By Rev. Cariño Casas
Many of us know the 12 days of Christmas, but the Church in the West has a long history of extending Christmastide to February 2. Why?
In Luke 2, the Gospel writer takes 39 verses to tell the story of Jesus’ birth. He could have stopped at verse 7 and said, “And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger because there was no place for them in the inn.” Or at verse 20, when the shepherds head back to their fields glorifying God after seeing the promised Messiah. Or at verse 21, where we see Mary and Joseph officially name their newborn boy Jesus, as Gabriel told them, and have him circumcised.
No, Luke goes to verse 39 because he recorded that Mary and Joseph “performed everything according to the Law of the Lord.” Notice Luke says “the Law of the Lord.” He says it a few times. Shortly, we will see Luke call it the Law of Moses, but Luke affirms that this is the Law of the Lord. When we read the Hebrew books of the Bible, what Christians call the Old Testament, especially the Books of Moses, the Pentateuch, the Torah, we need to take seriously that it is the word of God as much as the Psalms, as much as Isaiah, as much as the Gospels and the New Testament Epistles.
Image by the Lumo Project via FreeBibleImages.org.
The Torah has something to tell us about the character of God and helps us understand more deeply who Jesus really is. The life and actions of Jesus, a circumcised Jew, are best understood in his Jewish context. How the death of a Jewish rabbi 2,000 years ago has any bearing on us Americans, Africans, Asians, Europeans in the 21st century cannot be understood without the Torah and the Prophets. Luke gets that. Jesus’ birth narrative isn’t complete until he’s explained how Mary and Joseph fulfilled the Law of the Lord.
So, let’s close this Christmas season by learning how Mary and Joseph were faithful. We start in Luke 2, verse 22:
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 who first 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.”
What is this about?
There are two things happening here:
- “the time came for their purification”
- “they brought [Jesus] up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord”
Today’s feast day has multiple names in Church history. There’s Feast of the Purification of Mary. There’s the Feast of the Presentation of Jesus. And then there’s Candlemas, which comes from combining what Simeon says about Jesus being the light to the nations and the seasonal fact that the days are lengthening. Today is “the halfway point between the winter solstice and the spring equinox.”1 This is why on the other side of this fair state of Pennsylvania this morning, people gathered to see if a groundhog – coming out of his burrow – saw his shadow.2 Groundhog Day3 began as a folk method of trying to guess whether the winter weather will continue, and the culture keeps it now as a silly, joyful tradition.
But we are gathered here today to consider a much more meaningful tradition rooted in the life of Jesus of Nazareth, the Messiah of Israel, the Son of the Living God, the essence of God in human flesh. When we begin to grasp that the most holy, all-powerful Creator God came down to us, not in wrath and condemnation but, mercifully robed in flesh and blood to contend with every weakness and temptation that besets us, we should shout for joy!
As we look closely at the rites of purification and presentation, let us consider a question the Church perhaps has been hesitant to really wrestle with. Of all the peoples of all the world, why did God choose to come to humanity in Jewish flesh? Why will Jesus have Jewish DNA for all eternity?
Yes, yes, some of you may say, Jesus WAS Jewish. Was? When does he cease to be Jewish?
Image by the Lumo Project via FreeBibleImages.org.
We know from Thomas’ encounter with the resurrected Jesus and from John’s description in Revelation 5 of the Lamb of God looking “as though it had been slain” that Jesus still bears the marks of his torture and crucifixion. When we see him, we will see where the nails pierced his hands and feet, where the crown of thorns cut his forehead, where the spear stabbed into his side.
So, then, if he is resurrected with the scars of his crucifixion, does he not then still bear the mark of his circumcision? On January 1, we gathered here to remember that Jesus was circumcised as the Law of Moses requires of Jewish males. We remember every January 1 – eight days after Christmas Day – that Mary and Joseph had Jesus circumcised. Every year we remember that our Lord and Savior is Jewish. He is Jewish forevermore. We’ll discuss more what that means for us as Gentile disciples of the Messiah. First, let’s look at the two acts of Torah obedience that Luke records in today’s Gospel reading.
So, there are two things happening in verses 22-24.
- “the time came for their purification”
- “they brought [Jesus] up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord”
It is odd that Luke says “their purification” because the only one that required purification was Mary. But some believe that perhaps Joseph also purified himself by ritual immersion before going into the temple.4
So what was Mary’s purification about? In Leviticus 12, we learn that women were considered ritually unclean for 40 days after giving birth to a son.
Being unclean is not the same as being sinful. Being unclean meant you could not worship before God in the tabernacle and later the temple. Ritual uncleanliness was contagious, so that also meant that the ritually unclean should not be mixing in the community. But where did this uncleanliness come from? And what does it have to do with worship and community?
The God of Israel, the Creator God, the God we sometimes call Jehovah or Yahweh, is the God of Life. He is holy. We know that he cannot abide sin in his presence. Neither can death be in the presence of God.
So if a mother giving birth to a living child is unclean and in need of purification, how has she encountered death? It is obvious to us that touching a dead body or even roadkill could make us ritually unclean. Dead bodies are dead. Then there’s leprosy. Leprosy as described in the Bible is a skin disease that caused skin and eventually even parts of the body to just come off. The skin is dying and causing part of the body to die. So one could not go before God covered in death. And one could not be in the community where one might contaminate others with death.
OK… so where is there death in childbirth? In blood. When a baby is born, blood and water flow from the mother. How is blood a contaminate of death? Several times in Genesis and Leviticus, God states that the life of animals and humans is in the blood. Blood is life when it flows in our arteries and veins. But when blood is spilled, the blood dies. It no longer can give life. It becomes death.
Leviticus 12 gives the instructions for the purification of a Jewish mother after childbirth. For 40 days, “she shall not touch anything holy, nor come into the sanctuary, until the days of her purifying are completed…. 6 “And when the days of her purifying are completed… she shall bring to the priest … a lamb a year old for a burnt offering, and a pigeon or a turtledove for a sin offering… if she cannot afford a lamb, then she shall take two turtledoves or two pigeons, one for a burnt offering and the other for a sin offering. And the priest shall make atonement for her, and she shall be clean.”
There are two offerings that postpartum mothers have to make: a burnt offering and a sin offering. The sin offering baffles commentators. How has the woman sinned in giving birth? One guess is that she lied when, in her pain, she swore she will never let her husband touch her again.5
The burnt offering is not for sin but is a gift to God expressing the desire to get closer to him. One rabbi says, “A woman who has experienced childbirth recognizes that her Creator has wondrously saved her from the enormous danger of the experience. She naturally wants to express her total gratitude by drawing nearer to G-d with an offering.”6 Let us remember that childbirth can be dangerous for women, and was more so in the ancient world. Mary knew that saying yes to God was putting her life at risk as well as her reputation.
In Leviticus, the purification offering is a lamb and dove, unless a lamb cannot be afforded. Notice what Luke says. Mary and Joseph offered “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.” They could not afford a lamb, and so we learn that they are in a lower economic class. They are, in a word, poor. This passage is the evidence that the Son of God – owner of the cattle on a thousand hills – became poor in his priestly mission to redeem us.
Let’s go back to Luke 2:22: ‘They [Mary and Joseph] brought [Jesus] up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord 23 (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, “Every male who first opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord”).’
So what’s happening here? In Numbers 18, God claims for himself all the first fruits of produce, livestock, and even children. This was all to be given in the tabernacle and later the temple. The wheat and the oil and the fruits, God gave those to the Levites to eat. The livestock of clean animals, those were offered on the altar, and the meat was shared among the Levites. However, the firstborn children were redeemed. Instead of leaving your firstborn child for priestly service (as Hannah does with Samuel), a family would pay the priests five shekels of silver. God, in turn, set apart the sons of Levi to serve him as priests. The first fruits of produce and livestock and the redemption money went toward providing for the living of the priestly families.
But the redemption of the firstborn is more than a practical way to provide for the Levites. The ceremony was meant to remind the Children of Israel of the Exodus, of how God took the firstborn of all the land of Egypt in the 10th plague but let live the firstborns finding refuge under the blood of the Passover lamb.7
So as the Law required, Mary and Joseph ransomed Jesus from the priests for five shekels, five coins of pure silver. This ransom reminded Mary and Joseph of the Passover story, of God’s salvation in the Exodus. Their baby boy is named God’s Salvation… the baby boy that, when he is grown, is called The Lamb of God by his cousin John – the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.
Jesus, Yeshua in Hebrew, chooses 12 students, “but one of you is a devil,”8 he tells them. Yeshua, God’s salvation, is betrayed by his student Judas Iscariot. For what? For 30 pieces of silver… The priests pay Judas the redemption money of six firstborn children for giving up Jesus to them. Why? Why does God allow this? And as Passover approaches, no less! Because Jesus is the Passover lamb. He is the scapegoat and the sin offering of the Day of Atonement. He is the “faithful high priest in the service of God”9 who covers our sin with his blood.
In a way, the corrupt priesthood gives Jesus’ redemption money back with interest. God has the priests give that money back so that Jesus can serve as our great high priest. He is the priest and the sacrifice all at once.
And we’ll affirm this in a few minutes when Father Michael will say: “Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us.” And we’ll respond, “Therefore let us keep the feast.”
We don’t have time to look at the rest of our Gospel portion, but I want to end with a passing reference to the Song of Simeon, which we said at the start of our worship tonight.
Earlier, I mentioned that Jesus in Hebrew is Yeshua. Yeshua is the Hebrew word for salvation. So Simeon does a play on words when he sees Jesus and prays “my eyes have seen your salvation.”
Simeon then says Jesus is
“a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and for glory to your people Israel.”
Image by Jan van ’t Hoff/Gospel images
We from the nations love that Jesus is the light of revelation for us Gentiles. We revel in that truth, especially in the current Epiphany Season.
How about the line “for glory to your people Israel”? Some would tell you that “Israel” here means only the followers of Jesus. They’re wrong. Simeon has already mentioned the Gentiles, the nations, the non-Jews. So Israel here must mean the Jewish people. How often do we consider that Jesus is the glory of the Jewish people?
Why did God choose to take on Jewish DNA? I don’t know. I’ll probably be pondering God’s call of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob until Jesus comes back for us or I go to him.
Here’s a more important question? How should Jesus’ Jewish DNA and his faithful Torah observance affect our walk as disciples of the Messiah?
People who share Jesus’ physical DNA still walk this earth. Have you ever considered that? Many of them are still trying to be as Torah observant as they can without a tabernacle or a temple. They revere the Torah scroll, touching it as it goes by in the synagogue, blessing the LORD before and after every reading.
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Jesus is the Word of God. Jesus is the Torah scroll. We have the Bible because the Jewish people preserved it for us. Not just the Hebrew scriptures. Remember that all of the New Testament was written by Jewish hands. They have guarded the Word of God all this time, but they have yet to recognize he is the long-awaited Redeemer and that his name is Yeshua, Jesus.
Other DNA relatives of Jesus don’t believe God exists because of the Holocaust. How can a loving God allow one-third of the world’s Jews to be systematically murdered by the Nazis and their enablers? But they will claim their Jewishness and defend it. They may even celebrate Passover because they are Jewish. And in their nominal observation, they glorify God, they glorify the Messiah, to whom all the Jewish feasts point.
In Matthew 25, Jesus gives a glimpse of how he will judge the nations. He will separate the nations into sheep and goats. And he will say to the sheep,
“‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ 40 And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’
This passage has rightly been interpreted to mean that the Son of Man will judge us on how we treat our Christian family and even how we treat every human being, humans made in the image of God. But the first meaning of “brother” is blood family. Jesus will also consider how we treated his brothers and sisters in the flesh, the Jewish people.
The Church has a history of failure in this area. At one extreme, we’ve neglected to share the Gospel of Jesus with Jewish people because of fear, shame, or ignorance. At the other extreme, the Church has enabled and even perpetrated the torture and murder of Jewish people. We can and must do better, for Jesus’ sake.
God used the Jewish people to bring light to the pagan nations. Now we in the nations must reflect that light back to the Jewish people, in love and humility. Jesus is the glory of the Jewish people, after all.
Let us pray.
Lord, we thank you for allowing our eyes to see your salvation, Jesus, the Son of David, the Lion of the Tribe of Judah. We thank you for Mary and Joseph and how they guarded Your Son,
Your perfect Lamb, through their Torah-faithfulness. Send us out to do the work you have given us to do, to love and serve you as faithful witnesses of Jesus, the Messiah of Israel, the light of revelation to the nations and the glory of your people Israel. Amen.
The Rev. Cariño Casas is the Communications Director of CMJ USA. She began as the media coordinator of Christ Church Jerusalem in 2014. She previously worked as a newspaper copy editor and photojournalist. Cariño serves as a deacon in the Anglican church in the Pittsburgh area.
- “From Christmas to Candlemas: The 40 Days of Christmas,” Catholic Stand, 8 February 2019, https://catholicstand.com/christmas-candlemas-40-days-christmas/.
- Laurence Hull Stookey, Calendar: Christ’s Time for the Church (Abingdon Press, 2011), 119.
- “Legend & Lore | Punxsutawney Groundhog Club,” https://www.groundhog.org/legend-and-lore.
- David H. Stern, Jewish New Testament Commentary: A Companion Volume to the Jewish New Testament. 1st edition. Messianic Jewish Communications, 1992.
- Aaron Eime, “Leviticus 12,” Leviticus: And God Called, Christ Church Jerusalem. https://www.christchurchjerusalem.org/sermons/bible-studies/leviticus-and-god-called/
- “Parshat Tazria by Rabbi Pinchas Kasnett.” Ohr Somayach, 29 March 2014. https://ohr.edu/this_week/based_on_the_abarbanel/5788.
- Stern, Jewish New Testament Commentary: A Companion Volume to the Jewish New Testament.
- John 6:70
- Hebrews 2:17