First Sunday of Christmas (Year B)

The birth of a child is an occasion that evokes family, religious, and social traditions.

December 28, 2008

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Commentary on Luke 2:22-40

The birth of a child is an occasion that evokes family, religious, and social traditions.

The infant’s gown, once worn by a great-grandparent, is carefully liberated from layers of tissue paper where it has been preserved for this moment. A rose is placed on the altar or communion table in honor of the child’s birth. Announcements are sent to family and friends.

Traditions Ancient and Modern

In the Gospel of Luke, the parents of Jesus respond to his birth by attending to the obligations called for in Leviticus 12:3-8. These ancestral traditions are a reminder to them that Jesus is born in the context of the covenant established between God and the people Israel. The language of purification may sound odd to us, but it arises from sensitivity to the holy. One way a woman encounters the holy is through the miracle of giving birth. It is a holiness which belongs to and describes the natural rhythm of life.

There is also a holiness that is ascribed arbitrarily to certain times, places and activities (such as the Temple). The two do not stand in opposition to each other, but they belong to separate spheres−in the same way that we might say a mound of earth is a good thing in the garden, but not in the middle of the living room. Ritually presenting their offering to God is a formal way of recognizing the difference between the two spheres.

Of course, this ritual reflects an ancient worldview. Today, Jews celebrate the birth of a child with a ceremony marked by prayers, songs, and food. All present recite the words, “As he/she has been welcomed into the covenant so may he/she grow into a life of Torah, marriage and good deeds.” Elijah, the famous prophet, is welcomed to the celebration, linking each new birth to the renewal of hope in the coming of the messianic age.1  This same hope is expressed by each of the persons named in our passage from Luke:

  • Mary and Joseph come to present Jesus to God, demonstrating their confidence in God’s promises
  • Simeon is described as a righteous and devout man seeking the consolation of Israel
  • The prophet Anna fasts and prays for the redemption of Jerusalem

It is a vibrant hope, evident from ancient traditions, but equally as alive today.

Setting and Memory

The action in our scene takes place at the Temple in Jerusalem. As the dwelling place of God, it is an appropriate setting for a story revolving around the theme of redemption. Yet Luke is writing after the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E. In that year, the Romans razed Jerusalem to the ground and scattered its survivors abroad. These facts yield two differing interpretations.

On the one hand, readers can see the setting as hearkening back to remembrance of a time when life seemed safe, traditions were observed, and Joseph and Mary could safely negotiate registering in a Roman census (2:1-11) while worshipping in the Temple of the one God. On the other hand, it may be a poignant reminder of the catastrophe that already exists in the memory of Luke’s readers: the Temple’s destruction. This juxtaposition of memories presents a yellow caution light−a warning against painting too thick a veneer of harmony and tranquility over the past. Underneath that veneer, cracks will appear in the surface, evidence of the tensions percolating underneath.

Living in Anticipation

Such ‘cracks’ are present in Luke’s text. We see them in the way Luke alternates between references to God’s deliverance and references to destruction and exile:

  • Verse 23 links the presentation of Jesus to the words in Exodus 13:2 that “every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord.” In Exodus, this verse is set in the context of God’s deliverance of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. Children born into slavery belonged to the slave master; in consecrating them to God, the Israelites affirmed their new identity as God’s people.
  • Contrasting with this reference to God’s deliverance in the past, Simeon is one looking forward to the consolation of Israel. Between past and present, another catastrophic event has occurred. In 586 B.C.E., the Babylonians destroyed the Temple, an event echoed by the Roman destruction of the Temple. Simeon awaits the moment when God will console those who are in exile (in Babylon or the Roman Empire). Taking the child in his arms, he declares that that moment of deliverance is at hand (verses 29-32).
  • Yet, just as quickly, Simeon warns Mary and Joseph that the child who marks the presence of salvation in their midst will also be the cause of the ‘falling and rising’ of many. This ‘rising and falling’ will not be the result of war, economic overturn, or natural disaster. Instead, it will come about through radical transparency, as people’s inner thoughts are revealed (verses 34-35). The windows into the soul will be thrown wide open.
  • Anna’s description picks up this anticipation of disruption. Her constant state of fasting identifies her as one in a state of mourning, not for her husband, but for the people of God. However, seeing the child, her mourning turns to praise! God has come to bring about the return of God’s people from exile.

At the center of this is the child. He is mentioned by name only once, in verse 27. Elsewhere he is referred to always as “the child.” Substantial words spoken about someone so very small! But Luke has been playing on this contrast throughout the birth story. The savior of the world is born in a stable, while another ‘savior’ of the world, i.e. Caesar, sits on a throne in Roman splendor. In striking contrast, Jesus’ parents bring the offering designated for the poor: two turtledoves. It is this child born in poverty who is the true savior. He is the sign of God’s consolation and redemption. We are left in anticipation to watch as the child grows strong, filled with wisdom and blessed with the favor of God.

1Thank you to Rabbi Sandy Sasso of Congregation Beth-El Zedeck (Indianapolis) for her insight into the ritual of purification and for providing a description of contemporary Jewish practice surrounding the birth of a child.