Bringing a new life into the world is an astonishing responsibility. How many new parents have looked down at their baby in the crib, then looked up at each other and wondered, "What have we done?"
This is why, through most of history, hardly any culture has left child rearing up to two hapless newborn parents alone. Grandparents, aunts, uncles, and friends join together in traditional societies to help provide support, structure, a common set of values, and many pairs of watchful eyes.
When confronted with the tiny new life of infinite potential, our religious sensibilities kick in as well; and naturally enough, we turn to God, not only in gratitude but in prayer for help and blessing.
Marking the beginnings of new life and new families is something all cultures and religions do in some way. As Luke takes pains to show us, Mary and her family plunged right into that river of wisdom and strength, fulfilling the obligations that all Jewish families embraced upon the birth of a child.
First, Luke notes, Jesus was circumcised (see 2:21) at the traditional age of eight days, the age prescribed by God to Abraham (see Genesis 17:12). Circumcision was the sign of a boy’s membership in the covenant between God and Israel, the point at which he was also named. During Jesus’ time, which was some decades before the synagogue had really developed into a center for learning, a boy was usually circumcised at home by his own father.
Celebrating Jesus’ Human Nature
Catholics have traditionally celebrated the feast of the Circumcision on January 1, eight days after December 25. On today’s liturgical calendar, it is overshadowed by the celebration of Mary, Mother of God, but clearly the two are related as celebrations of Jesus’ human nature.
After the circumcision, Luke describes yet another journey for Mary and Joseph and the baby—a journey to Jerusalem from either Nazareth or Bethlehem to the Temple.
When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, "Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord"), and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, "a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons." (2:22-24)
In addition to circumcision, two other birth-related rituals were prescribed for Jewish people during this period. First was the "presentation" of a child to the Temple. As Luke indicates, it is rooted in the tradition first described in Exodus 13 of consecrating or dedicating a firstborn child to the Lord for the Lord’s service. The importance of the firstborn shouldn’t be a surprise—many sacrifices called for the first fruits of a harvest or the firstborn animal. In faith we give God the first fruits of our labor, believing that he deserves the beauty of this new life in thanksgiving, and trusting that there will be more to follow for our own needs.
By Jesus’ time, however, the ritual had changed a bit. An entire tribe of Israel was exclusively dedicated to the service of God in the Temple—the Levites—so it was no longer the practice for every family to literally give over the firstborn child to that service. The act was symbolic, and it was actually followed by a "buying back" of the child (five sheckels in the first century) for those not in the Levitical tribe. Animal sacrifice was, of course, still a part of Jewish practice and would be until the destruction of the Temple in AD 66, so that was a part of the ritual as well. The normal offering would be a newborn lamb, along with two turtledoves or two pigeons. The lamb could be dispensed with if the family was poor, and as we see from Luke’s account, such was the case with Jesus’ family.
Part of God’s People
What Mary and Joseph were doing, Luke makes clear, is fulfilling their religious duties, participating in rituals that identified them as part of God’s people, obeying God’s laws, and affirming their participation in the covenant.
Religious obligations can so often seem like just that—obligations. Not surprising, since in Catholic practice, the commitment to attend Sunday Mass is actually called an "obligation."
Who hasn’t experienced the consequences? Who hasn’t struggled at times to see the point? Who hasn’t chafed at requirements, suspected that spiritual growth might better be found in freedom from these obligations, wondered if doing it our own way on our time, creating our own rituals and relying on our own intuitions of when, where, and how to honor God would better serve us?
When those thoughts hit, it might be a good time to look at Mary.
Mary, graced with a more intimate knowledge of God than any of us could ever enjoy, carrying him within her own body for nine months, nursing him at her breast, reflecting for almost a year now on the words of an angel, didn’t and couldn’t see herself beyond all religious obligation. She did not and could not put herself above and beyond the wisdom and practices of God’s people.
So she went to Jerusalem, presented her baby, presented herself, and offered sacrifice.
Mary, the "her" at the heart of this, wasn’t just herself, Mary. She stands for all of us, the humanity to whom God reaches out and embraces, seeking to be embraced in turn.
Immersed in Tradition
In the Magnificat, Mary expresses gratitude not only for what God has done for her but also for the amazing, surprising twist in God’s story of mercy and redemption for the whole world. So Mary doesn’t stay by herself in the village, tending to her child, keeping him to herself. She immerses them both in their tradition, embracing the obligations because they are all a sign of God’s love. These rituals are meeting places between God and his people, a place where now God steps in again, in the arms of his mother.
Perhaps what we read and absorb in Luke can be an encouragement to us as we fulfill our own religious obligations. Perhaps it can help us view them more joyously, as chances to enter into the love song of God’s people and their movement toward God, and be open to the surprises, revelations, and comfort that we might experience there if we approach with truly open hearts.
The Presentation of the Lord is a feast that is celebrated in the West on February 2 and is traditionally known as Candlemas. Inspired by Simeon’s insight into Jesus’ identity, Christians celebrate this day with candles; for centuries, a procession with candles was an integral part of the feast, and today, at the very least, a blessing of candles plays a role in the Mass.
Amy Welborn is the author of more than twenty books on Catholic spirituality. This article is an excerpt from Mary and the Christian Life: Scriptural Reflections on the First Disciple.