A Dramatic Biblical Moment that almost Every one Missed
by Msgr. Charles Pope
The Feast of the Presentation of Jesus was a rich fare. The moment of the
Presentation was one of the most dramatic in Biblical history, and yet almost no
one noticed. Lets consider this astonishing moment.
Joseph and Mary have ascended to Jerusalem to fulfill two ancient mandates: the
Rite of Purification for a woman after childbirth and the Rite of Presentation
of their firstborn male child, Jesus. These rites set the stage for a dramatic
moment in Biblical history, a moment missed by almost everyone. We shall explore
this dramatic moment shortly but first a little background.
Jewish law considered that, after a woman gave birth she became ritually impure
for a period. While this seems unjust to us, the Jewish notion was rooted in the
flow of blood that occurred in childbirth and just about anyone who came in
contact with blood incurred a ritual uncleanness for a period of time. The Book
of Leviticus has this to say regarding a woman who has given birth:
The LORD said to Moses, "Say to the Israelites: 'A woman who becomes pregnant
and gives birth to a son will be ceremonially unclean for seven days, just as
she is unclean during her monthly period. On the eighth day the boy is to be
circumcised. Then the woman must wait thirty-three days to be purified from her
bleeding. She must not touch anything sacred or go to the sanctuary until the
days of her purification are over. If she gives birth to a daughter, for two
weeks the woman will be unclean, as during her period. Then she must wait
sixty-six days to be purified from her bleeding. " 'When the days of her
purification for a son or daughter are over, she is to bring to the priest at
the entrance to the Tent of Meeting a year-old lamb for a burnt offering and a
young pigeon or a dove for a sin offering. He shall offer them before the LORD
to make atonement for her, and then she will be ceremonially clean from her flow
of blood." 'These are the regulations for the woman who gives birth to a boy or
a girl. If she cannot afford a lamb, she is to bring two doves or two young
pigeons, one for a burnt offering and the other for a sin offering. In this way
the priest will make atonement for her, and she will be clean.' " (Lev 12:1-8).
As you can see, there is a fairly negative concept at work here from a modern
viewpoint. A woman becomes ritually unclean by giving birth. This was due not to
birth per se but to the flow of blood and/or other fluids at birth. Even more
distressing to modern notions is that a woman who gave birth to a daughter was
considered ritually unclean for even longer! Alas, it is well that the power of
the Church to bind and loose has freed us from this thinking. Keep in mind that
this was ceremonial law, not moral law and, hence, the Church is not setting
aside immutable moral law in abrogating such notions of ritual impurity.
Obedient to the Law – Nevertheless Joseph and Mary, obedient to law make the
dramatic ascent to the Temple, the Son of God carried in Mary's arms. It is
forty days since the birth of the Lord in fulfillment of the Law.
As they ascend the glorious steps to the Temple Mount they also fulfil another
requirement of the Law:
You are to give over to the LORD the first offspring of every womb. All the
firstborn males of your livestock belong to the LORD. Redeem with a lamb every
firstborn donkey, but if you do not redeem it, break its neck. Redeem every
firstborn among your sons. "In days to come, when your son asks you, 'What does
this mean?' say to him, 'With a mighty hand the LORD brought us out of Egypt,
out of the land of slavery. When Pharaoh stubbornly refused to let us go, the
LORD killed the firstborn of both people and animals in Egypt. This is why I
sacrifice to the LORD the first male offspring of every womb and redeem each of
my firstborn sons.' (Ex 13:12-15)
But something even more dramatic takes place here. To understand what it is,
let's look back to 587 BC.
The Babylonians had invaded Jerusalem and the unthinkable had happened. The Holy
City was destroyed and, along with it, the Temple of God. Inside the Temple
something even more precious than the building had been housed: the Ark of the
Recall what the Ark of Covenant was in the Old Testament. It was a box of Acacia
wood, covered in gold. Inside it were placed: the two tablets on which God
inscribed the Ten Commandments. Also in it was the staff of Aaron, and a vile of
the Manna. More importantly, in this box, this ark, dwelt the very Presence of
God in Israel. God mysteriously dwelt within, much as is the case today in our
understanding of the tabernacle in our Catholic Churches.
The Lost Ark – Incredibly however, the Ark was lost when the Babylonians
destroyed the temple and Jerusalem in 587 BC. It was never found again. Some
thought Jeremiah had hid it in the Mountains, others that the priests had
hastily hid it in the maze of caves beneath the Temple Mount. Others argue it
was taken to Ethiopia. But in the end, the Ark had gone missing.
Empty Temple – When the Temple was rebuilt some eighty years later, the Holy of
Holies was restored but the Ark was missing. The High Priest still performed the
yearly ritual and entered the Holy of Holies, but the room was empty. Some
argued for a spiritual presence in the Temple, but in fact the Ark and the
certain presence of God were missing in the Temple after 587 BC. The Ark was
never found and returned there. Something, someone, was missing. The very Holy
of Holies was an empty room, the Ark, and the presence of God it carried were
missing: the Ark, the mercy seat, gone. Would it ever be found? Would it ever be
returned to the Temple? Would the Holy Presence of God ever find its way to the
The ascent to Jerusalem is a steep one. The mountains surround Jerusalem and the
City sits up at a higher altitude than the area around it. As the ancient Jews
made the climb they sang the psalms of ascent: Psalms 120-134. As Joseph and
Mary ascended they too sang the words that instilled joy: I Lift up mine eye to
the mountains from whence cometh my help (121)…..I rejoiced when they said to me
let us go up to the House of the Lord (122)…..To you O Lord I have lifted my
eyes (123)….Like Mount Zion are those who trust in the Lord (125)….Out of the
depths I call unto you O Lord! (130)…..Let us enter God's dwelling, let us
worship at the Lord's footstool. Arise O Lord and enter your dwelling place, You
and the Ark of your strength! (132)….Come and bless the Lord, You who stand in
the House of the Lord Lift your hands to the Sanctuary and bless the Lord. The
Lord bless you from Zion (134).
Singing these songs, Mary carried Jesus. The climb was even more difficult
carrying a newborn babe. But the burden was sweet. A final ascent up the stairs
to the Temple Mount. Likely they entered on the southern side through the Huldah
gates. Going up the steep stairs, through the tunnel in the walls and emerging
on to the bright Temple platform above.
God had returned to His Temple. He, and the Ark who carried him, were found.
Mary the Ark, carrying Jesus in her arms. Jesus, very God, true God from True
God. Yes, God and the Ark had been found and God was once again present among
His people on the Temple Mount. Scripture says:
And the Lord, whom ye seek, shall suddenly come to his Temple, even the
messenger of the covenant, whom ye delight in: behold, he shall come, saith the
LORD of hosts. But who may abide the day of his coming? and who shall stand when
he appeareth? (Mal 3:1-2)
What a dramatic moment. And yet what a remarkable understatement by God! If I
were to direct the moment I would have called for trumpet blasts, peals of
thunder and multitudes of angels! And everyone would fall to their knees in
recognition of the great fulfillment and the great return of God to his Temple.
Yet, it would seem only an elderly Man and woman took any note at all: Simeon
and Anna. They alone understood they were in the presence of greatness and
beheld the drama of the moment:
Now there was a man in Jerusalem called Simeon, who was righteous and devout. He
was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. It
had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had
seen the Lord's Christ. Moved by the Spirit, he went into the temple courts.
When the parents brought in the child Jesus to do for him what the custom of the
Law required, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying: "Sovereign
Lord, as you have promised, you now dismiss your servant in peace. For my eyes
have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all people, a
light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel." The
child's father and mother marveled at what was said about him. Then Simeon
blessed them and said to Mary, his mother: "This child is destined to cause the
falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken
against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will
pierce your own soul too." There was also a prophetess, Anna…Coming up to them
at that very moment, she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who
were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem. (Luke 2)
Yes, here was the dramatic moment awaited for centuries. The ark of God was
found (Mary), and God (Jesus) returned to his temple. But only a few noticed.
Just a few understood and celebrated.
And what of us? At every Mass Jesus, God himself is present. Yet how many
notice? Do they really see him? Or do they see only the human priest and the
human elements of the Mass. Do you see? Do you notice? Are you Simeon? Anna?
Mary? Joseph? Or are you just among those on the Temple Mount who miss the
dramatic moment of God with us?
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