In one sense, it was a routine duty: Forty days after giving birth to a son, every Jewish woman was required to bring an offering before the priest—a lamb and a pigeon or turtledove if she could afford it—or two turtledoves or pigeons if she was poor.
These animals were sacrificed to the Lord, and the woman was declared cleansed of any impurity caused by childbirth (Leviticus 12:1-8). So forty days after Jesus was born, Mary traveled to Jerusalem with Joseph and Jesus and offered two turtledoves, just as the law required.
But because this was no ordinary family, this was no ordinary offering. Just forty days prior, Mary lay in a cave, her newborn child in a manger, while shepherds came with reports of angelic visitors and heavenly singing. It had not even been a year since she herself had been visited by an angel and told that she—a virgin—would become pregnant and bear a son who was destined to save his people from their sins. And now here she is, in the Temple, probably wondering if anything extraordinary would happen there as well.
And sure enough, something did happen. This simple, ordinary event was transformed into a moment of revelation for her and Joseph and, ultimately, for all the believers who would come after them. For there, in the Temple, they were met by an elderly man named Simeon, who took their baby in his arms and began praising God for letting him live long enough to see the promised Messiah. Then, as if on cue, an aged widow named Anna joined them and herself praised the Lord, telling everyone around her about this child of promise and hope.
An Ancient Feast. The church celebrates this event in Jesus’ and Mary’s life every year on February 2—forty days after Christmas—and calls it “The Presentation of the Lord.” This is an ancient feast, whose origins stretch back at least to the early fourth century AD. And while its beginnings are shrouded in mystery, it has been celebrated in different ways and under different titles for seventeen hundred years. In the past, this feast was marked by all-night vigils, by candlelight processions, and even by a virtual marathon of homilies delivered by the local bishop and all the priests under him. Today, the celebration is much more modest. Some churches have retained a modified procession with candles, but for the most part the feast is observed with its own set of liturgical readings and prayers, and nothing more. Traditionally, it is seen as the final Mass of an elongated Christmas season, but even that sense has diminished over time, and the feast is seen more or less as a reminder that even as an infant, Jesus was stirring people’s hearts and moving prophets to speak about the dramatic impact he was destined to have.
What Are We Celebrating? The Feast of the Presentation is one of those celebrations that means more than one thing. As we saw above, it recounts the way Mary and Joseph followed Jewish law concerning ritual purity for a mother who had recently given birth. At the same time, the feast recalls Mary’s encounter with Simeon and Anna, along with their prophetic words about both her and her Son. But beyond these two events, which are drawn from Luke’s Gospel, the Feast of the Presentation calls to mind two other traditions from Scripture.
The first comes from the tradition of “redeeming” the firstborn son of every family. According to Mosaic law, everything that was first fruit—everything that “opens the womb,” whether from among the cattle, the sheep, or the couple’s family—belonged to the Lord and had to be either sacrificed to him or redeemed with an offering. This ritual was meant to remind the Israelites of the way all the firstborn sons of Egypt had been slain just before the Israelites were set free from slavery (Exodus 13:12-15).
The second tradition is similar to the rite of redemption, but comes from a different Old Testament story—the birth and dedication of the prophet Samuel (1 Samuel 1). According to the story, Hannah was a devout Jewish woman who could not conceive children. Finally, after years of sadness and much prayer, God intervenes and grants her a son, whom she names Samuel. Hannah is so overjoyed by this child that after Samuel is weaned, she presents him to the high priest Eli, dedicating him to the service of the Lord. So just as Hannah brought her little son before the Ark of the Covenant, Mary is seen as presenting her new miracle-baby to the Lord in the Temple.
Mary and Joseph—Humble Surrender. If we were to tie these traditions together and look at them through Mary and Joseph’s eyes, what kind of picture would we see?
First, we would be amazed at Mary’s humility and trust in the Lord. Knowing that her son was conceived miraculously, and suspecting that she herself had been specially prepared to bring this child into the world, she still submitted to the rite of purification. Did Mary really need to be purified? Did her son really need to be cleansed? Not at all. But just as Jesus would later undergo John’s baptism of repentance, so his mother remained faithful to the laws and ways of God. Without raising any objections, she joined herself with every woman who has ever taken on the awesome responsibility of bringing a child into the world. And because of this, she offers herself to all mothers as a model and guide.
We would also see in both Mary and Joseph a decision to follow through with their calling from the Lord. Where they could have “redeemed” their son and kept him for themselves, they chose instead to dedicate him to God and to the mission for which he was born. Presenting Jesus in the Temple, just as Hannah presented Samuel, they generously offered this baby to the whole world, allowing all of us to embrace him just as Simeon did.
Simeon and Anna—Testimonies to God’s Faithfulness. But Mary and Joseph are not the only characters in this story. Simeon and Anna play important roles as well, and there is much we can learn from them.
First, these two figures tell us that there is great value in old age. In a world that prizes youth and vitality, Simeon and Anna show us a different, more godly approach. They show us the patience and trust that come from wisdom, and prove to us that waiting on the Lord and hoping in his promises—even if it takes a long time to see them fulfilled—will always be rewarded. They also show us that those who have lived a long time really can speak with authority and conviction, and that their words, when spoken in humble faith, have great power to move people’s hearts.
Simeon and Anna also show us that it is not a waste to spend our lives in prayer or to learn to listen to the Spirit. Even if it feels as if years can roll by without much change, we can be encouraged in knowing that our heavenly Father hears and delights in every prayer we make. He gathers up every heartfelt word of praise, intercession, or repentance, and pours out a thousand times more grace in response. All we have to do is stay close to him and keep an open, prayerful heart.
Even if growing old is not our concern at this point, Simeon and Anna can demonstrate to us how faithful God is to his promises and to his word. Just as Simeon and Anna were granted to live long enough to see the Messiah, each of us can trust that God will measure our days according to his own promises and according to his perfect plan. He will not abandon us. He will not call us to himself until it is time. And he certainly will not leave us to live in this world with no sense of vision or purpose. Even people whom the world may not consider of much value—those who do not seem important or influential—have important roles to play in God’s plan!
Present Yourself to Jesus. God is inviting us to imitate Mary and Joseph, Simeon and Anna. He is inviting us to present ourselves and our most precious possessions to him. He is asking us to look to his Spirit so that he can shower us with his grace and show us his will. He is telling us that our lives can have great value in his kingdom, even if we feel unimportant in the world. And he is telling us that it is never a waste to spend time in his presence, waiting for him to show himself to us.