Candlemas: Sacrifice and Gift

From the Luttrell Psalter; 14th cent., Britih Library
When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, the parents of Jesus brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, "Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord"), and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, "a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons."

There’s a lot going on today: One feast, two stories (more on this in a bit), three names - a feast of meanings. In particular, there is a lot of sacrificing going on in today’s Gospel. Now, we think we know what sacrifices are: we say that parents make sacrifices to buy good things for their children, or to send them to certain schools. Lovers make “sacrifices,” we say, of their ambitions for the sake of common dreams. Soldiers offer their lives for the sake of country and cause, and these too are termed “sacrifices” today.

The Candlemas story is also about sacrifices. It puts us in the midst of the Jerusalem Temple, the place where all Jewish sacrifices were to take place, and which we should imagine not as a serene place for meditation but a vibrant and perhaps confronting center of human and animal activity, full of bleating and cooing, fire and smoke, prayers less likely whispered than shouted while trumpets blared out and crowds milled around.

This is where the “two stories” bit comes in. Mary and Joseph are depicted as fulfilling two quite different biblical commands to sacrifice. The Book Leviticus (ch. 12) prescribes that forty days after childbirth (in the case of a male child) a woman is to bring two sacrifices, usually translated as “burnt offering” and “sin offering.” This was the offering of the two pigeons referred to in the Gospel, a pigeon rather than a lamb prescribed when those making the sacrifice were poor.

But Luke’s Gospel also refers to a quite different requirement, found in Exodus (34:19-20) and elsewhere, about the idea of redeeming the first-born. This law stated that every first-born human or animal belonged to God, and that this dedication must be taken literally; in the case of animals, via the sacrifice of the first-born whose meat became an offering to support the priests, and in the case of humans, by being bought back by their families for five shekels (Num 3:45-47).

From these two different requirements, Mary’s sacrifice and the demand for the firstborn, stem also the two more formal names for the feast - the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the Presentation of Our Lord in the Temple. As to the “purification," the offering of the pigeons is mentioned. Absent any mention of the five shekels, for the “presentation” part we tend to focus on the story of Simeon and Anna, the two aged holy ones who celebrate not just Jesus’ existence but in particular his presence in the Temple. No more specific mention of that redemption is made here in the Gospel however; Luke may be intending to suggest that Jesus is not bought back at all, but simply brought to the place he belongs, and welcomed by these two holy ones who are God’s representatives.

This idea, of Jesus brought home not redeemed, reads well with the next story in Luke chapter 2, where Jesus' parents again bring him to the Temple and, well, lose him. You may recall the punchline Jesus offers his anxious mother after that quest is ended: ‘Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?’ So Jesus has come to his own place, just as Christians have long read the text of Malachi that we heard read (3:1-4), “the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple."

Nevertheless the prominence of the Temple and of sacrifices in this narrative sits somewhere on a line between embarrassment and obscurity, perhaps. Why does a woman’s harrowing but joyful experience of childbirth require sacrificial offerings anyway? And why would a first-born human or animal require redemption, or worse actual sacrifice as in the practice of some other ancient Near Eastern peoples?

Our modern uses of the term “sacrifice” such as I mentioned earlier have something in common with these ancient rituals, but have also lost some of their resonances. For us, a sacrifice means a loss, something costly and altruistic but ultimately destructive. But ancient sacrifices, while precious, were not necessarily losses. Sacrifices were made as acts of thanksgiving, or to atone for sin; they accompanied key moments of life transition such as we hear today, but were also the festive accompaniments to holidays and celebrations. Sacrifices were often the basis for feasts, with the meat of animal offerings shared, as most famously perhaps at Passover. Sacrifices therefore belong to the realm of gift more than of suffering; just as we use gifts to commemorate special events and transitions, so did ancient Israelites and others in this culture. To sacrifice is to make or restore the bonds between human and divine.

Above all sacrifices were not losses to the self, except insofar as any gift has a cost to the donor. To bring an animal from one’s herd, or to buy one as often seems to have happened, was to recognize and maintain relationship with God and the community through gifts, but not to experience a loss to the self - animals of course suffered, because in an agrarian society they are fundamental sources of wealth and of food, and to share them and their flesh entailed their death. Mary’s sacrifices after childbirth were however not experiences of loss for her, but recognitions of the liminal state and risk through which both mother and child pass before being welcomed, and welcomed back, into community.

When we speak of Jesus himself as sacrifice, our minds tend to go to the cross and to his death. Yet the Candlemas story suggests something else. Candlemas fittingly concludes the Christmas cycle by bringing the child of Bethlehem to the other city of David, and into the Temple where Immanuel, God with us, would be uniquely at home. Appearing in the Temple as a boy, Jesus is recognized by holy Simeon and Anna as God’s gift to Israel now, not just as the dead adult but the living child. Coming to the Temple, he is not to be redeemed but seeks to redeem us all, and make us the children of God.
Offerings are still central to our life, and now as then gift rather than violence reveals their meaning.

Today the Eucharist will be our material as well as spiritual sacrifice; not a loss of self but an act of thanksgiving, in which we bring bread and wine, symbols of our life, and offer them as gifts to the one who provided them and whose abundance can never be reciprocated. We receive them back as a participation in the same living Christ who was welcomed by Simeon and Anna - and we can say, with them “our own eyes have seen the salvation which God has prepared before the face of all peoples.”

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