[The following is from the program notes for Solemn Vespers of Friday, February 2.]
The Feast of the Presentation is one so expansively rich, it is not easy to know where to begin a short reflection such as this. At the center of the many images surrounding our Lord’s first visit to the temple in the flesh is the temple itself, and a bit of scriptural archaeology perhaps can unearth certain foundations for us. The temple is the meeting place between God and man, but—importantly, if uncomfortably—it is also the place of sacrifice.
Mary and Joseph bring Jesus to the temple in obedience to a commandment found in the book of Exodus: “The first-born of your sons you shall give to me [Ex. 22: 29]. As Jewish scholar Jon D. Levenson has conclusively demonstrated, this would have been understand by ancient peoples as requiring human sacrifice. However, we know from plentiful other commandments of the Lord that, unlike the bloodthirsty gods of neighboring peoples, God in fact abhors human sacrifice. Much as he asks a last-minute replacement for Isaac, just as Abraham raises the knife to slaughter his son, in Exodus, God also provides a ’redemption’ for the first-born sons of the Israelites. Parents are not only permitted, but required to “buy back” from God the little child with an animal sacrifice, a substitute for the real thing.
So far, so good; but what perhaps is still a bit unsettling is the whole idea of the ritual sacrifice of a child in the first place. The word “sacrifice” is derived from a Latin compound using “sacer” and “facio,” and it means to “make holy.” The sacrifice of any item is meant to translate the object from the profane realm into the realm of the holy. This was typically done by slaughtering an animal and burning the portion meant for God. In the case of human sacrifice, the people who practiced this (and we know that it was a constant temptation for Israel as well) understood themselves to be giving the person to God, as a servant. It was the greatest gift one could make. The prophet Micah, speaking on behalf of the people who had sinned against God, asks what a fitting gift would be to reconcile with God, as a sign of heart-felt repentance. The prophet asks rhetorically, “With what shall I come before the Lord?…will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my first-born for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? [Micah 6: 6a, 7]” After this rhetorical question, in which the gift of the son comes last in a series, demonstrating that it is the highest gift Micah’s hearers can imagine, Micah makes a stunning statement, dulled to our ears by out-of-context repetition. What is the great gift? “He has showed you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justive, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God [v. 8]?”
So God, as a good teacher, honors the good intention behind the wrongful action, and directs, but the laws of redemption, a practice initially pagan, driven in no small part by fear and superstition, toward the liberating and enlightened truths of revelation. This change of perspective is, already in the Old Testament, a foreshadowing the great enlightenment that Jesus Christ was to bring. And He brings this light not only to the chosen people of Israel, but to all peoples. Sacrifices of all kinds, as well as substitute political rituals like public executions (including crucifixion) have slowly been disappearing ever since the Christ appeared in the flesh as the one, true sacrifice, the one fitting offering that we can make to God.
Now, to acknowledge that we are still impelled to offer something when we come before the Lord is to acknowledge that in order to fulfill the prophecies of the Old Testament and to reveal sacrifice for what it is, Jesus had to assume our mortal flesh and submit to death. In this statement we see how today’s feast points in two directions, forming a hinge between Christmas and Easter: in order to make the one sacrifice to end all sacrifice, Christ needed to become man. As the letter to the Hebrews says it, “Sacrifices and offerings thou hast not desired, but a body you have prepared for me. [10: 5].” But Christ also needed to be offered, and today in the temple, the offering of our human nature upon the Cross is foreshadowed in the mysterious fulfillment of the law. God and man are reconciled by the supreme gift of Christ’s human nature to the Father, and His divine nature to us.
May our gratitude for this overwhelming gift cheer our hearts in these dark and cold days of February, and spur us to a fervent celebration of Lent, that we may again proclaim the Light of Christ at the Easter Vigil.