Mary and Joseph brought the forty-day-old Jesus to the Temple. Devout Jews, they were participating in spiritual practices dictated by the Law. And while Mary and Joseph go to the Temple together, the laws drawing them there required different but related practices from them.
As we’ll see in just a moment, these practices may sound strange and even senseless to our contemporary ears. And yet, as we reflect on those practices, and what the significance that participating in these practices had for Mary and Joseph, we learn about who God is and what it means to be God’s children. Let’s take Mary and Joseph in turn.
For her part, Mary is undergoing ritual purification. In Leviticus the law states that women who have given birth are ritually unclean. Set aside your thoughts about sin and germ theory to understand what it means to be unclean. Simply put, being unclean means to be unpresentable. Not presentable to God, that is. So, in accordance with the law, Mary goes to the Temple at the appointed time to perform the ritual that gets her ready to cozy up with God.
Let’s be honest here. This is just the sort of thing that makes the Old Testament a turnoff for so many postmodern readers.
For some, it denigrates women and fails to celebrate the beauty of childbirth. Others sniff at the non-scientific understanding of blood and other bodily fluids.
And for those focused on God’s graciousness, the very idea that we could be unpresentable to God summarizes all that’s wrong with Christianity. After all, God loves us just as we are. He isn’t waiting for us to purify ourselves before he will love us and accept us.
Before we strike the Feast of the Presentation from the Church Calendar and excise this story from Luke’s Gospel, let’s take a closer look at Mary as Mary. Remember that Mary already knows herself to be blessed beyond her wildest imaginings. God chose her to be the mother of the Messiah, sending an angel to tell her as much.
It seems unlikely that this spunky teenage mother would consider herself dirty or sinful or unacceptable to God for having borne his own son. She had said yes to God out of radical devotion and holy joy.
She wouldn’t have undergone ritual purification in hopes of warding off God’s wrath or winning long-withheld approval. She already knew that God loved her because of who God is, not because of what she might accomplish. She also knew that God’s love for her is unwavering and is going to do something remarkable in this world through her.
So what gives with the purification ritual? For starters, the spiritual practices of her faith were as much a part of who Mary was as the hair on her head. Participating in those practices wove her more deeply into God’s life and into her community. Consider our own central spiritual practice: The Holy Eucharist. We draw closer to God and we deepen our connection to our community in Word and Sacrament.
We celebrate the Eucharist because we are already close to God, and that closeness stirs in us a desire to be even closer. Mary’s participation in the ritual of purification follows the same spiritual, emotional logic. She is already close to God, and yet his love for her draws her toward a more intimate connection to him and a deeper sense of belonging with God’s people.
Mary was not adding a bit of spiritual lipstick and slipping into some moral Spanx in at desperate attempt to make herself presentable to God. She was handing her unpresentable self to God: windblown hair, food in her teeth, wrinkled dress, and maybe a little gamey under the armpits.
God already had his arms stretched out for her, and she handed her unpresentable self to the one, the only one, who could pull off the makeover she yearned for. Mary cannot wait to see what he will do with her, and through her, for the world.
That’s what it’s like to immerse ourselves in the spiritual practices of our faith. It happens in Baptism, the Eucharist, and the Daily Office, to name a few. We come together with the community, bringing our shabby, shopworn, distracted, desperate, confused, cynical, hopeful, wounded, healing, unpresentable selves to God.
We come together, and we bring ourselves, because we want more of God. More of each other. More from ourselves. And we muster up the energy and the courage to come because, at some level, we have sensed God’s desire to give himself completely to us and to the world through us.
Let’s turn to Joseph.
Joseph brings Jesus to the Temple for a different reason. In Exodus we read that every first-born male creature belongs to God. Sheep, donkeys, oxen, and even baby humans are set aside so that the Israelites will remember that they are a delivered people. The first-born are sacrificed to God as a reminder that God is still their Savior.
The Law prohibits human sacrifice. Instead, parents dedicate their first-born son to God through the sacrifice of a lamb. Those who couldn’t afford a lamb offered a turtle dove and two pigeons. That’s what Joseph did.
Here’s another strange practice from the Old Testament. For our ears it can seem repugnant. The thought of killing anything as a sacrifice to God strikes us as barbaric. It makes God seem like the scary kid who tortures pets, pulls wings off flies, and burns ants with a magnifying glass. A cosmic-scale serial killer in the making.
But the message imbedded in the ransom of the first-born tells us exactly the opposite. God loves us unflinchingly, even when it costs him dearly. Especially when it costs him dearly.
God does not cause suffering. God bears suffering.
Joseph, like Mary, was participating in the spiritual practices that deepened his relationship with God and strengthened his ties to his faith community. In this case, he was remembering the exodus from Egypt and God’s deliverance of his people. By paying the ransom for Jesus, Joseph acknowledged something about not only his son but about all of us.
We all belong to God. Everybody is on loan to the world for a season. On loan from God. Everyone we encounter is like a first-born ransomed, only it is God himself who ransoms us, pays the price of love for us.
And here’s how God pays that love-soaked ransom.
God gives us to each other to nurture and love and protect and respect. To cry with and laugh with. To share m&m’s with and get in trouble with. To share memories and dreams together. In other words, to be the conduits of God’s love for our neighbor.
And everybody is our neighbor.
For God, no one is worth less than anyone else. No one is worth more than anyone else. He loves each of us infinitely. And God wants us to know this to the very marrow of our being. He created us so that our deepest happiness depends upon it.
And for whatever reason, God chose to demonstrate that love to each and every one of us through each other. That’s why Jesus says elsewhere, “Whatever you do to the least of these you do to me.” God gives you to me so that I can show you how much God loves you. And that’s why God gives me to you.
That’s incredibly risky business. In fact, for some people, it seems like a complete flop.
After all, people go hungry, languish in prison, sit forgotten in nursing homes, and suffer rejection for being different. If God’s message that we are his beloved depends upon humanity to convey it, we have a failure to communicate.
In so many human hands, God’s message of love sounds and feels and looks more like indifference, neglect, and even rejection.
But that is not the whole story.
God became one of us. Jesus has already communicated God’s love perfectly. He has set us an example of how to live out God’s love for each other, and he has done even more than that. He has poured out God’s perfect love to everyone in real time.
Since Jesus lived, died, and rose again, his love has been permeating human history through his followers. The example he set for us is not the sort of example that we must copy to prevent it from fading away and being forgotten. Nor is it the kind of example that we have to emulate or else face punishment.
Jesus is like the paid singer in a choir. He hits every note with perfect pitch and flawless timing. When we listen to him while we’re singing our singing gets better, and his voice somehow shapes our own shabby tones and hesitant timing into something beautiful.
Even when we miss a note, we know to just keep singing. We’re making something imperfect but lovely, and it will get better the longer we sing together.
No wonder Simeon broke into song at the sight of baby Jesus:
Lord, you now have set your servant free *
to go in peace as you have promised;
For these eyes of mine have seen the Savior, *
It’s not that we have to sing perfectly to win God’s approval. God has set us free to love in our messy, imperfect way because we are already loved. Love, as it turns out, takes practice. God knows this. It’s how he made us. Just so we could sing along with him and know the joy of the song that he sings.