4th Joyful Mystery: The Presentation

We continue our Patristic Rosary Project today with the:

4th Joyful Mystery: The Presentation

We are made in God’s image and likeness and Christ came into the world to reveal man for fully to him (GS 22).  Though the Lord’s Circumcision took place eight days after Our Lord’s Birth, and the Presentation of the Lord in the Temple, forty days after, we are nevertheless bound within the infancy narrative and bound to the Temple and the law.  We are, moreover, radically in unity with Christ and, through Him, with each other. In this light, let’s think about the Circumcision for a moment (there isn’t a Mystery for that in the Rosary, which could be a bit of a mystery) even before we go on to reflection the 4th Mystery, the Presentation of the Lord in the Temple and Our Blessed Mother’s Purification according to the Law.

Here are words of 3rd century Alexandria writer Origen (+254):

So, when He died, we died with Him, and when He rose, we rose with Him. Likewise, we were also circumcised along with Him. After His circumcision, we were cleansed by a solemn purification. Hence we have no need at all for a circumcision of the flesh. you should know that He was circumcised for our sake. Listen to Paul’s clear proclamation. He says, “For in Him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have come to fullness of life in Him, who is the head of all rule and authority. In Him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh in the circumcison of Christ. And you were buried with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead.” (Col 2:9-12) Therefore His death, His resurrection and His circumsion took place for our sake. [Homilies on the Gospel of Luke 14.1]

We discern in the Gospels an interesting pattern. The Second Person empties Himself of glory and becomes incarnate of the Virgin Mary. The eternal Word becomes a speechless child. He is lain upon the wood of the crib. He is pierced with metal and He sheds His Blood for our sake. The Incarnate Word Jesus Christ empties Himself of glory and enters His Passion. He stands mute before Pilate and the soliders. He is lain upon the wood of the Cross. He is pieced with metal and sheds His Blood for our sake. In each case He is bound to the Temple, first in His Presentation, finally when the lambs (which foreshadow Him) are being slaughtered in the Temple. All of this is for our sake.

In the Presentation Mary and Jesus are seen to be obedient to the Law. Here is Venerable Bede (+735):

Mary, God’s blessed mother and a perpetual virgin, was, along with the Son she bore, most free from all subjection to the law. The law says that a woman who “had received seed” (Lev 12:2 LXX) and given birth was to be judged unclean and that after a long period she, along with the offspring she had borne, were to be cleansed by victims offered to God. So it is evident that the law does not describe as unclean that woman who, without receiving man’s seed, gave birth as a virgin. Nor does it teach that she had to be cleansed by saving sacrificial offerings. But as our Lord and Savior, who in His divinity was the one who gave the law, when He appeared as a human being, willed to be under the law…. So too His blessed mother, who by a singular privilege was above the law, nevertheless did not shun being made subject to the principles of the law for the sake of showing us an example of humility. [Homilies on the Gospels 1.18]

Some of the Fathers, explicitly St. Augustine (+430), argued that heretics reject the Incarnation.  The Circumcision certainly underscores that this is a Savior who truly has a human nature.  He is not merely spiritual.  St. Jerome (+420) does as well and he makes his point in the context of talking about the Presentation:

All heretics have gone astray by not undestanding the mystery of His nativity. The statement “he who opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord” is more applicable to the special nativity of the Savior than to that of all men, for Christ alone opened the closed doors doors of the womb of virginity, which nevertheless remained permanently closed. This is the closed east door, through which only the high priest enters and leaves, and nevertheless it is always closed. [Against the Pelagians 2.4]

There is a good point there also for our liturgical worship, the orientation of Holy Mass!

There is a lot going on there. Jerome connects the birth of the Lord with the High Priest going into the Temple on the day the lambs are to be slain. He speaks of the East. This makes me think about the exit of the priest from the sacristy and his entrance into the sanctuary to go unto the altar for Mass. He goes from the sacristy, like Christ from the womb, into the area partitioned away from the nave of the church. He goes into the place reserved for alter Christ, who acts in the liturgy in the place of the Head of the Body, the Mystical Person of Christ. The nave is the place designated for those who speak and act as the Body of Christ’s Mystical Person. Together, sanctuary and nave form the body of the whole church. Together, priest and people form the Church, just as Christ the Head and Christ the Body are, as Augustine says, Christus totus, Christ whole entire.

In the Temple, Christ is presented as the Law prescribes. Standing by is the figure who embodies prophecy and priesthood, old Simeon. Ephrem the Syrian (+373):

Simeon presented our Lord, and in Him he present two gifts he had, so that what had been given to Moses in the desert was passed on by Simeon in the temple. Because our Lord is the vessel in which all fullness dwells (Col 2:9), when Simeon presented him to God, he poured our both of these upon him: the priesthood from his hands and prophecy from his lips. The priesthood had always been on Simeon’s hands, because of ritual purifications. Prophecy, in fact, dwelt on his lips because of revelations. When both of these saw the Lord of both of these, they were combined and were poured into the vessel that could accommodate them both, in order to contain priesthood, kingship, and prophecy. [Homily on Our Lord 53.1-54.1]

Priesthood and prophecy are the cause of joy, but, just as the Cross precedes resurrection, they also are the source of pain. Simeon reveals to the Blessed Virgin in the moment of joy that she will experience great pain. Pain of spirit by which she experience the Passion of her Son. Here is the bishop of Milan, St. Ambrose (+397):

“And a sword will pierce through your own soul.” Neither Scripture nor history tells us that Mary departed this life by a violent death. For it is not the soul but the body that can be pierced by a material sword. This, therefore, proves that Mary was not unaware of the heavenly mystery: “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” (Heb 4:12) God’s Word exposes the thoughts and intents of the heart, because all things are open and naked to the eyes of Mary’s Son, to whom the secrets of our conscience are visible. [Exposition of the Gospel of Luke 2.61]

And let us not forget the person of Anna.

Origen has an interesting note about her presence at this mysterious event:

Because it was necessary that women too should be saved, after Simeon there came a woman who was a prophet. Scripture says of her, “And Anna was a prophetess, a daughter of Phanuel, from the tribe of Asher.” How beautiful the order is! The woman did not come before the man. First, came Simeon, who took the child and held Him in his arms. Then came the woman. Her exact words are not recorded. But the account says in general terms that “she gave priase to the Lord and spoke about him to everyone who was awaiting the redemption of Jerusalem.” [Homilies on the Gospel of Luke 17.9]

The woman did not become the man.  We can turn this inside out and also say the man did not become the woman.  Each had their role with a mysterious content not to be subverted or confused.  This is also a point of reflection about the dignity of true marriage in the way GOD intended marriage.

The Presentation, with its dynamics of purification and, I will also bring in, of circumcision, of Law and of ritual purity and of blood, are perhaps hard for us to grasp in this day of egalitarianism. However, God’s ways are strange to us always, perhaps more so today in a desacralized society. Men and women are different, and have different roles in life and in the history of salvation. The Presentation underscores that this is as true now as it ever was. The point is this: who knows what it all means, but it is so; who knows why it is that way, but men and women, equally God’s image and equal in diginity, are given different and complimentary tasks.

Another thing to notice in the Presentation is that age plays a role. We have the very youngest in the Person of Jesus, those who are in the prime of life, Mary and Joseph, and the elderly Simeon and Anna. Ambrose writes:

Anna, who, by reason of her years of widowhood and her virtues, is set before us as wholly worthy of belief, announces that the Redeemer of all people has come…. Not without purpose, however, does he make mention of the eighty-four years of her widowhood, because both the seven twelves and the two forties seemed to imply a number that is sacred. [Exposition of the Gospel of Luke 2.62]

The mystery of the Presentation speaks to us all and its impact in the midst of joy embraces us all within the bloody Sacrifice of the Cross.

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About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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