Holy Family with Palm Tree, Raphael, Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh, Scotland.
When the days were completed for their purification
according to the law of Moses,
they [Joseph and Mary] took him up to Jerusalem
to present him to the Lord… Luke 2:22.
Jesus was the first born son of Mary, and Exodus 29-30 clearly states:
You must give me the firstborn of your sons. 30 Do the same with your cattle and your sheep. Let them stay with their mothers for seven days, but give them to me on the eighth day.
Reading that directly without any conditions attached, it seems to order first-born sons to be sacrificed to God! That sounds utterly contradictory to all that Christianity holds dear. But these verses reflect a history going backwards at least 4000 years ago (from our time), when child sacrifice was acceptable. Consider the pain Abraham must have felt when God ordered him to sacrifice his only son Isaac as an offering. He must have felt some sort of abhorrence but he obeyed. Clearly this has to have been a socially acceptable demand to make; indeed it was actually happening in the Canaan of Abraham’s time. So this act of offering your first-born son to God was a kind of hangover from an earlier, much more brutal, age. A way out was clearly found in the idea of redemption: Jesus was redeemed with the payment of two turtle-doves, a payment required of a poor family; and this was done. One can think of what happened to this child 30-odd years later, when he was sacrificed literally, the payment for our sins so that they might be wiped away and we made whole again. So in the case of Jesus, this simple ceremony in Jerusalem carried a heavy weight of which Joseph and Mary were, for a time, spared. It foresaw the event of the Passion of the Lord when Jesus fulfilled his vocation as Messiah, the Anointed of God, in sacrificing himself for our salvation. In the longer version of today’s gospel, this is almost explicitly revealed by Simeon, who was an old man, who had had a divine revelation that he would see the promised Messiah before he died. He took the baby Jesus in his arms and thanked God for fulfilling his vision. This is a famous Nunc dimittis prayer when he says that he is now ready to be called by God from this life. But he prophesied that Jesus would be the cause of the rise and fall of many, and that a sword would pierce Mary’s heart. None of this Mary and Joseph understood; they simply marveled at his words and returned home to Nazareth.
One other thought occurs on this feast of the Holy Family. I believe that the model of Jesus, Mary and Joseph is a pre-echo of the revelation of the Holy Trinity. In the reality of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, we have a sort of parallel with Joseph and Jesus, and with Mary paralleling the Holy Spirit, especially as the Hebrew and Aramaic for Spirit is feminine in gender. The Trinity, being the ultimate vision of love, the male and female dimensions in the Trinity constantly beyond all time and space generate the reality of love in the Son in a unity so strong that we have One God in Three Persons. This might be heretical, but it works for me!
Nunc Dimittis, Aert de Gelder, Mauritshuis, The Hague, Netherlands.