First Sunday after Christmas
“On the second day of Christmas, my true love gave to me two turtledoves and a partridge in a pear tree.” I sang that song for years without really knowing what I was singing. Then I read a book by Laurence Hull Stookey, in which he explains the background of “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” He points out that the gifts are either energetic human beings or birds (including the five gold rings, which refer not to jewelry but to gold ring-necked pheasants)—birds being traditionally associated the Holy Spirit. The “true love” who gives the gifts is, of course, God, and the gifts signify life and the presence of God. At Christmas, our true love gives us the gift of God’s own life in the person of the Christ child, who continues to abide with us through the Holy Spirit.
But of all the gifts—birds or people—listed in the song, only one set comes directly from the biblical narrative of Christ’s nativity: two turtledoves. Luke tells us that, after Mary’s time of purification was ended, she went to the temple in Jerusalem to offer the appropriate sacrifice and to present Jesus to God. Luke writes, “When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought [Jesus] 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’” (vv. 22–24).
Luke is here conflating a number of different passages from the Old Testament. From Exodus he gets the bit about the designation of the firstborn. Just before God strikes the Egyptians with a plague on the firstborn, God tells Moses how to keep the plague away from their houses, namely, by smearing a lamb’s blood on their door frames. God also gives the Israelites these instructions for future generations: “When the Lord has brought you into the land of the Canaanites … you shall set apart to the Lord all that first opens the womb. All the firstborn of your livestock that are males shall be the Lord’s. But every firstborn donkey you shall redeem with a sheep; if you do not redeem it, you must break its neck. Every firstborn male among your children you shall redeem” (Exod 13:11–13).
Leaving aside the rather arcane notion that if you don’t redeem your donkey you have to break its neck, we can see a principle at work here: just as God claimed the firstborn of the Egyptians, God lays claim to the firstborn of the Israelites, with the significant difference that God does not claim them with a plague, but offers their parents the opportunity to redeem them with money. Mary and Joseph, being observant Jews, bring Jesus to the temple, ostensibly to transact this redemption.
Another passage Luke refers to here has to do with women’s purification. Again, we butt up against some sentiments we no longer share, but we can at least get an idea of where Luke was coming from. In Leviticus 12, we read, “If a woman conceives and bears a male child, she shall be ceremonially unclean seven days; as at the time of her menstruation, she shall be unclean…. Her time of blood purification shall be thirty-three days; she shall not touch any holy thing, or come into the sanctuary, until the days of her purification are completed.” The passage goes on to say that if the woman bears a female child, she will be unclean for two weeks and her time of purification will be sixty-six days. I have a few problems with that distinction, being the father of two daughters myself. The ancient Israelites placed a higher value on boys than on girls. In too many places in our world today, the same thing is still true, and one of our jobs as the church is to declare unequivocally and repeatedly the equal value of women and men.
Anyway, back to Leviticus: “When the days of her purification are completed … she shall bring to the priest at the entrance to the tent of meeting a lamb in its first year for a burnt offering, and a pigeon or a turtledove for a sin offering” (Lev. 12:6). Luke continues in his portrayal of Mary and Joseph as exemplary keepers of the law of Moses.
A third biblical passage Luke mines in these verses comes from 1 Samuel. In the first chapter of that book we meet Hannah, a devout woman who nevertheless finds herself unable to conceive and bear a child. This condition was a source of great shame to women in those days, as everyone assumed infertility was the result of God’s judgment on the woman’s sin. To add insult to injury, one of Hannah’s husband’s other wives used to provoke her, never tiring of pointing out how many children she had borne and saying things like, “Where are your children, Hannah? Oh, riiight.”
Hannah prays and prays for a child, and in her prayer she promises that if God will be merciful and grant her a son, she will dedicate him to God’s service for life. God hears her prayer and grants her request. Just before singing a song of praise that, as we saw last week, sounds a whole lot like Mary’s Magnificat, she brings the child, Samuel, to the tabernacle along with an offering, and leaves him with the priests. She says, “For this child I prayed, and the Lord has granted me the petition that I made to him. Therefore I have lent him to the Lord; as long as he lives, he is given to the Lord” (1 Sam 1:27–28).
All of these resonances come together in Luke’s story of the holy family’s visit to the temple. As the other New Testament writers did, Luke crafts his story of Jesus in accordance with themes and memories from Israel’s past. Matthew does it in his account of Jesus’s birth. He sees Jesus as the new and better Moses, and the Lord of both Jews and Gentiles, so he has the child survive an attack from Herod that looks a lot like Pharaoh’s attempt to destroy the Israelites’ baby boys (including Moses), and he recounts a visit from Gentile magi who bring Jesus gifts fit for a king.
Luke’s gospel has its own special emphases, and we see them played out in his nativity story. For Luke, Jesus is, among other things, a prophet dedicated to God. Just as Hannah brings Samuel to the tabernacle and leaves him with the priests, Mary and Joseph bring Jesus to the temple. They do not leave him there, but neither do they pay the price for redemption of the firstborn, as Exodus instructs. Jesus belongs to God.
Another theme of Luke’s is that Jesus represents good news to the poor and marginalized. So Luke tells of visitors of a different kind. Instead of wise men bearing treasures, he brings some of the most despised members of society, shepherds, to visit the baby Jesus where he lies in what the carol “What Child Is This” calls the “mean estate” of a manger. Luke wants us to see right off the bat that the child Jesus, when he becomes the grown-up Jesus, will be a friend to the outcasts.
Luke emphasizes Jesus’s solidarity with the poor in another way, and it takes us back to “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” You may have noticed when I read the passage from Leviticus regarding the offering for a woman’s rite of purification that the woman was to bring “a lamb in its first year for a burnt offering, and a pigeon or a turtledove for a sin offering.” So what’s up with the two turtledoves and zero lambs that Mary brings? Well, if we read a bit more of that passage, we see this: “If she cannot afford a sheep, she shall take two turtledoves or two pigeons, one for a burnt offering and the other for a sin offering; and the priest shall make atonement on her behalf, and she shall be clean” (Lev 12:8).
Jesus, the Son of God hailed by angels as the Savior of the world, has parents so poor they can’t even afford a lamb for an offering. The King of kings is born into abject poverty.
After they make their offering, Mary and Joseph are walking through the massive temple courts, gawking at the buildings, when they encounter two more characters who further reinforce Luke’s understanding of the meaning of Jesus. Both of them are marginalized, apparently forgotten by everyone except God. Simeon, an old man who doesn't seem to have any family of his own, catches sight of the young family and something tells him this is what he has been waiting for. Luke says the Holy Spirit had told him he would not die until he had seen the Messiah, and this morning he woke up somehow knowing that today was the day. He homes in on Joseph and Mary, and shuffles over to them as fast as his arthritic knees will allow.
Without even introducing himself, he is so excited, he asks if he can hold the baby and, before they can respond, takes Jesus in his arms and begins praising God. Simeon’s song of praise, and the tears streaming down his cheeks into his beard, stop the parents from instinctively grabbing back the child. Instead, they stand there slack-jawed while the old man sings what has come to be known as the Nunc Dimittis: “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel” (vv. 29–32).
Simeon hands the baby back to his mother, then offers a blessing to both parents. Something about Mary stops him, however, and a troubled look comes over his face. He tells her, “This child is destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—” and here he pauses for a long time before continuing, “and a sword will pierce your own soul too” (vv. 34–35).
Here again we get a glimpse of Luke’s worldview. He considers Jesus to be the culmination of salvation history and the source of salvation to Jew and Gentile alike. Jesus is a sort of watershed; he forces people to make a choice about how they will respond to him. You can’t remain neutral when it comes to Jesus. You will either fall or rise. You will either love him or hate him, follow him or oppose him. And he will bring about salvation, but only by suffering. It will not be an easy road for Jesus and, Simeon perceives, his suffering will occasion great suffering for his mother as well. This has never occurred to him—his expectation of the Messiah has always been full of vindication and triumph, but the cost of that triumph is hidden from him until he looks into the eyes of this courageous but frightened young mother. Frederick Buechner captures the pathos of this moment perfectly when he writes, “[Simeon] would rather have bitten off his tongue than said it, but in that holy place he felt he had no choice. Then he handed her back the baby and departed in something less than the perfect peace he’d dreamed of all the long years of his waiting.”
The parents’ final encounter on this eventful day in the temple is with an octogenarian prophet named Anna. Luke describes her as a widow who “never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day” (v. 37). Here is yet another of Luke’s outcasts, come to hail Jesus as the Savior. In that time, to be a widow was to live a precarious existence indeed. Without a husband or son to protect and provide for her, a woman in that patriarchal culture was quite vulnerable. Luke says Anna never leaves the temple. This certainly points to her great piety, but it may also indicate that she has no place else to go. She is homeless.
We are not privy to her actual words, but Luke tells us that Anna “began to praise God and speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Israel” (v. 38). Like the shepherds before her, she becomes an evangelist, broadcasting the good news that a Savior has come to bring deliverance to Israel, and especially to those like her … like the shepherds … like Mary and Joseph … like all the lost and broken people forgotten by everyone but God.
Jesus still comes to bring deliverance to the poor and marginalized. There are the literal poor, of course—those who lack the resources to provide for themselves and their families—the refugees, the hungry, the persecuted. But there are other forms of poverty as well. Mother Teresa once told an interviewer:
The spiritual poverty of the Western world is much greater than the physical poverty of our people. You in the West have millions of people who suffer such terrible loneliness and emptiness. They feel unloved and unwanted. These people are not hungry in the physical sense, but they are in another way. They know they need something more than money, yet they don’t know what it is. What they are missing, really, is a living relationship with God.
Jesus came to bring deliverance to these poor people, too.
All of us are poor in one way or another. Some experience a poverty of food, water, and medicine. Others’ poverty takes the form of greed and selfishness. Some of us experience the poverty of friendlessness, chronic illness, depression, or addiction. Others experience the grinding poverty of resentment and an unwillingness to forgive. Some in our world have such poverty in their souls that they can do something like fire 1,100 rounds of ammunition into an outdoor concert in Las Vegas, killing nearly sixty people and wounding dozens more. That happened in October. Some have such poverty of soul that they can bomb a Shiite area of Kabul, Afghanistan, or fire on worshipers outside a Coptic church in Cairo. Between these last two attacks, which happened mere days ago, fifty innocent people were killed. Jesus came to bring deliverance even to these poor ones—victims and victimizers alike.
So much poverty in our world. So many of us who can’t afford more than two turtledoves. Lord Jesus, friend of the poor, deliver us.