February 5 2023 “Jesus Redeemed and Presented”
Slide of Bernward’s Doors, Presentation in the Temple
The firstborn son got favored treatment–the larger share of inheritance and the presumption that he will take over leading the family when his father is dead. The Torah also required a trip to Jerusalem to present the baby for redemption. But redeem from whom? And for what?
Mary of Nazareth and her husband Joseph made the trek and purchased two sacrificial birds in the temple courtyard, having exchanged their Roman coins for Temple money in the same marketplace where 30 years later Jesus would protest angrily. They stood in line, maybe took a number, or had their names put on a waiting list, and eventually the priest doing firstborns took the birds, prayed over the baby, and announced that the debt to God had been paid. Today among very observant Jews, the father gives five silver coins to the kohen, a member of a family descended from priests. In the church, Jesus’ redemption day is usually called the Presentation, because of what happened when the redemption ritual was over.
Slide of Anna and Simeon by Laura James
Anna and Simeon were not priests. They were bystanders, in the Temple for their own reasons.
Slide of St. Simeon the God-Receiver icon
Simeon was a very religious guy: he said all the required daily prayers and counted himself lucky to live in Jerusalem. He could go to the Temple any time, and something made him go there that day. He’d been given an outrageous promise by the Holy Spirit: we don’t know if it was a dream, some vision of certainty, or a sign in the stars, but he counted on it being true. He would live to see the Messiah. And today this couple with northern accents turn up, waiting to present their baby for redemption. “Paying God back” for the safe and healthy delivery of their much-beloved son with a couple of pigeons. We don’t know how he knew, but this is yet another of those occasions when strangers saw something extraordinary in him. The wise men followed a star. The shepherds looked for a baby in a feed trough. The unborn John the Baptist jumped. Simeon somehow asked the startled parents permission, and took little Jesus in his arms. He told God, “I am seeing your promise in his little face. Now I can die in peace.”
Before the parents could ask what kind of a strange fellow this was, he blessed them: Your son is destined for big things. He will cause many to rise and to fall. And he will be resisted. And you, my dear girl, your heart will be pierced.
She and Joseph had both received messengers from God about Jesus’ identity, his godliness, his mission. But they had only talked about it with each other. How could this stranger know what is going to happen to our baby? And to us?
Slide, Hannah the Prophetess by Rembrandt van Rijn
The other stranger was Anna who virtually lived in the Temple courtyard, said countless prayers, talked to people, and sometimes fussed over babies. She said to the people nearby, this child that was just redeemed? He will be a redeemer. You know how we always pray for Jerusalem, and ask God to get our sacred city back from Caesar? I tell you, this child is going to grow up and make that happen. How did she know? But she did. Something about him radiated strength.
Jesus went on to have a great childhood: he grew up strong, loving, and wise. His parents and other elders taught him well, and by the time he was twelve, he was impressing the teachers back in the same Temple. By then he had already learned to know God as his parent–no disrespect to his folks. This would become, when he grew up, one of his greatest teachings: God is the most loving parent you can imagine, and this whole planet, all the plants, animals, and people are the children of God.
It’s ironic that Jesus, who called God Abba, or daddy, never got the chance to be an Abba himself. Many of his most admirable followers, too. Nurturing a family is one way to walk the path of love, but so is shepherding a business, knitting together a neighborhood, or a life of public service.
The idea of redeeming a child from God seems like payment, but that can’t be right. Enslavers paid for people, which is why it is so wrong, treating humans like objects. But Joseph and Mary weren’t purchasing Jesus from God. It was more like a ritualized thanksgiving.
On the other hand, let’s be real: we do pay. Somewhere in my box of keepsakes is an itemized hospital bill from September 1955, listing the expenses of my mom having me:
“room – 7 days”
Blue Cross paid the bill; my dad’s work paid the premium. But I wasn’t purchased from Old Providence Hospital in Detroit.
And how about in vitro and international adoptions? The fees get you the chance to be a parent. But the cost is way more than two pigeons or five silver coins, even allowing for inflation.
The Qur’an teaches that while our bodies develop from pairs of cells, our souls come from God, and to God we should return. The Lebanese American poet Khalil Gibran also had no children, but like all of us, he started life as one. He wrote:
Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.
Repeat Slide of Anna and Simeon
The Jewish ritual of redeeming a firstborn son in the Temple and the story of Jesus’ parents’ experience there is not a major episode in his life. But it points to the duties we always owe to the next generation, and reminds us that God is deeply involved in how we pass along our humanity.
We don’t own the next generation. We do owe them some things: a good education, care of their mental and physical health, a working democracy, a fairer society, a path away from burning so much carbon. We cannot dictate the politics of the next generation. Or their religion. Or their cooking. Or their parenting. We should resist the temptations to control them and to shield them from the consequences of their mistakes and failures.
From us and from our divine parent, they will inherit the world.