About twenty years ago, when I was a junior monk, Abbot Lawrence O’Keefe, a noted scripture expert, preached our annual retreat. At one point, he made a curious remark. The fifth Joyful Mystery is the Presentation, but he said that it really ought to be classified as a Sorrowful Mystery. Understanding why requires a bit of excavating of this interesting episode from Luke’s gospel.
The tenth plague, the one that finally convinced Pharaoh to allow the Israelites to flee Egypt, was the killing of the first-born. All throughout Egpyt, all offspring that “opened the womb,” including those of livestock, fell prey to the Angel of Death. God made a distinction, however, between the Egyptians and the Israelites, and spared the first-born of the enslaved people. Before that fateful night, God gave an indication about one important consequence. Since God spared the first-born of the Israelites, these all belonged to Him. “Whatever is first to open the womb…is mine [Exodus 13: 2].” Later, at Mount Sinai, God’s claim becomes even stronger: “The first-born of your sons you shall give to me [Exodus 22: 29].” As the great Jewish scripture scholar Jon Levenson has pointed out, this is clearly a commandment to sacrifice the first-born son, after the pattern of Abraham’s testing in Genesis 22. Later still, God mitigates the harshness of this command, allowing first-born sons to be redeemed rather than sacrificed. “All the first-born of your sons you shall redeem [Exodus 34: 20].”
Saint Luke is actually combining several events in his recounting of the Presentation (this is the reason that feast was previously known as the Purification of the Virgin; mothers underwent a period of ritual impurity after childbirth). Let me return to focus on the “sorrowful” aspect of this mystery. Jesus Christ is not only the Virgin Mary’s first-born Son; He is God the Father’s first-born Son. From His conception, He belongs to God, and the redemption that Joseph and Mary offer merely delays the final gift that Jesus will make to Father by offering His life on the Cross. Today’s celebration foreshadows Christ’s Passion and Crucifixion and consecrates the child Jesus to the Father.
Let’s turn to another aspect of this mystery. When the Babylonians captured Jerusalem in 587 B.C., the ark of the covenant, the sign of God’s presence, was removed from the temple. What happened to it remains an unsolved riddle–Indiana Jones notwithstanding. When the temple was rebuilt, the ark was no longer in the Holy of Holies (when the Roman general Pompey entered the Holy of Holies after taking Jerusalem in 63 B.C., he was puzzled to find it empty of any idols or statues). God was not entirely absent; nor had He fully returned after His dramatic departure narrated at the beginning of Ezekiel’s prophecy, dating from the Babylonian captivity. The prophet Malachi, writing perhaps in the fifth century B.C., indicated the God would suddenly appear in the temple. In the arrival of the Virgin Mary and the boy Jesus, the early Church saw the return of the true Ark of the Covenant (the Mother of God, whose womb was God’s resting place for nine months), and the sudden arrival of God in His temple. The long exile of the chosen people was finally ended, that moment that holy Simeon and Anna had awaited with such love for God.
In the first antiphon of First Vespers,* this arrival is seen as the consummation of the marriage covenant into which God had entered with Israel. Now, if we remember back to the Exodus, and God’s claim on all first-born sons, we see that this espousal is intimately connected with Christ’s self-offering on the Cross. He returns to claim His bride, at the cost of His own blood. There is indeed a certain sorrow to this, but it is that of those who sow in tears, only to reap in joy. In the Presentation is encapsulated the whole of the story of salvation. God the Father, in receiving back the Son of Mary, liberates not only Israel, but through her all humanity, and not from political slavery in Egypt, but from spiritual slavery to sin. It is significant that, at Mass tomorrow, we will bear candles in procession, just as we will at the Easter Vigil. It is one and the same Passover that we celebrate, from differing perspectives. As such, today’s feast marks the perfect nodal point between the Incarnation and Christmas, and the Paschal Triduum that looms in the future.
* This antiphon begins (in translation): “Adorn your bridal chamber, O Zion, and receive Christ the king…”