Presentation of Jesus in the Temple - New Priesthood and Pure Sacrifice

Homily for the Presentation of Our Lord

by Fr. Tommy Lane

The crèche in St. Peter’s Square in Rome is left in place until today and then removed. This reminds us that the Christmas stories about Jesus in Luke come to an end today forty days after Christmas with the celebration of the Presentation of Jesus in the temple (Luke 2:22-40).

I know it is hard to imagine a seminarian well advanced in his study of theology in this august institution could become confused about what we are celebrating in the Presentation of Jesus but let me just clarify - the presentation of Jesus is not celebrating the circumcision of Jesus. Circumcision is performed eight days after birth (Lev 12:3) and a previous verse in Luke (2:21) already mentioned the circumcision of Jesus.

The presentation of Jesus in the temple served two purposes; the first is the redemption of the first-born and the second is the purification of Mary. The first-born belonged to the Lord according to the Book of Exodus 13:1-2 but Numbers 18:15-16 tells us the first-born could be redeemed or bought back by paying five shekels. The purification of the mother in Jewish Law (Lev 12) was purification from ritual uncleanness after childbirth. Of course Our Lady did not need this purification because she was a virgin before, during and after the birth of Jesus but underwent it to fulfill the Law. The purification was normally performed in the local synagogue but Mary and Joseph decided it should take place in the temple. If the family could afford they would offer a one year old lamb, but if not they would offer two young pigeons.

This is Jesus’ first visit of many to the temple. It is the fulfillment of the prophecy of Malachi in the first reading, “suddenly there will come to the temple, the Lord whom you seek…” (Mal 3:1) The text in Malachi goes on to say that when the Lord enters the temple he will purify and refine the Levites so that they will offer a pure sacrifice to the Lord and then the sacrifice of Judah and Jerusalem will please the Lord (Mal 3:3-4). Malachi is saying that in the future when the Lord enters his temple the sacrifice of the Levites, the sacrifice of the Old Testament priests, will be purified so that a pure sacrifice will be offered that can please God. So Malachi, even if unknown to himself, foresees Christ and his priests of the New Covenant first ordained during the Last Supper. The second reading from Hebrews confirms that Jesus is the high priest of the New Covenant (Heb 2:17). Jesus, as high priest of the New Covenant, offered himself on the altar of Calvary, the only pure priestly sacrifice that could please God.

Earlier in Malachi, before our reading today, Malachi offered another fascinating prophecy, that everywhere from east to west a sacrifice and pure offering would be offered to God (Mal 1:11). The early Christians, the Didache (14:1-3) tells us, saw Malachi’s prophecy of a pure sacrifice and offering from east to west as a prophecy of the sacrifice of the Eucharist. That interpretation found its way into the Magisterium when the Council of Trent (Doctrine on the Sacrifice of the Mass) also interpreted Malachi as prophesying the Eucharist. Those of you already studying theology know this is a case of sensus plenior. So Malachi prophecies that the Lord will enter his temple, there will be a renewed priesthood, and there will be a pure sacrifice - the Eucharist - offered worldwide pleasing to God. When Jesus was presented in the temple everything foreseen in Malachi was already beginning to unfold and would be fully unfolded when Jesus would die on the cross and his priests of the New Covenant would continue to make that sacrifice present in the pure sacrifice of the Eucharist offered from east to west.

Therefore Jesus is indeed the light to enlighten the Gentiles and the glory of Israel as Simeon prophesied (Luke 2:32). Simeon was awaiting the consolation of Israel. The Holy Spirit enlightened him to know that that consolation was now beginning to occur with the birth of Jesus. The prophetess Anna was awaiting the redemption of Jerusalem and she was also enlightened to know that this redemption was now beginning to occur in Jesus and she spoke about Jesus to all awaiting the redemption of Jerusalem (Luke 2:38). Simeon awaiting the consolation of Israel and Anna awaiting the redemption of Jerusalem see their hopes fulfilled in Jesus.

Further events involving Jesus in the temple show Jesus as the consolation of Israel and redemption of Jerusalem.

  • When Jesus cleansed the temple he predicted that the temple of his body would be raised up after three days (John 2:19), so in the New Covenant Jesus has replaced the temple.

  • The feast of Tabernacles included a ritual with water in the temple each morning and Jesus declared during that feast, “Let anyone who thirsts come to me and drink.” (John 7:37) So Jesus has replaced the feast of Tabernacles in the temple.

  • The feast of Tabernacles also included an evening ritual involving the lighting of the Menorah candelabra in the temple forecourt. That prompted Jesus to say, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” (John 8:12) Jesus has replaced the lighting of the Menorah. Jesus is the light to enlighten the Gentiles and the glory of Israel.

When Jesus was presented in the temple everything foreseen in Malachi was already beginning to unfold. Jesus replaced the temple and the feasts celebrated there. Jesus’ death on the cross would be the pure priestly sacrifice that would please God and when the priests of the New Covenant would make that sacrifice present during the sacrifice of the Mass it would be the pure sacrifice from east to west that would please God.

Copyright © Fr. Tommy Lane 2013

This homily was delivered in Mount St. Mary’s Seminary, Emmitsburg, Maryland.

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