The church owes an enormous debt of gratitude to St. Luke. It is Luke that tells us about the first few weeks and the first 12 years of Jesus’ life. One of those stories includes the time when the Christ Child was dedicated to God in the temple in Jerusalem.
There were actually four different Jewish rituals that came into play in the first 40 days of a child’s life. A new born Jewish daughter went through two of them. New born Jewish boys underwent three of them. But a first-born son underwent four. Some of these procedures are well known to us, even today. But two of them strike strangely on our ears. Let us look at these ancient rituals.
The first one is circumcision. On the eighth day, the Christ child was circumcised. Circumcision was the mark of belonging to Israel, the chosen people of God. Luke is telling us that the baby Jesus did not simply belong to Mary and Joseph, but He belonged to the people of God, and so was incorporated in proper fashion into the People of Israel.
Some have noted that in this childhood ritual, the blood of Christ was first shed. The redemption of the human race is already afoot. God has become fully human, and is already sharing in the hurts of the human race.
- The Naming
There was a second ritual. The moment of circumcision was the occasion when a child was officially named. In this ceremony he is given a personal name that marks him out as unique.
Every Hebrew child was named with a name that expressed the hopes and dreams of a parent. Mary and Joseph, however, were not allowed to select the name for their son. God Himself had a plan, and through an angel, told both Mary and Joseph on two separate occasions what this child would be called. Not being permitted to choose a name for their son reminded them whose Son this really was. He is the Son of God Himself, so God gets to select the name. The name chosen meant “God saves”. It is the same name in the Hebrew language as the name “Joshua”. It was a name that promised a new start, a new day, one who would lead his people into a new land.
St. Luke wants us to catch the signals early. Jesus is more than simply just one more Jewish child born into a Hebrew family, though he is that. This child is also intended by God to be the deliverer of his people. He is to be the saviour, the new Joshua, the leader of a renewed people into a new future.
- The Purification
There was a third ritual that took place. After the birth of a child the mother and the baby were considered ceremonially unclean. They had to stay away from the temple for 40 days. Any contact with blood was seen as defiling, even that involved in the birth of a baby.
But then Luke tells us, when the 40 days were completed, Mary carried out the purification rites of Israel. The law in the Book of Leviticus (chapter12) is clear. A sacrifice needed to be offered. Normally a lamb and a turtle-dove were to be brought. These would serve as an offering of thanksgiving and as a sin offering to remove uncleanness.
But the same law offers a footnote: if the parents were poor and could not afford a lamb, they could bring two turtledoves or two young pigeons.
And, as Luke tells us this story he notes that Mary & Joseph offered the two small birds. By telling us this, Luke is reminding us that when God came to us in Christ, He started out his life among the poorest of the world.
Mary and Joseph, being poor, had no lamb to offer. But that is a bit strange. Surely God could have nudged one of the shepherds who came to the manger, to leave a lamb behind as a gift for the baby shower. But God had something better in mind. Mary did have a lamb to offer, but not on that day, but a few years later she gave back to God, Jesus, the Lamb of God who would take away the sin of the world. She did not understand that as yet, but in their deep poverty they offered what they could: two small birds.
Why does Luke tell us of this event? He wants to let us know that God became not only human, but a poverty stricken one. He entered into our life at the bottom of the pecking order. He took his place among the very poor. He began life in a family scandal, his first cradle was a manger, and was made a refugee early in his life. He took his place along side the wounded of our world. The Book of Hebrews commenting on this says, “Since we are flesh and blood, he shared the very same thing… He became like us in every respect… he was tested by what he suffered, and so is able to help us who are being tested. “
- The Consecration
There was a fourth and final ritual that took place on that same day. When a child was a first-born son, there was a special ritual in Judaism. This first child had to be “presented” or “offered” to God.
But that is not as pretty as it sounds. In pagan religions, such as the religion of Molech, the first born was physically sacrificed to the fertility god in an attempt to try ensure the further fertility of the family into the future. The ancient world sacrificed the first born to God, so that many more children would be born into that home. The first born had to die.
That was a barbaric practice, though understood and accepted by many in the Ancient Near East. But for God that was intolerable, so instead, the nation of Israel was instructed to take one of the 12 tribes to be “Consecrated to God”, but not to die but to serve as living sacrifices. The tribe of Levi was to be a tribe of priests who were committed to the service of God. Then forever after, the family, instead of sacrificing their first born son, would pay five shekels in lieu of his death. And so Jesus was presented as the first born son, and the shekels were paid.
But Luke is a theologian. He knows that the shekels simply purchased a postponement for Jesus. For as the story of the gospel unfolds we see Jesus “the firstborn among many brethren” heading towards his death. Jesus, our older brother will be offered to God on our behalf. So even in this story, 40 days after his birth, the sentence of death is unfolding on his young life.
That is why Simeon the old man in the temple will say to Mary, “This child is to be a sign that will be rejected… and a sword will also pierce your own soul.”
Of course the question comes to the fore, why does Luke bother telling us of these ancient rituals? The other three Gospels do not concern themselves with these early moments in His childhood. Why does Luke introduce us to these details?
Luke wanted to underscore the radical humanity of this one who was at the same time the Son of God. Luke was saying to us that Jesus identified with us from the very beginning. He was subject to all the laws of humanity. He lived out his life much as we do. He was first a baby, then a little boy, then a teen, and finally a young adult There was no stage of human life that he did not live through. And as he lived through them, he did not live a pampered existence, or a sheltered life.
He took His place among the poor of this world, living with their grinding poverty. He lived in a world under military occupation by a foreign power, and participated in a religion that had become substantially bankrupt. He lived out his life in the common tasks of life. He knows our life. He lived it for more than 30 years. He was no stranger to our circumstances.
The implications of all of this is, that He is telling us that he knows how difficult life can be. And if we are prone to distrust God, because we think God does not understand or is aloof from the difficulties of our life, this story tells us that we’re wrong. God never was distant, but we refused to believe that God cared at all. So He sent his son as the contradiction to our false suspicions.