Earlier this month on February 2, the Church celebrated The Presentation of the Lord, also known as Candlemas. Luke’s account of the Presentation scene in Luke 2:22-38 has long been one of my favorite gospel passages, for several reasons: it displays the humility and faithfulness of Joseph and Mary (Luke 2:21-24, 27); it recounts the return of “glory” to the Temple after centuries of barrenness (Luke 2:30, 32; cf. Dan 9:1-27); and it relates the cherished prayer of Simeon, which the Church sings anew at the end of the liturgical day (Luke 2:29-32). Recently, while studying the scene of the Presentation in the Emmaus Institute winter class, The Mother of the Word: A Biblical Study of Mary, I came to appreciate this passage even more deeply. What I found upon revisiting the familiar scene was a groundswell of Eucharistic imagery Luke was presenting to the reader. It is worth reading the passage in full:
Luke 2:22-33 22 And when the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord 23 (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every male that opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord”) 24 and to offer a sacrifice according to what is said in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons.” 25 Now there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon, and this man was righteous and devout, looking for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. 26 And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he should not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. 27 And inspired by the Spirit he came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him according to the custom of the law, 28 he took him up in his arms and blessed God and said,
29 “Lord, now let your servant depart in peace,
according to your word;
30 for mine eyes have seen your salvation
31 which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and for glory to your people Israel.”
33 And his father and his mother marveled at what was said about him . . . .
Though we commonly refer to this passage in terms of a singular event (“the Presentation”), Pope Benedict XVI observes that there are actually three events that belong to this scene: 1) the purification of the mother (Mary), 2) the redemption of the first-born son, Jesus, and 3) the presentation of Jesus in the Temple.1 The purification of Mary follows the law prescribed by God through Moses as found in the Torah. According to Leviticus 12, if a woman conceives and bears a male child, she is ritually unclean (i.e., she could not participate in Temple worship) until a period of forty days had passed. Once the forty days were over, the Israelite mother would bring to the priest an offering of a lamb for a burnt offering, and either a pigeon or turtle dove for a sin offering, allowing her to reenter and participate in the Temple liturgy. Mary, in her faithfulness to the law of God, obediently fulfills this obligation.
Luke is keen to convey the faithfulness and obedience of the Holy Family in how they adhere to the law of Moses. Throughout this passage he references their obedience to the law at least five times. So it is no stretch of the imagination to consider that Mary and Joseph were aware of the custom to “ransom” or “buy back” every first-born male from the Levitical priests, as is written in Numbers 18:15-16:
15 [T]he first-born of man you shall redeem, and the firstling of unclean beasts you shall redeem. 16 And their redemption price (at a month old you shall redeem them) you shall fix at five shekels in silver, according to the shekel of the sanctuary, which is twenty gerahs.
Luke goes on to refer explicitly to Exodus 13, recalling an earlier version of this same custom: “Every male that opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord” (Luke 2:23; cf. Exodus 13:1, 12). So in the verses that follow, we expect Luke to narrate how Mary and Joseph paid the five-shekel price for the ransoming of their first-born son. But he does not. Rather, Luke tells a different story: Mary and Joseph present (Greek parastésai) Jesus in the Temple, the only step mentioned thus far that is not required in the law of Moses. Why did Luke choose to narrate the story in this way? Why not proceed with the purification and ransoming accounts, as it would have been prescribed in the law? I believe it is because Luke has something else for us to consider about what happened that day in the Temple.
Two items are worth considering before moving ahead. First, we should note that Mary (and Joseph) came to the Temple to offer a sacrifice according to an alternative described in Leviticus 12:8 for those who could not afford the standard sacrifice of a lamb for the burnt offering as well as the pigeon or turtle dove for purification: namely, two turtledoves or two young pigeons (one standing in for the more expensive lamb burnt offering, and one for the purification offering). Here we are shown that the Holy Family is not only faithful and obedient to the law, they are also poor. As Lukan scholar Pablo Gadenz puts it, “The combination of poverty and pious observance of the law (Luke 2:22-24, 27, 39) highlights how Mary and Joseph are among the righteous anawim [i.e., ‘the meek’ or ‘God’s beloved poor’].”2 However, the second item to consider is the use of the verb ‘to present’ (parastésai) in reference to the Christ child. The verb parastésai also means “to offer”—language that is associated with sacrifice. Take for example St. Paul, who urges the faithful to “present (parastésai) your bodies as a living sacrifice” (Rom 12:1; emphasis added).
Now it begins to emerge how Luke is drawing the reader in to view this scene. We know from other gospel accounts that Jesus is the true Lamb of God; John the Baptist introduces us to Jesus in this way, “Behold, the Lamb of God” (John 1:29). He was the true Lamb that was sacrificed upon the wood of the cross, without a broken bone (John 19:36), to atone for the sins of all men. So, although Mary and Joseph were poor and could only bring an offering according to the alternative which did not include the requirement of a lamb—as it would have for wealthier folks—they did in fact bring the true Lamb into the Temple that day. Indeed, it was this child, this Lamb, who would be presented as a living sacrifice for the salvation of the world. St. John Paul II affirmed this interpretation when he said:
[Mary’s and Joseph’s] coming to the Temple in Jerusalem had the significance of a consecration to God in the place where he is present. Obliged by her poverty to offer turtledoves or pigeons, Mary gave the true Lamb who would redeem humanity, thus anticipating what was prefigured in the ritual offerings of the old law.3
This alone is enough to make us pause in wonder and reflect on the figure of the Eucharist present in this story, foreshadowed in the imagery of the sacrificial lamb. But there is more to this event for the Christ child than what meets the eye. For this interpretation still does not answer our question above: Why did Luke not include the five-shekel redemption of the child Jesus? It’s not likely that he was unaware of the custom, so why this apparent omission? If we read Numbers 18:15-16 (as above) and stop there, it remains a mystery. But if we read on into the next several verses after the requirement of the five-shekel redemption of the firstborn (vv. 17-19), we discover something rather intriguing:
15 …the first-born of man you shall redeem, and the firstling of unclean beasts you shall redeem. 16 And their redemption price (at a month old you shall redeem them) you shall fix at five shekels in silver, according to the shekel of the sanctuary, which is twenty gerahs. 17 But the firstling of a cow, or the firstling of a sheep, or the firstling of a goat, you shall not redeem; they are holy. You shall sprinkle their blood upon the altar, and shall burn their fat as an offering by fire, a pleasing odor to the Lord; 18 but their flesh shall be yours, as the breast that is waved and as the right thigh are yours. 19 All the holy offerings which the people of Israel present to the Lord I give to you, and to your sons and daughters with you, as a perpetual due; it is a covenant of salt for ever before the Lord for you and for your offspring with you” (emphasis added).
Notice that an ordinary male child, according to Torah, ought to be redeemed at a month of age. But the firstborn of a sheep, i.e., a lamb, ought not to be redeemed because it is holy. Rather than being redeemed, the firstborn lamb becomes a sacrifice of blood and flesh before the altar of God and stands as a perpetual covenant before Him. This calls to mind the sacrificial covenant between God and His people Israel, when Moses took the blood and “threw it against the altar,” proclaiming it as “the blood of the covenant which the LORD made with you” (Exod 24:6, 8).
In accordance with the Scriptures, the blood-covenant ceremony in Exodus is to be seen as a figure of the sacrifice of Christ, whose blood was poured out as a new covenant between God and men (Luke 22:20; cf. 1 Cor 11:25). It was that sacrifice on Calvary that became the wellspring of the Eucharistic feast. The flesh that was offered on the cross became “true food” and his blood “true drink” (John 6:55). At the foot of the Cross the multitude of heaven sings, “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain” (Rev 5:12), who gives us his body and blood so mankind may have eternal life.
Did Mary and Joseph ever ransom the Christ child at all? The absence of clarity on this point invites us to regard the child Jesus in the terms of the lamb which is a ransom. Jesus is the Lamb of God, wholly given to the Father, poured out as a sacrifice of flesh and blood to be an everlasting covenant. Neither the purification of Mary nor the redemption of the child Jesus required the Holy Family to come to the Temple in Jerusalem that day; any priest throughout Judea could have received their sacrifice(s). But this child was destined to be presented to God in His Temple so that Simeon could see God’s salvation and depart in peace, so that Anna could rejoice in the redemption of Jerusalem, so that Mary could begin the journey of her maternal suffering, so that the Lamb of God—the eternal Temple—could be presented to make a “sacrifice of himself” (Heb 9:26) and give his body and blood as a Eucharistic feast.
Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI), Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, trans. Philip J. Whitmore, (New York: Image, 2012), 80.
Pablo T. Gadenz, The Gospel of Luke, Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2018), 70.
John Paul II, “Simeon Was Open to the Lord’s Action,” General Audience of December 11, 1996, in Pope John Paul II, Theotókos: Woman, Mother, Disciple. A Catechesis on Mary, Mother of God (Boston: Pauline Books and Media, 2000), 155.