Tuesday, January 28, 2020
This Sunday, instead of celebrating the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, the church stops to remember the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple, which is also called Candlemas. It's the end of the long nativity cycle, which starts every year on March 25 with the Annunciation and takes us through the birth of Jesus and on to the Presentation exactly forty days after Christmas. Of course, Luke's is the only gospel account to mention this story, but it has its roots in Jewish tradition and law. What makes this account strange, however, is that Luke goes out of his way to tell this story but doesn't seem to know the traditions and customs all that well.
For starters, there was no expectation that a child would be presented in the temple. The act of going to the temple wasn't about the child; it was about the mother. Specifically, it was about a woman who needed to be ritually cleansed after childbirth. You can read about that expectation in Leviticus 12:1-8. The biblical text associates the uncleanness of childbirth with the uncleanness of menstruation. Because of the "curse of Eve," a woman is understood to be ritually unclean during her period. She may not sleep in the bed with her husband. She must live isolated from other people. That's the same sense of defilement that a woman is understood to have contracted during the birth of a child. If a male child, she is ritually unclean for 7 days and then must remain in a state of purgatory--seeking purification--for 33 more days before coming to the temple to present an general offering and a sin offering to God. In other words, she must come and both give thanks and seek atonement. If it is a female child, the time is doubled to 14 days of uncleanness and 66 more days of purgatory. That gender distinction is not, of course, an accident but another layer of misogyny.
When it comes to the child, there is no biblical text that states a child should be presented to the Lord. And there aren't any texts from that period that suggest that it had become a custom. (See Joseph Fitzmyer's commentary on Luke in the Anchor Bible series.) Instead, the biblical and cultural expectation would be that an offering would be made to redeem the first-born. This seems to be Luke's attempt to incorporate the tradition expressed by Exodus 13:1-2, which states simply that the first-born of livestock and children belong to God and that, if the parent or owner will keep the offspring, a price or offering must be given to God to redeem that obligation. In Jesus' day, the custom was to bring 5 shekels to any priest and hand them over, saying, "Hey, buddy, this is for my first-born child." (Again, see Fitzmyer.) There was no trip to the temple. There was no presentation of the child to the Lord. All that was expected and practiced was an obligatory offering.
There are, however, connections between Luke's account of the presentation and Hannah's presentation of her son Samuel to God and to Eli the priest at the temple in 1 Samuel 1:21-28. Hannah had prayed for a child, promising to give him to the Lord, and, when her prayer was answered, she did just that, bringing her barely-weened son to the priests for a lifetime of service. That's a more entertaining story than the passages in Leviticus and Exodus. It certainly makes a better foundation for a gospel narrative.
I think Luke is trying to make several points with this story, all of which are worth holding onto, especially in the rare event of a Sunday-morning sermon on the feast of the Presentation. First, Luke wants us to see that Jesus' parents are faithful to their Jewish identity. He may have gotten some of the details wrong, but the overall expression of piety is effective. Jesus' parents will do whatever is asked of them by God. That's important. Second, Luke wants us to see how the truth of Jesus' identity is conveyed again to other individuals. The circle now has spread from Mary to Joseph to Elizabeth to some shepherds and now to Simeon and Anna and whoever else was watching in the temple that day. The truth of Jesus as Messiah is spreading as Luke continues to make a case for Jesus not only as God's anointed one but in particular as the light that has come into the world to be salvation of God's people and of all nations. Third, Luke gives us a glimpse at what the future will hold--a dark, disturbing prophecy for Mary about the sword piercing her own soul. Perhaps it's worth remembering that, in the Jewish context, that image of a piercing sword is not one of punitive violence but of discriminating separation. Like a butcher's cleaver, it forces Mary to make a painful choice, probably between being Jesus' mother and being Jesus' disciple, faithful even unto his death.
The problem with it all, however, is that it's easy for us to do what Luke does and miss the significance of what would have actually happened in the temple forty days after Jesus was born. The child probably went with her because babies need to nurse every three hours or so, but who knows whether Joseph would have been there. Although Luke portrays him as a faithful participant in this presentation moment, there wasn't anything for him to do. This was only about Mary. It was about her uncleanness. It was about the very thing that most clearly defined her as a woman becoming the very thing that made her wrong, impure, inadequate in God's eyes and in the eyes of the people who wrote and propagated the law that declared such. Mary was unclean because she was a woman. In other words, because Mary was a woman, she wasn't good enough. And that's still a problematic attitude in the church and in the secular world.
This continues to be the case in many cultures. As you may have read in the news, this approach to women and menstruation has led to the deaths of numerous young women, who are forced to sleep in menstrual huts in places like Nepal. I have been to a church in Ethiopia that had a sign on the door asking women who were on their period to stay out of the church because they were ritually unclean. Our prayer book--the "new" 1979 prayer book--still has a service in it that is based on this reality. It's called "Thanksgiving for the Birth of a Child," but it's modeled on the older prayer book service called "The Churching of Women." Traditionally, women were not allowed to come back to church or even have friends and extended relatives come and visit them until they had undergone this service, which is a mixture of thanksgiving for safe delivery and purification after childbirth. I've been in a vicarage to which women in the community would come and request that service so that their aunts and uncles and friends could come see their new baby. It still happens. All the time. All over the place. We continue to be uncomfortable with menstruation and, to the extent that it is related to it, with childbirth.
This Sunday is a chance to talk about it. The ritual, the text, the culture we live in almost demands it. We can't get past the misogyny and patriarchy that plague our world until we can have a conversation about "feminine hygiene" without needing to duck out or make some crass joke to ease our discomfort. One of my favorite takes on this was done by Mike Judge, who addressed this in the episode "Aisle 8A" in King of the Hill. If you grew up in a culture in which real men didn't buy tampons for their wives in the grocery store, it's worth watching. Do it for your daughters' and granddaughters' sake. Help them know that it's okay to be a woman. Let Mary's faithfulness be a reminder of the purification that we all still need.