Malachi and Luke have spoken to us about purification. The Hebrews, like many ancient cultures, were interested in ritual purity. Life was a mystery, and anything associated with the beginning or ending of life was surrounded by ritual: birth, death, loss or exchange of body fluids, etc. So, after the birth of Jesus, Mary needed to participate in some ceremonies to be purified after giving birth. There was also a matter of a ceremonial “buying back” of first born sons from God, since the Law stipulated that every first born male belongs to God.
Luke is perhaps a bit confused about all the details of the ritual in the story, but that is not surprising, seeing how our own traditions and customs have changed over time. The truly striking thing in this story, though, has nothing to do with any temple ceremonies – the ceremonies only lead up to the last couple of verses: “When they had finished everything required by the Law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of the Lord was upon him.” That is an awfully ordinary ending to a story that includes angels announcing the pregnancy, angels announcing the birth, wise men offering expensive gifts, and prophecies sung by two old saints. After all that: they go home, like any other family. But the very ordinariness of it is one of the biggest causes of joy that we have: Jesus is just like us. Jesus is God, of course, but Jesus is also fully human.
We don’t have a lot of details about the family after they left the temple and went home. The information we do have suggests more ordinariness, with only a few hints here and there that God in the flesh was growing up in their home. It would be safe to assume that Jesus had a childhood and adolescence similar to other boys in Nazareth – perhaps he played games and received the schooling that was common at the time. Maybe as a teenager he was moody, perhaps he had a crush on someone. All the while, he remained fully human, and fully God.
The Letter to the Hebrews we just read speaks of how Jesus experienced life the same way as the rest of us: “Therefore, he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect…”. The letter then explains why he had to experience all of human life: “so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people.” Gregory of Nazianzus puts it this way:” What is not assumed is not redeemed.” Thinking about it can lead to a lot of speculation about the full extent of Jesus’s experiences: did he experience every single emotion that anyone has ever felt, did he experience every single temptation that anyone has ever had? Maybe he did – maybe we all do. What we do know is that God loves us and likes us so much that he became one of us , so that, in a way we can never fully understand, he could bring us back to himself and back to the fullness of life that we toss away through pride, pettiness, and greed.
The Letter to the Hebrews goes on to say: “Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.” None of us can honestly say to anyone else: “I know how you feel.” God can say that, though, because God knows exactly how we feel. Once a friend’s daughter asked the adults sitting in the room if God cries. No one answered, we were so blown away by the profound question of a kindergarten student. The answer, of course, is – Yes, God cries. God cries whenever we do, and thankfully, God cries at times that we can’t or simply won’t cry. God really does know how we feel. God took on all our human experience willingly – the good and the bad. Just as Jesus was presented in the temple, so we can now present all of our life to God – the good and the bad, and God will understand it and accept it. Every tear, every sigh, every lump in the throat and knot in the stomach, every trembling hand and knee – we can know full well that God knows and God understands. Even at our weakest moments when we are ashamed of ourselves, we can stand before God and present ourselves as an acceptable sacrifice. When we are not too sure if we can follow Jesus by carrying our crosses, God understands that, too, because when Jesus was carrying his cross, he stumbled and had to have help.
Of course, we can’t simply fall into complacency or despair, because for the same reason God knows our weaknesses, God also knows our strengths. God knows that we can persevere and achieve amazing things because he did, and he offers us help in doing all that we set out to do.
So here we have little baby Jesus, being presented in the temple to God. Like Simeon and Anna, we can rejoice in this light to enlighten the nations. We can also present ourselves to God, with the assurance that we are perfectly acceptable, since we are God’s temple, and Jesus our high priest has purified us. AMEN