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December 25, 1987     The Message
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December 25, 1987 The Message -- for Catholics of Southwestern Indiana Commentary Mass Readings By FATHER DONALD DILGER 'Their' purification and presentation of Jesus Mass Readings for Sunday, Dec. 27, 1987 Luke 2:22.40 -- Holy Family Sunday There are two Israelite customs which serve as background to this gospel text. One is the con- secration of the first-born to the Lord. The other is the purification of the mother. Luke knows of the Old Testament background to both of these customs. First, the consecration of the child. The Law of Moses in Exodus 13:2 states: "Consecrate to me the firstborn. Whatever is the first to open womb among the people of Israel, both of man and of beast, is mine." The reason is given in Ex- odus 13:15: "For when the Pharaoh stubbornly refused to let us go, the Lord killed all the firstborn in the land of Egypt .... " The logic may escape us but that was their Law. Originally the firstborn was expected to spend his life in the cult- service of the Lord. Later the tribe of Levi took over this service and the firstborn males of the other Israelite tribes were "redeemed" that is they were bought back by the parents through a ransom payment of five shekels of silver at the sanctuary. (Numbers 3:45-48 and 18:15-16) The other custom which Luke has in mind here is the purification of the mother. According to :;Leviticus 12:1-8 a woman who gives birth to a male child is ritually unclean for forty days. In the case of a female child the uncleanness is extended to eighty days. During this time she was not allow- ed to come to the sanctuary. (The old Catholic custom of the "churching of mothers" is probably based on this Old Testament practice.) When the designated time had passed the woman was to of- fer to the priest at the sanctuary door a year-old lamb to be sacrificed and a turtledove as a sin- offering. The second offering would atone for the N' woman and the priest would declare her ritually " clean. If the mother was poor she could substitute a turtledove for the lamb. Luke does not seem to be well-informed about these customs. It is true that the firstborn belonged to the Lord and was to be redeemed with five shekels of silver at the sanctuary. But there never was a law or even a custom of presenting the child itself at the sanctuary for a consecration service or a redemption. It is also true that the mother had to undergo th purification ritual after the designated time. But Luke writes: "When the time came for THEIR purification." The only one ritually unclean was the mother. There was no purification for the father after the birth of a child nor a purification of the child. Luke has confused the two customs. He seems to think that the parents went to the Temple for the consecration and presentation of the firstborn. The real reason for going to the Temple was the purification of the mother. Luke does not even mention the five-shekel redemption price for the hild. If we look at Luke 2:23-24 we get the im- pression that he thinks of the two turtledoves as the price of redemption. This confusion of customs is understandable if we think of Luke as a Gentile convert to Christianity from outside of Palestine who had acquired a considerable knowledge of the practices of Judaism but was unaware of some of the details. But was Luke concerned about such details? As happens so often in the New Testament, the Gospel authors describe Je.sus by recasting Old Testament events even to the point of using the word for word vocabulary from the Old Testament. So what does Luke have in mind here? In I Samuel 1-2 we read the story of Hannah and Elkanah her husband. The reader will find this story interesting and amusing. These two are the parents of the pro- phet Samuel. Hannah was childless. She promised that if the Lord would give her a son she would consecrate him to the Lord's service for life. Her prayer was granted. After three years she weaned little Samuel and took him with other offerings to the sanctuary and handed him over to the old priest Hell. It is this couple presenting their son that Luke has in mind here. This is all the more likely when we see that the Song of Mary (the Magnificat) in Luke 1:46-55 is a recast of the Song of Hannah after she had dedicated Samuel to the Lord. For Luke Jesus is consecrated to the Lord as was the prophet Samuel who was left in the Tem- ple which Jesus never was but went "about his Father's business" in other ways. The primary intention of Luke in this gospel reading is to present the Holy Family and those around them as good, pious people who did everything according to the Law of the Lord, as he calls it. In 1:6 he had described Zechariah and Elizabeth as "righteous before God, walking perfectly in the commandments and regulations of the Lord." Now he will do the same for Mary and Joseph. Matthew had touched upon this theme in Matt. 1:19 when he described Joseph as "being a righteous man." Luke, who is better at balancing the genders than Matthew, includes both a man and a woman as being righteous. First, Zechariah and Elizabeth are righteous. Next he presents Mary and Joseph as obedient to the Law, which is the same as "being righteous before God." Later he will present a third woman and man in this same pattern of righteousness. He describes Simeon as being "righteous and devout" and Anna, a pro- phetess, as "never leaving the Temple, worship- ping, fasting, and praying day and night." For all three of these couples he intends to stress their obedience to the "Law of the Lord," a term which he uses four times in this brief episode (2:23; 2:24; 2:27; 2:39). Mary and Joseph are therefore presented by Luke as good, pious Jews -- models for all those God-fearing Gentile-Christian couples who live according to the law of Jesus. It is no ac- cident that Luke, who begins his Gospel stressing the righteousness of the Jewish parents of Jesus, will end his gospel with a Gentile, the centurion at the foot of the Cross, saying of Jesus: "Indeed this man was righteous." {Luke 23:47} This is all the more remarkable since both Matthew and Mark have the centurion saying: "Indeed this was the Son of God." {Matt. 27:54; Mark 15:39). Thus all three members of this Holy Family are shown as examples of living "according to the Law." They are the first Christian Saints. With the example of his parents Jesus "grew in wisdom, age, and grace before God and man." Other readings for Dec. 27: Sirach 3:2-14; Colossians 3:12-21 Please patronize businesses which advertise in the Message! Funeral Homes, Four HIGHLAND CHAPEL Convenient Locations e3oo FIRST AVE. i i i I "Where customers send their friends!" Open nightly tiI 9 p:m. 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