The Forty Days of Mary’s Purification are now completed and she must go up to the Temple, there to offer to God her child Jesus. Before following the Son and His Mother in this their mysterious journey, let us spend our last few moments at Bethlehem in lovingly pondering over the mysteries at which we are going to assist.
The Law commanded that a woman who had given birth to a son should not approach the Tabernacle for the term of forty days, after which time she was to offer a sacrifice for her Purification. She was to offer up a lamb as a holocaust, and a turtle or dove as a sin-offering. But if she were poor and could not provide a lamb, she was to offer, in its stead, a second turtle or dove. By another ordinance of the Law, every first-born son was to be considered as belonging to God and was to be redeemed by five sides, each side weighing, according to the standard of the Temple, twenty obols (Leviticus xii; Numbers iii. 47). Mary was a Daughter of Israel — she had given birth to Jesus —He was her first-born son. Could such a Mother and such a Son be included in the Laws we have just quoted? Was it becoming that Mary should observe them? If she considered the spirit of these legal enactments and why God required the ceremony of Purification, it was evident that she was not bound to them. They, for whom these Laws had been made, were espoused to men. Mary was the chaste Spouse of the Holy Ghost, a Virgin in conceiving, and a Virgin in giving birth to, her Son. Her purity had ever been spotless as that of the Angels, but it received an incalculable increase by her carrying the God of all sanctity in her womb, and bringing Him into this world. Moreover, when she reflected on her child being the Creator and sovereign Lord of all things, how could she suppose that He was to be submitted to the humiliation of being ransomed as a slave whose life and person are not His own? And yet, the Holy Spirit revealed to Mary that she must comply with both these Laws. She, the holy Mother of God, must go to the Temple like other Hebrew mothers, as though she had lost a something which needed restoring by a legal sacrifice. He that is the Son of God and Son of Man must be treated in all things as though He were a servant, and be ransomed in common with the poorest Jewish boy. Mary adores the will of God and embraces it with her whole heart.
The Son of God was not to be made known to the world but by gradual revelations. For thirty years He leads a hidden life in the insignificant village of Nazareth, and during all that time men took Him to be the son of Joseph (Luke iii. 23). It was only in His thirtieth year that John the Baptist announced Him, and then only in mysterious words to the Jews who flocked to the Jordan, there to receive from the Prophet the baptism of penance. Our Lord Himself gave the next revelation — the testimony of His wonderful works and miracles. Then came the humiliations of His Passion and Death, followed by His glorious Resurrection which testified to the truth of His prophecies, proved the infinite merits of His Sacrifice and, in a word, proclaimed His Divinity. The Earth had possessed its God and its Saviour for three-and-thirty years and men, with a few exceptions, knew it not. The shepherds of Bethlehem knew it, but they were not told, as were afterwards the fishermen of Genesareth, to go and preach the Word to the furthermost parts of the world. The Magi, too, knew it. They came to Jerusalem and spoke of it, and the city was in a commotion. But all was soon forgotten, and the Three Kings went back quietly to the East. These two events (which would, at a future day, be celebrated by the Church as events of most important interest to mankind) were lost upon the world, and the only ones that appreciated them were a few true Israelites who had been living in expectation of a Messiah who was to be poor and humble, and was to save the world. The majority of the Jews would not even listen to the Messiah having been born, for Jesus was born at Bethlehem, and the Prophets had distinctly foretold that the Messiah was to be called a Nazarite (Matthew ii. 23).
The same Divine plan — which had required that Mary should be espoused to Joseph in order that her fruitful virginity might not seem strange in the eyes of the people — now obliged her to come, like other Israelite mothers, to offer the sacrifice of Purification for the birth of the son whom she had conceived by the operation of the power of the Holy Ghost, but who was to be presented in the Temple as the son of Mary, the spouse of Joseph. Thus it is, that Infinite Wisdom delights in showing that His thoughts are not our thoughts, and in disconcerting our notions. He claims the submissiveness of our confidence until the time come that He has fixed for withdrawing the veil and showing Himself to our astonished view. The Divine Will was dear to Mary in this as in every circumstance of her life. The Holy Virgin knew that by seeking this external rite of Purification she was in no way risking the honour of her child, or failing in the respect due to her own virginity. She was in the Temple of Jerusalem what she was in the house of Nazareth, when she received the Archangel’s visit — she was the Handmaid of the Lord. She obeyed the Law because she seemed to come under the Law. Her God and her Son submitted to the ransom as humbly as the poorest Hebrew would have to do. He had already obeyed the edict of the emperor Augustus in the general census. He was to be obedient even unto death, even to the death of the Cross. The Mother and the Child, both humbled themselves in the Purification and man’s pride received on that day one of the greatest lessons ever given it.
What a journey was this of Mary and Joseph. from Bethlehem to Jerusalem! The Divine Babe is in His Mother’s arms — she had Him on her heart the whole way. Heaven, and Earth, and all nature, are sanctified by the gracious presence of their merciful Creator. Men look at this Mother as she passes along the road with her sweet Jesus. Some are struck with her appearance, others pass her by as not worth a look. But of the whole crowd there was not one that knew he had been so close to the God who had come to save him. Joseph is carrying the humble offering which the Mother is to give to the priest. They are too poor to buy a lamb — besides, their Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. The Law required that a turtle, or dove, should be offered in the place of a lamb when the mother was poor. Innocent birds! Emblems of purity, fidelity and simplicity. Joseph has also provided the five sides, the ransom to be given for the first-born son —Mary’s only Son, who has vouchsafed to make us His brethren and by adopting our nature to render us partakers of His. At length, the Holy Family enter Jerusalem. The name of this Holy City signifies Vision of Peace, and Jesus comes to bring her Peace. Let us consider the names of the three places in which our Redeemer began, continued and ended his life on Earth. He is conceived at Nazareth, which signifies a Flower. And Jesus is, as He tells us in the Canticle, the Flower of the field and the Lily of the valley (Canticles ii. 1) by whose fragrance we are refreshed. He is born at Bethlehem, the House of Bread, for He is the nourishment of our souls. He dies on the Cross in Jerusalem, and by His Blood He restores peace between Heaven and Earth, peace between men, peace within our own souls and, on this day of His Mother’s Purification, we will find Him giving us the pledge of this peace.
While Mary, the Living Ark of the Covenant, is ascending the steps which lead up to the Temple carrying Jesus in her arms, let us be attentive to the Mystery — one of the most celebrated of the prophecies is about to be accomplished, one of the principal characters of the Messiah is about to be shown as belonging to this infant. We have already had the other predictions fulfilled, of His being conceived of a Virgin and born in Bethlehem. Today He shows us a further title to our adoration — He enters the Temple. This edifice is not the magnificent Temple of Solomon which was destroyed by fire during the Jewish captivity. It is the Second Temple which was built after the return from Babylon, and is not comparable to the First in beauty. Before the century is out, it also is to be destroyed, and our Saviour will soon tell the Jews that not a stone will remain on stone that will not be thrown down (Luke xxi. 6). Now, the Prophet Aggeus, in order to console the Jews who had returned from banishment and were grieving because they were unable to raise a House to the Lord equal in splendour to that built by Solomon, addressed these words to them, which mark the time of the coming of the Messiah: “Take courage, O Zorobabel, says the Lord; and take courage, O Jesus, the son of Josedec, the High Priest; and take courage, all ye people of the land — for thus says the Lord of hosts: Yet one little while, and I will move the Heaven, and the Earth, and the sea, and the dry land. And I will move all nations; and the Desired of all nations will come; and I will fill this House with glory. Great will be the glory of this House, more than of the first; and in this place I will give Peace, says the Lord of hosts” (Aggeus ii. 5, 7, 8, 10).
The hour is come for the fulfilment of this prophecy. The Emmanuel has left Bethlehem. He has come among the people. He is about to take possession of His Temple, and the mere fact of His entering it will immediately give it a glory which is far above that of its predecessor. He will often visit it during His mortal life, but His coming to it today, carried as He is in Mary’s arms, is enough for the accomplishment of the promise, and all the shadows and figures of this Temple at once pale before the rays of the Sun of Truth and Justice. The blood of oxen and goats will, for a few years more, flow on its altar, but the infant who holds in His veins the Blood that is to redeem the world is, at this moment, standing near that very altar. Amid the Priests who are there, and amid the crowd of Israelites who are moving to and fro in the sacred building, there are a few faithful ones who are in expectation of the Deliverer, and they know that the time of His manifestation is at hand. But there is not one among them all who knows that at that very moment this expected Messiah is under the same roof with Himself.
But, this great event could not be accomplished without a prodigy being wrought by the Eternal God as a welcome to His Son. The shepherds had been summoned by the Angel, and the Magi had been called by the Star, when Jesus was born in Bethlehem. This time it is the Holy Ghost Himself who sends a witness to the Infant, now in the great Temple. There was then living in Jerusalem an old man whose life was well near spent. He was a Man of desires (Daniel x. 11) and his name was Simeon. His heart had longed unceasingly for the Messiah and, at last, his hope was recompensed. The Holy Ghost revealed to him that he should not see death without first seeing the rising of the Divine Light. As Mary and Joseph were ascending the steps of the Temple to take Jesus to the altar, Simeon felt within himself the strong impulse of the Spirit of God. He leaves his house and walks towards the Temple. The ardour of his desire makes him forget the feebleness of age. He reaches the porch of God’s House and there, amid the many mothers who had come to present their children, his inspired gaze recognises the Virgin of whom he had so often read in Isaias, and he presses through the crowd to the child she is holding in her arms.
Mary, guided by the same Divine Spirit, welcomes the saintly old man and puts into his trembling arms the dear object of her love, the Salvation of the world. Happy Simeon! Figure of the ancient world, grown old in its expectation, and near its end. No sooner has he received the sweet Fruit of Life than his youth is renewed as that of the eagle, and in his person is wrought the transformation which was to be granted to the whole human race. He cannot keep silence. He must sing a Canticle. He must do as the shepherds and Magi had done, he must give testimony: “Now,” says he, “now, O Lord, dismiss your servant in peace, because my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared: a light that is to enlighten the Gentiles, and give glory to your people Israel” (Luke ii. 29). Immediately, there comes, attracted to the spot by the same Holy Spirit, the holy Anne, Phanuel’s daughter, noted for her piety and venerated by the people on account of her great age. Simeon and Anna, the representatives of the Old Testament, unite their voices and celebrate the happy coming of the child who is to renew the face of the Earth. They give praise to the mercy of Jehovah who, in this place, in this Second Temple, gives peace to the world as the Prophet Aggeus had foretold. This was the peace so long looked forward to by Simeon, and now in this peace will he sleep. “Now, Lord,” as he says in his Canticle, “dismiss your servant, according to your word, in peace!” His soul, quitting its bond of the flesh, will now hasten to the bosom of Abraham and bear to the elect who rest there, the tidings that peace has appeared on the Earth, and will soon open Heaven. Anne has some years still to pass on Earth. As the Evangelist tells us, she has to go and announce the fulfilment of the promises to such of the Jews as were spiritually minded, and looked for the Redemption of Israel (Luke ii. 38).
The divine seed is sown. The shepherds, the Magi, Simeon and Anne have all been its sowers. It will spring up in due time, and when our Jesus has spent His thirty years of hidden life in Nazareth and will come for the harvest time, He will say to His Disciples: “Lift up your eyes, and see the countries, for they are white already for the harvest (John iv. 35). Pray ye the Lord of the harvest, that He send labourers into His harvest” (Luke x. 2). Simeon gives back to Mary the child she is going to offer to the Lord. The two doves are presented to the priest who sacrifices them on the altar. The price for the ransom is paid. The whole law is satisfied and, after having paid her homage to her Creator in this sacred place where she spent her early years, Mary, with Jesus fast pressed to her bosom, and her faithful Joseph by her side, leaves the Temple.
Such is the mystery of this fortieth day which closes, by this admirable Feast of the Purification, the holy season of Christmas. Several learned writers, among whom we may mention Henschenius and Pope Benedict XIV, are of opinion that this Solemnity was instituted by the Apostles themselves. This much is certain, that it was a long-established Feast even in the fifth century. The Greek Church and the Church of Milan count this Feast among those of our Lord, but the Church of Rome has always considered it as a Feast of the Blessed Virgin. It is true, it is our Saviour who is this day offered in the Temple, but this offering is the consequence of our Lady’s Purification. The most ancient of the Western Martyrologies and Calendars call it The Purification. The honour thus paid by the Church to the Mother tends, in reality, to the greater glory of her Divine Son, for He is the Author and the End of all those prerogatives which we revere and honour in Mary.Lesson – Malachias iii. 1–5
Thus says the Lord God: “Behold I send my angel, and he will prepare the way before my face. And presently the Lord whom you seek, and the Angel of the Testament whom you desire, will come to His Temple. Behold He comes, says the Lord of hosts: and who will be able to think of the day of His coming? and who will stand to see Him? For He is like a refining fire, and like the fuller’s herb: and He will sit refining and cleansing the silver, and he shall purify the sons of Levi, and will refine them as gold, and as silver, and they will offer sacrifices to the Lord in justice. And the sacrifice of Judah and Jerusalem will please the Lord, as in the days of old, and in the ancient years,” says the Lord Almighty.Thanks be to God.
Dom Prosper Guéranger:
All the Mysteries of the Man-God have this for their object — the purifying of our hearts. He sends His Angel (that is, His Precursor) before His face that he may prepare His way and we have heard this holy Prophet crying out to us, in his wilderness: “Be humbled, ye hills! and ye valleys, be ye filled up!” At length, he that is the Angel, the Sent, by excellence, comes in person to make a Testament or Covenant with us. He comes to His Temple, and this Temple is our heart. But He is like a refining fire that takes away the dross of metals. He wishes to renew us by purifying us, that thus we may be worthy to be offered to Him, and with Him, by a perfect sacrifice. We must, therefore, take care and not be satisfied with admiring these sublime Mysteries. We must hold this as a principle of our spiritual life — that the Mysteries brought before us, feast after feast, are intended to work in us the destruction of the old, and the creation of the new, man. We have been spending Christmas. We ought to have been born together with Jesus. This new birth is now at its fortieth day. Today we must be offered by Mary (who is also our Mother) to the Divine Majesty, as Jesus was. The moment is come for our offering, for it is the hour of the Great Sacrifice. Let us redouble the fervour of our preparation.Gospel – Luke ii. 22–32
At that time, after the days of the purification of Mary, according to the law of Moses, were accomplished, they carried Jesus to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord. As it is written in the law of the Lord, Every male opening the womb will he called holy to the Lord. And to offer a sacrifice according as it is written in the law of the Lord, a pair of turtle doves or two young pigeons. And behold there was a man in Jerusalem named Simeon, and this man was just and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel and the Holy Ghost was in him. And he had received an answer from the Holy Ghost that he should not see death before he had seen the Christ of the Lord. And he came by the Spirit into the temple. And when His parents brought in the child Jesus to do for him according to the custom of the law, he also took him into his arms, and blessed God, and said: “Now dismiss your servant, O Lord, according to your word in peace. Because my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared before the face of all peoples: a light to the revelation of the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel.”Praise be to you, O Christ.
Dom Prosper Guéranger:
The Holy Spirit has led us to the Temple, as He did Simeon. There we see the Virgin-Mother offering at the altar her Son who is the Son of God. We are filled with admiration at this fidelity, of the child and His Mother, to the Law, and we feel in our hearts a desire to be also presented to our Creator who will accept our homage as He accepted that offered Him by His Divine Son. Let us, at once, put ourselves in those same holy dispositions which filled the Hearts of Jesus and Mary. The salvation of the world has this day gained ground. Let the work of our individual sanctification also advance. From this Feast forward, the Mystery of the Infant-God will no longer be put before us by the Church as the special object of our devotion. The sweet Season of Christmas will, in a few hours, have left us and we will have to follow our Jesus in His combats against our enemies. Let us keep close to our dear King. Let us ever keep Simeon’s spirit and follow our Redeemer, walking in His footsteps, who is our Light. Let us love this Light, and merit, by our fidelity in using it, that it unceasingly shine on us.
We adore and thank you, O Emmanuel, on this happy day which saw you enter into the Temple of your Majesty, carried in the arms of your incomparable Mother. You come into the Temple that you may offer yourself for our sakes. You deign to be redeemed by the payment of a ransom for, one day, you have to pay an infinite ransom for us. You come now to offer a ceremonial sacrifice because you are soon to abolish every sacrifice by the one that alone is perfect. You enter today into that Jerusalem which is to be the place of your Passion and Death. Our salvation urges you on. You were born for us, but you are not satisfied. And every gift of this your fortieth day must needs bespeak the future proofs you have yet to give us of the love you bear us.
You, the Consolation of Israel, on whom the Angels love to look! You enter into the Temple and they who were living in expectation of their Redeemer redouble their hope. Oh that we had something of that love which burned in Simeon’s heart as he held you in his arms! All he lived for was to see you, O Divine Infant, and having seen you, he longs to die. One brief moment’s sight of you makes him sleep in peace! What must it be to possess you eternally, when a glance could satisfy the longings of a whole life! But, O Saviour of our souls, if Simeon was so satiated with this seeing you presenting yourself for mankind in the Temple, how ought we to love you, we who have seen the final consummation of your Sacrifice? The day will come when, as your devout servant Bernard expresses it, you will be offered, not in the Temple and on Simeon’s arms, but outside the city gates and on the arms of the Cross. On that day man will not offer up the blood of a victim for you, but yourself will offer up your own Blood for man. Now, it is the morning. Then, it will be the evening sacrifice. Now, you are in the age of infancy. Then, you will have attained the fullness of the age of Man. And having loved us from the beginning, you will love us even to the end.
What return shall we make to you, Divine Infant, for you bear within your heart, during this your first offering, the same infinite love of us with which you will consummate your last? Can we do less than offer ourselves to you from this very day, and be wholly yours? You give yourself to us in the Adorable Sacrament with more perfection than you gave yourself to Simeon, and we receive you, not in ours arms, but in our very breast. Dismiss us, dear Jesus! Break our chains. Give us your peace, and may we, like Simeon, enter now on a new life. In order to imitate your virtues and be united with you, we have endeavoured during this holy Season to gain that humility and simplicity which you wish to see within us. Assist us to persevere in the spiritual life that, like you, we may grow in age and wisdom, before both God and men (Luke ii. 52).
And you, Mary, purest of Virgins, and Mother blessed above all mothers! Daughter of the Prince! How beautiful are your steps (Canticles vii. 1) on this day of your Purification when you enter the Temple with our Jesus in your arms! Who could tell the joy and the humility of your maternal heart in this offering you make to the Eternal Father of His and your Son? Looking around on the mothers who have come for their own purification on this same day, you rejoice at the thought that the babes they are now presenting in the Temple will one day see and know your Jesus, their Saviour. What a privilege that these children should be presented to the Lord together with yours! What honour for these mothers that they should be purified in your holy company! If the Temple is glad at seeing enter within its walls the God in whose honour it has been built, part of its joy is to see Him throned there in your arms, who are the holiest of creatures, the one child of Eve that has never known sin, the Virgin-Mother of this God. But, while humbly keeping within yourself the secrets of the Eternal Father and mingled in the throng of these Hebrew mothers, the holy Simeon advances towards you, Mary! Knowing that the Holy Ghost has revealed the mystery to him, you affectionately place in his hands the God of Heaven and Earth who has come to be the Consolation of Israel. The holy Anna, too, approaches you, and you lovingly receive her. Perhaps in your younger years you had received from her, in this very Temple, the affection and care of a second mother. Your heart thrills with delight at hearing these two venerable Saints extolling God’s faithfulness to His promises, and the glory of your child, and the splendour of the Light which is now to be shed forth on all nations. The happiness of thus hearing the praises of the God, who is your child, fills you with joy and thankfulness. But oh what a sword of grief pierces your heart, dear Mother, at the words of Simeon as he gives you back your babe! Henceforth you must weep as often as you look on Him. He is to be a sign of contradiction (Luke ii. 34) and the wounds men are to give Him are to wound your soul! The blood of victims like these that are now being offered in the Temple will cease to flow and be changed for the Blood of your Jesus! O Mother of Sorrows, we were the cause of all this. It was our sins that changed your joy into mourning. And yet you love us because your Jesus loves us! Love us now and forever. Intercede for us with your Son. Pray that we may never lose the graces granted us during these forty happy days. These graces drew us to the crib of your child, and your affection for us encouraged to stay. We are resolved to maintain our position near this Jesus, following Him through all the Mysteries which are now to succeed this of His Infancy. We are resolved to be faithful disciples of this dear Master, and follow Him, as you did, even to the foot of that Cross, which was revealed to you on this day.