“On that same night I will pass through Egypt and strike down every firstborn of both people and animals, and I will bring judgment on all the gods of Egypt. I am the Lord. The blood will be a sign for you on the houses where you are, and when I see the blood, I will pass over you. No destructive plague will touch you when I strike Egypt.”
Why would I begin a blog post about the Feast of the Presentation in the Temple with a passage from the Passover in Exodus? It’s a great question! For the people of Jesus’s day, many if not most of their rituals were connected to the pinnacle event of their history, the coming of their messiah, Moses, who rescued them from Pharoah and allowed their people the freedom to worship their God. The actions of the Holy Family on this particular day, are no exception.
On this day we celebrate an event that takes place in the scriptures, Luke 2:22-36, to be exact. In this passage, St. Joseph leads his new family up to the temple for the presentation of their first-born son. The purpose of this ritual was not just to remember an event that took place many centuries before, but to actually take part in it. Because the angel of death “passed over” the first-born sons of Israel after they sacrificed a lamb, and placed its blood on their doorpost, Mary and Joseph were now coming to the Temple to sacrifice a lamb and place its blood on the altar. In this way, the angel of death might pass over their son too. But Mary and Joseph were poor. So, a prescription in the law allowed them to sacrifice two small doves which cost about a penny, instead of a more expensive lamb.
It is here that we can see the beginnings of what the Church teaches around our own family prayer and sacrifice. Many parents are plagued by the question, "Why do we have to go to Church?" It’s a valid question and one which seldom has an answer beyond, “because I said so.” But if we look closely, on this feast day, we can begin to see the what and why of it all. Because Jesus is the new Moses, the new Messiah.
Viewed properly, the Mass is not just repeating some old ritual. Just as Mary and Joseph are taking their son to the temple to take part in the saving acts of the Exodus and the Passover, so too are we taking our children to Mass in order to allow them to take part in the New Exodus, the New Passover, the saving acts of Jesus on the cross. Just as the first Passover allowed Israel to save the lives of their first-born sons, so too this new Passover sacrifice is what leads to death passing over our family, defeating death once and for all. We don’t just repeat it. We participate in it as it is represented to us at each and every Mass! Further, like the old exodus allowed the people of God to eventually make their way to the holy land of Israel, so too the new Exodus allows us to make our way to the new holy land in heaven. This is not just some metaphor, but the genuine act itself, and our faithful participation determines if we will choose to be a part of God’s people or if we prefer to return to our old ways in Egypt.
It is for this reason that we hear in our Gospel for today, the words of Simeon who has been awaiting the messiah for his whole life:
“Now, Master, you may let your servant go
in peace, according to your word,
for my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you prepared in sight of all the peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and glory for your people Israel.” (Luke 2:29-32)
Will we take part, as Simeon does, in the salvation being offered to us through Jesus Christ or will we turn and walk away?