to nothing and exalting the humble. ‘Samuel ministered before the face of the Lord: being a child girded with a linen ephod’ which was a priestly garment (1 Ki. 2:18). Luke concludes chapter 2 with an almost direct quotation from Samuel’s youth: ‘Jesus advanced in wisdom, and age, and grace with God and men’ (1 Ki. 2:26).
Jesus the Sacrifice:
‘I sacrifice to the LORD
all that openeth the womb, being males’
If Jesus was a new high priest (of the Order of Melchizedek) at his presentation, what was His sacrifice? The Virgin Mary in fact offered Jesus Himself to the Father, foreshadowing His eventual death on the Cross. Fr Pius Parsch in The Church’s Year of Grace describes the Presentation as ‘the Offertory of His life’ with ‘His death on the Cross the consecration and elevation’ (374). The Presentation bears the foreordained shadow of the Cross and Jesus’s eventual oblation to the Father. Simeon’s prophecy on this occasion announces coming suffering and rejection for both child and mother, ‘for the fall, and for the resurrection of many in Israel, and for a sign which shall be contradicted’ (Lk. 2:24-5).
How could two doves redeem the Redeemer of all? ‘A victim should not be offered up for a victim’ is one of Aquinas’s objections to the Presentation (ST III, q. 37, a. 3, ob. 3). That is the paradox, irony and mystery of the Presentation. This paradox follows the other paradoxes of the childhood of Jesus: How could God become a man? How could the sinless one be circumcised? Aquinas objects also: How can the one who is always perfectly present to God by the hypostatic union be presented to him? (ibid., ob. 2). Aquinas replies in a quote from St Athanasius, ‘as [Christ was] circumcised in the flesh, not for His own sake, but that He might make us to be God’s through grace, and that we might be circumcised in the spirit; so, again, for our sake He was presented to the Lord, that we may learn to offer ourselves to God’.
Jesus the Temple
The Lord coming in person to his Temple was prophesied in the Old Testament, and is first fulfilled at the Presentation of Jesus.
The Lord, whom you seek, and the angel of the testament, whom you desire, shall come to his temple. Behold he cometh, saith the Lord of hosts. And who shall be able to think of the day of his coming? and who shall stand to see him? for he is like a refining fire, and like the fuller’s herb: And he shall sit refining and cleansing the silver, and he shall purify the sons of Levi, and shall refine them as gold, and as silver, and they shall offer sacrifices to the Lord in justice. And the sacrifice of Juda and of Jerusalem shall please the Lord, as in the days of old, and in the ancient years (Malachi 3:1-4).
This passage is the Lesson for Candlemas (unusually, replacing the customary Epistle from St Paul). The Levites here stand for the deacons and priests of the New Covenant, and the pleasing sacrifice refers to the offering of Jesus’s Body and Blood in the Eucharistic Sacrifice. Liturgically, we evoke Our Lord coming to the Temple by the procession preceding the Mass (similar to Palm Sunday). The Catholic Encyclopedia explains that the solemn procession represents the entry of Christ, who is the Light of the World, into the Temple of Jerusalem.
Jesus also fulfilled the prophecy of Aggeus (Haggai) that at the time of the restoration of the Temple foretold that the smaller, less impressive Second Temple would in fact be more glorious than Solomon’s original edifice.
The desired of all nations shall come: and I will fill this house with glory: saith the Lord of hosts… Great shall be the glory of this last house more than of the first, saith the Lord of hosts: and in this place I will give peace, saith the Lord of hosts (Ha. 2:8-10).
Even more, it prophesies that the Temple of Jesus’s Body will be gloriously raised up. ‘But he spoke of the temple of his body’ (Jn. 2:21). In this 40-day-old boy there was a greater dwelling place of God than the beautiful building before them all. The only way that Our Lord’s saying could be true that ‘I tell you that there is here a greater than the temple’ is if He is in fact God Incarnate! When God took possession of Solomon’s Temple as His dwelling place, He came in a cloud of glory so that the priests could not stand to minister (3 Ki. 8:10-11). He now takes possession of His Temple in quiet secrecy as a new-born baby.
Poverty of Jesus and Mary
The whole childhood of Christ is a mystery of poverty: born in a manger, born in the poor and lowly town of Nazareth, and subjecting Himself to be redeemed Who is the Redeemer of all. He was redeemed by two turtledoves since the Holy Family could not afford the lamb otherwise required by the Law of Moses. St. Bede appositely quotes from Paul to explain the Presentation: ‘you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that being rich he became poor, for your sakes; that through his poverty you might be rich’ (2 Corinthians 8:9). And so He ‘wished the poor man’s victim to be offered for Him just as in His birth He was wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger’ (ST III, q. 37, a. 3, ad. 4).
Purification of Mary
Our Lord did not need to be redeemed; Our Lady did not actually need to be purified. Aquinas taught that Christ submitted Himself to circumcision and the other burdens of the Law to teach us the value of humility, obedience, and to show His approval of the Law; and that Mary did likewise since ‘it was becoming that the mother should be like her Son in humility’ (ST III, q. 37, a. 4, co.). He even suggests that Moses (under divine inspiration) carefully framed the Law in question so that Mary would not be bound to observe it: ‘If a woman, having received seed, shall bear a man-child, she shall be unclean seven days’ (Leviticus 12:2-4). This re-confirms the ancient Catholic dogma that Mary was a virgin not only in the miraculous conception of Jesus, but also in giving birth to him with her womb unopened, without pain and without the defilement of blood. Being preserved from all sin, Mary was exempted from Eve’s punishment and curse in Genesis: ‘in sorrow shalt thou bring forth children’ (Ge. 3:16). Aquinas correctly concludes, ‘the Blessed Virgin contracted neither uncleanness [either sin or external impurity], and consequently did not need to be purified’ (ST III, q. 37, a. 4, ad. 3).
It is no accident that Catholic theologians turn to the Presentation to explain Our Lady’s role as the Co-Redemptrix. He was first offered to the Lord on this day, and He was offered by Mary. This clarifies the roles of the two: Jesus is our only sacrifice and only redemption, but Mary shares an essential role in this sacrifice. Simeon’s prophecy (delivered specifically, Luke says, to Mary) announces that Christ will cause the wicked to fall and the just to rise, but also says, ‘And thy own soul [Mary] a sword shall pierce, that, out of many hearts, thoughts may be revealed’ (Lk 2:35). Here the word ‘sword’ (rhomphaia) in Greek is not the smaller sword usually mentioned in the New Testament, but a longer sword of barbarian origin, pointing to the depth of the sorrow predicted. Since she was miraculously spared from original sin and thus from suffering in the birth of Christ, she instead suffers at the cross in giving birth to Christ’s spiritual brethren figured by St. John. The Feast of the Purification is considered more a feast of Our Lord in the East, but in the Latin Rite more as a feast of Our Lady, as it says in the first blessing over the candles, ‘by the intercession of blessed Mary ever Virgin, whose festival we this day devoutly celebrate.’ It is indeed the oldest feast of the Blessed Virgin in the calendar and a fitting day to rekindle our devotion to her, especially in the purity of her Immaculate Conception, unstained by any sin or impurity.
We Are Simeon
Finally, the Church encourages us to see ourselves in the role of Simeon who received our Infant Lord in his arms lovingly and pronounced his life’s ambitions complete. We should do the same when we receive Him into our hearts in Holy Communion: ‘Now thou dost dismiss thy servant, O Lord, according to thy word in peace; Because my eyes have seen thy salvation’ (Lk 2:29-30). In reciting the Nunc Dimittis every Compline, the Church places these words on our lips at night-prayer, that is, at the end of our lives. Hence why Candlemas is called Hypapante ‘the Meeting’ in the Greek Church. Like Simeon, we meet or encounter the Lord and rejoice at our salvation (Fr. Parsch, 370). Quoting from St. Ambrose, Fr. Parsch adds, ‘Receive in your arms the Word of God [Jesus]; embrace It with your works, the arms, as it were, of your faith. Then you will be released, and you will not taste death because you have seen Life’ (373).
Being Candle Mass, the liturgy for this day naturally lays great emphasis on the symbolism of candles and light. It was Simeon who first identified Jesus as the light of the world, a light for revelation to the Gentiles. This would seem to be an allusion to a prophecy of Isaiah regarding the Messiah:
It is a small thing that thou shouldst be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob, and to convert the dregs of Israel [regather the lost tribes]. Behold, I have given thee to be the light of the Gentiles, that thou mayst be my salvation even to the farthest part of the earth (Is. 49:6; cf. Is. 42:6-7).
Perhaps Luke mentions that the prophetess Anna was from the lost northern tribe of Asher to refer to this ingathering of the tribes by the Messiah. Even more, Christ is a light for all nations. How fitting that in the ‘house of prayer for all nations’ that Jesus will later purify (Lk. 19:46), He is today acclaimed by Simeon as the light of the Gentiles.
The mystery of Candlemas is a mystery of kenosis (self-emptying). Jesus had no need of redemption and Mary had no need of purification but nevertheless humbled themselves in obedience to God. They negated themselves in obedience to God’s law, a point worth emphasising for our own lives, especially in a time in which Christ’s specific commands have come to be considered ‘ideals’ beyond actual obedience.
Candlemas is about Christ’s new priesthood that brings about the perfect Eucharistic sacrifice and a new Temple. It is about the sanctity of God’s eternal Son. It is also about the perfect holiness of Our Lady as well as her co-operation in our redemption by offering her Son. Candlemas looks back to Christmas but even more looks forward to Good Friday and Easter. Eventually it looks forward to our being presented in God’s heavenly Temple: ‘that offering [these candles] unto Thee, Our Lord and God, we, made worthy and kindled with the holy light of Thy most sweet charity, may deserve to be presented in the holy temple of Thy glory’ (from the liturgy of the day).
Bergsma, John, and Brant Pitre. A Catholic Introduction to the Bible: The Old Testament. 1st ed., Ignatius Press, 2018.
Holweck, Frederick. “Candlemas.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 3. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1908, 2021.
Milgrom, Jacob. “Sin-Offering or Purification-Offering?” Vetus Testamentum, vol. 21, fasc. 2, 1971, pp. 237-239.
Parsch, Pius. The Church’s Year of Grace: Volume 1 Advent to Candlemas. 1st ed., The Liturgical Press, 1959.
“Pidyon ha-ben.” Encyclopedia Britannica, 2021.