2 February 2014
The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple
Luke is very concerned to show that Jesus has fulfilled all the obligations of the law. His tripartite division of history makes this necessary. Before Jesus’ Baptism, the Spirit rests on the prophets of Israel. Between the Baptism and Pentecost, the Spirit rests on Jesus. After Pentecost, the Spirit rests on the Church. By fulfilling all the law, Jesus supersedes the Mosaic covenant, and the Church then supersedes Jesus. The Wisdom myth during the Second Temple period suggested that Wisdom dwelt in the Temple. Here, Jesus enters the Temple, and Wisdom, speaking through Simeon and Anna, announces that henceforward, she will dwell with Jesus.
After Jesus’ birth, Luke portrays him being circumcised on the eighth day, in fulfillment of the scripture, and here he portrays him being presented in the Temple (actually his mother being presented) for the purification required by the law. The very next episode will portray Jesus sacrificing with his family at age twelve — all important parts of the making him a true son of the covenant.
Luke conflates two passages of the Old Testament to describe what is happening. The first, Leviticus 12:1-8, describes the purification ritual. Forty days after the birth of a son, a woman is to present a lamb for a holocaust, and a dove or pigeon for a sin offering. Or, if the family is poor, two pigeons. Leviticus 5 tells us what happens to the two pigeons. The priest wrings off the head of one, and sprinkles some of the blood on the altar: the other is burnt to God. But Luke combines this ritual with the redemption of the first-born male (note: this is not just the oldest son, but only those males who are their mothers’ first child). Exodus 13 describes the redemption of the first born males, and connects it to the Passover. The people must redeem (buy back) the first born male as a reminder of God’s slaughter of the first-born males of the Egyptians. The story of Abraham and Isaac appears to be a story of the redemption of the first born male.
In this way, Luke shows Jesus to be a true son of the covenant, having fulfilled all of its obligations. This (and Jesus’ first passover at age 12 in Jerusalem) brings the age of the first covenant to a close. Simeon and Anna are essentially (besides John the Baptist), the last spokespeople for the Temple covenant. It is not an insignificant detail that Luke has these prophecies transpire in the Temple. The next time the Temple appears in Luke’s narrative will be when Jesus arrives for the passover with his disciples and cleanses it and predicts its destruction. The Temple has served its purpose.
Luke is very careful to tell us that the Spirit rests on Simeon. At Jesus’ baptism, the spirit will rest on Jesus in the form of a dove (note the two doves his parents bring). At Pentecost, the spirit will rest on the 120, in the form of tongues of fire. In the spirit, Simeon blesses the child, and in the motif common to the patriarchal stories, is assured that he can die in peace, having seen the fulfillment of the promises of God. He is careful to say, however, that this salvation will also be judgment for some (the falling and rising of many in Israel), and that it will come at a great cost (a sword will pierce you own soul also). That Luke then includes the prophecy of Anna hints at the openness of the new movement of the spirit to women.
In my mind, the presentation in the temple is linked to the baptism of infants in the church. The elders of the church embrace these infants, and see in them the future of the church. The poignancy, and what we don’t often realize in such baptisms, is that we entrust the future of the church to those we baptize. Simeon and Anna recognize that their blessing of this child spells the end of the old ways. A new thing is happening here, and they are ready to step aside to allow it. By making the child a true child of the covenant, we then entrust the future of God’s salvation to the new generation.