Chapter II The Presentation in the Temple


Four Circumstances of the Infancy—Order of Events—The Circumcision—

The Name Jesus—The Presentation in the Temple—Simeon—Anna

FOUR events only of our Lord’s infancy are narrated by the Gospels—namely, the Circumcision, the Presentation in the Temple, the Visit of the Magi, and the Flight into Egypt. Of these the first two occur only in St. Luke, the last two only in St. Matthew. Yet no single particular can be pointed out in which the two narratives are necessarily contradictory. If, on other grounds, we have ample reason to accept the evidence of the Evangelists, an evidence given by witnesses of unimpeachable honesty, we have every right to believe that, to whatever cause the confessed fragmentariness of their narratives may be due, those narratives may fairly be regarded as supplementing each other. It is as dishonest to assume the existence of irreconcilable discrepancies, as it is to suggest the adoption of impossible harmonies. The accurate and detailed sequence of biographical narrative from the earliest years of life was a thing wholly unknown to the Jews, and alien alike from their style and temperament. Anecdotes of infancy, incidents of childhood, indications of future greatness in boyish years, are a very rare phenomenon in ancient literature. It is only since the dawn of Christianity that childhood has been surrounded by a halo of romance.

The exact order of the events which occurred before the return to Nazareth can only be a matter of uncertain conjecture. The Circumcision was on the eighth day after the birth (Luke i. 59; ii. 21); the Purification was thirty-five days after the circumcision (Lev. xii. 4); the visit of the Magi was when “Jesus was born in Bethlehem” (Matt. ii. 1); and the Flight into Egypt immediately after their departure. The supposition that the return from Egypt was previous to the Presentation in the Temple, though not absolutely impossible, seems most improbable. To say nothing of the fact that such a postponement would have been a violation (however necessary) of the Levitical law, it would either involve the supposition that the Purification was long postponed, which seems to be contradicted by the twice-repeated expression of St. Luke (ii. 22, 39); or it supposes that forty days allowed sufficient time for the journey of the Wise Men from “the East,” and for the flight to, and return from, Egypt.

It involves, moreover, the extreme improbability of a return of the Holy Family to Jerusalem—a town but six miles distant from Bethlehem—within a few days after an event so frightful as the Massacre of the Innocents. Although co supposition is entirely free from the objections which necessarily arise out of our ignorance of the circumstances, it seems almost certain that the Flight into Egypt, and the circumstances which led to it, did not occur till after the presentation. For forty days, therefore, the Holy Family were left in peace and obscurity, in a spot surrounded by so many scenes of interest, and hallowed by so many traditions of their family and race. Of the Circumcision no mention is made by the apocryphal gospels, except an amazingly repulsive one in the Arabic Gospel of the Infancy. It was not an incident which would be likely to interest those whose object it was to intrude their own dogmatic fancies into the sacred story. But to the Christian it has its own solemn meaning. It shows that Christ came not to destroy the Law, but to fulfill. Thus it became Him to fulfill all righteousness. Thus early did He suffer pain for our sakes, to teach us the spiritual circumcision—the circumcision of the heart—the circumcision of all our bodily senses. As the East catches the sunset colors of the West, so Bethlehem is a prelude to Calvary, and even the Infant’s cradle is tinged with a crimson reflection from the Redeemer’s cross. It was on this day, too, that Christ first publicly received that name of Jesus, which the command of the angel Gabriel had already announced. “Hoshea” meant salvation; Joshua, “whose salvation is Jehovah”; Jesus is but the English modification of the Greek form of the name. At this time it was a name extraordinarily common among the Jews. It was dear to them as having been borne by the great Leader who had conducted them into victorious possession of the promised Land, and by the great High Priest, who had headed the band of exiles who returned from Babylon; but henceforth—not for Jews only, but for all the world—it was destined to acquire a significance infinitely more sacred as the mortal designation of the Son of God. The Hebrew “Messiah” and the Greek “Christ” were names which represented His office as the Anointed Prophet, Priest and King; but “Jesus” was the personal name which He bore as one who “emptied Himself of His glory” to become a sinless man among sinful men.

On the fortieth day after the nativity—until which time she could not leave the house—the Virgin presented herself with her Babe for their Purification in the Temple at Jerusalem.  “Thus, then,” says St. Bonaventura, “do they bring the Lord of the Temple to the Temple of the Lord.”  The proper offering on such occasions was  a yearling lamb for a burnt-offering, and a young pigeon or a turtle-dove for a sin-offering; but with that beautiful tenderness, which is so marked a characteristic of the Mosaic legislation, those who were too poor for so comparatively costly an offering, were allowed to bring instead two turtle-doves or two young pigeons.  With this humble offering Mary presented herself to the priest.  At the same time Jesus as being a first-born son, was presented to God, and, in accordance with the law, was redeemed from the necessity of Temple service by the ordinary payment of five shekels of the sanctuary (Num. xviii. 15,16), amounting in value to about fifteen shillings.  Of the purification and presentation no further details are given to us, but this visit to the Temple was rendered memorable by a double incident—the recognition of the Infant Savior by Simeon and Anna.

Of Simeon we are simply told that he was a just and devout Israelite endowed with the gift of prophecy, and that having received divine intimation that his death would not take place till he had seen the Messiah, he entered under some inspired impulse into the Temple, and there, recognizing the Holy Child, took Him in his arms, and burst into that glorious song—the “Nunc Dimitis”–which for eighteen centuries has been so dear to Christian hearts. The Prophecy that the Babe should be “a light to lighten the Gentiles,” no less than the strangeness of the circumstances, may well have caused astonishment to His parents, from whom the aged prophet did not conceal their own future sorrows—warning the Virgin Mother especially, both of the deadly opposition which that Divine Child was destined to encounter, and of the national perils which should agitate the days to come.

Legend has been busy with the name of Simeon. In the Arabic Gospel of the Infancy, he recognized Jesus because he sees Him shining like a pillar of light in His mother’s arms. Nicephorus tells us that, in reading the Scriptures, he had stumbled at the verse, “Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son” (Isa. vii. 14), and had then received the intimation that he should not die till he had seen it fulfilled. All attempts to identify him with other Simeons have failed. Had he been a High Priest, or President of the Sanhedrin, St. Luke would not have introduced him so casually as “a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon.” The statement in the Gospel of the Nativity of Mary that he was 113 years old is wholly arbitrary, as is the conjecture that the silence of the Talmud about him is due to his Christian proclivities. He could not have been Rabban Simeon, the son of Hillel, and father of Gamaliel, who would not at this time have been so old. Still less could he have been the far earlier Simeon the Just, who was believed to have prophesied the destruction of Jerusalem, and who was the last survivor of the great Sanhedrin. It is curious that we should be told nothing respecting him, while of Anna the prophetess several interesting particulars are given, and among others that she was of the tribe of Asher—a valuable proof that tribal relations still lived affectionately in the memory of the people.

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