A sermon on the Purification of the Virgin Mary from Luke 2:22-39
Hymn of Preparation: “Home,” from the Wiz.
There’s no place like home. There’s no place like home. There’s no place like home. For good and for ill, there’s no place like home. Sometimes we just want to go home. Sometimes we just want to run away from home. Some just want a home to turn to, loving arms to embrace and comfort us.
How does it feel
How does it feel
To be on your own
With no direction home
Like a complete unknown
Like a rolling stone?
For many the emblem of home is the kitchen, often mama’s kitchen table. The table is a sacred place. It is the altar of the home. Home. Table. Altar. Presence. Themes of the Presentation – add in the light of Epiphany, candles on the altar and table for Candlemass and we’ve got the full suite. We could almost pronounce the benediction. Almost.
These festivals may not be your festivals, and that’s all right because obscure liturgy is the order of the day in the gospel. Luke is counting on that obscurity and the good will of his hearers and readers to accept his liturgical reimaginings. The Feast of the Presentation is a combination liturgical midrash and time travel. The baby Jesus was a newborn at Christmas, a toddler at Epiphany, an adult at his baptism and is now a babe in arms again. He was eight days old in the previous verse just before our lesson at his bris, his circumcision. He is forty days and forty nights old in the first verse of today’s gospel when he comes to the temple remembered here today. (Does being brought to the temple at his mother’s breast at the appointed time for the appointed service count as “suddenly the Lord will come to his temple” from Malachi?) Until Malachi, only Isaiah called God “the Lord” using that particular word, ha’adon, and only five times; each of those times God came as the Holy God of Warriors, or Lord of Hosts. I don’t think Sweet Baby Jesus was that cranky.
But that’s the story isn’t it? That this baby was that God. That is certainly Luke’s point. And if he has to rewrite Torah to make his point, so be it. Luke has that it was “their” purification, but the Torah only calls for the purification of the mother after childbirth. That is the Torah-obligation; there is no liturgy prescribed for a “presentation.” Luke subtly acknowledges the change, they were there for “their purification,” and brought the baby along, secondary clause.
This is the purification of Miryam, Mary, forty days after giving birth to a male child – a different interval would be called for in case of a daughter. Some scholars reckon the difference as an indication of the different amounts of labor each contributes to the society. She is taboo for seven days, hence her availability for the circumcision on the eighth day and restricted to a lesser degree for thirty-three days. She owes a restoration offering – the translation of hattat as “sin” here misses the mark; she has not sinned and not just because she was a virgin mother. She will also contribute to the ongoing, established twice-daily regular burnt offerings. The restoration offering is a small bird but the burnt offering was a lamb, because God really likes a good barbeque, is something of a red meat eater or smeller and is attracted to and soothed by the smell of roasting flesh according to the Torah. If a woman was too poor to afford a lamb for the burnt offering she could double up on the poultry offering as did the Blessed Virgin. (Is that why you have to have chicken for a church supper?)
It is her offering, her practice of her Judaism, her fidelity to Torah that we celebrate today. Today the Virgin is contributing the sacred meal, setting a most holy kosher table. She sets the table for the holy meal and feeds her family – not Joseph or the Holy Infant here, but Elizabeth and Zachariah are priest clan, their rations come from the holy table. Mary has fed them today. When Joseph disappears from the pages of the Gospel it will be Mary who keeps a kosher Jewish home, celebrates the High Holy Days from Rosh HaShannah to Yom Kippur and the pilgrim festivals Passover and Pentecost all at the altar of her table. Where do you think Jesus learned the importance of table fellowship or even how to set a table? Today’s offerings mark her return to her community, she can go home and be welcomed in the homes of others and at their tables and show off her new baby.
The Virgin’s offerings mark her transformation and restoration. It is her day. In the Church, the language Presentation rather than Purification came about in part as a desire to move away from the old concept of blood taboo that has been particularly stigmatizing to women. And that’s not a bad thing. But in naming the feast the Presentation of Jesus, the Church has moved the focus of the feast from the Virgin Mother to her Son, making it one more literal, wooden, proof-text. The Church couldn’t help itself. It read “suddenly he will come to his temple” from Malachi through the lens of the John the Baptist and perhaps also through the eyes of today’s gospel in which Luke adds in the separate tradition about the redemption of the firstborn. And rewrites Torah, again.
Exodus 13:2 calls for the consecration of “everything” and therefore everyone that “opens the womb,” Hebrew scholars, that’s kol, “all,” “each,” “every.” All the firstborn are holy to God, not just “males” as Luke has rewritten the Torah: Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord. The Torah doesn’t say “male.” Not even the LXX has “male” there, nor even the Targum. All of us who are firstborn are holy to God, including me and the Blessed Virgin. Sorry little brother. Luke has mixed and mangled in the tradition about the redemption or ransom of firstborn children from later in Exodus. That’s tricky because God calls for the sacrifice of the firstborn animals and ransom of firstborn human males but girls are not ransomed, but fortunately not sacrificed either. Now there is a Jewish ritual of redeeming the firstborn son, pidyon haben, but it was not practiced in the time of Jesus.
Being included or excluded from religious rituals and language because of your gender, race, orientation, theological convictions or other attributes is part of what makes a sacred community feel like home or utterly alien. Many look at the purification of women after childbirth and find it to be completely alienating. But perhaps it was a welcome and welcoming experience for the Blessed Virgin. She was returning home.
The temple and its liturgies offered a home space for the itinerant family. Home in Galilee was behind them and ahead of them for now; the Egyptian sojourn a couple-few years away. But the temple was familiar, beloved, home to their God and the visible manifestation of their faith. Home. Table. Altar. Presence. After immersion, separately in one of the mikveh pools on the Temple Mount, they come through the Huldah gates across from the tomb of the prophet Huldah, the only woman buried in the temple complex. Surely the prophet Anna prayed at her grave. The gates are twelve great-stones high – I was only two and a half stones high when I stood at the gate. There are another six stones above the twelve-stone gate in the outer wall. And it is only a third as high as the 60 foot (40 cubit) Holy of Holies. The Virgin would be half the size of my fingernail here.
Passing through the prophet’s gates they would cross the Court of the Gentiles where they could buy their offering and entered through one of many gates, perhaps the Gate of Offering (mid, back, right), into the Court of the Women – which wasn’t just for women. Here they would have met Anna and Simeon. Somewhere on the stairs leading up to Nicanor’s Gate – rich folk have been naming stuff in God’s house after themselves for a long time – on the stairs Virgin would lay her hand on her offering and hand it to the priest who would take it through the gate into the court of the Israelites where the outdoor altar was. Joseph could have gone with him and taken the baby. The wall between the two was open as were the gates. Mary could have watched the sacrifice and offering. On the other side, in the court of the Israelite Men there were cages and kennels and the altar so broad and wide a dozen men could walk around tending three or four different fires, each big enough to burn a whole ox. They had a ramp to drag the dead weight of the big ones up, having slit their throats, hung them on hooks and drained the blood before placing them on the altar.
All of this because of the One present, dwelling within the soaring height of the Holy of Holies. Home. Table. Altar. Presence. The temple was God’s home on earth. The altar of burnt sacrifice was God’s table. The Holy of Holies was God’s private space where God was present within. It is the presence of God that makes a building a temple just as it’s the presence of love and family that makes a house a home.
A chair is still a chair
Even when there’s no one sittin’ there
But a chair is not a house
And a house is not a home.
When we gather at this table, will you see yourself as coming home? Visiting? A welcome guest? A tolerable and tolerated guest? Or do you feel unwelcome? This is Black History Month when home takes on a different resonance for me than it may for you. I am reminded that I have not always been welcome at this table, that I have not always been seen as fit to preside at this table. But I have been extended a radical welcome, anchored in the womb of the Virgin Mother, the kitchen space where Baker-Woman God crafted the Bread of Life in her very body and blood.
Let me extend to you that radical welcome. It is the welcome of today’s gospel. The point of all Luke’s rewriting is this: The Holy God of the awesome, towering, holy temple has come into our midst as Mary’s child. And we who are gentiles, who would be stoned if we crossed the low row or tombstone-shaped stones at the inner boundary of the Court of the Gentiles, we are welcome. We are welcome as women and men together, like Anna and Simeon. We are welcome whether we are called by God like the prophet Hannah, Anna or are lay folk like Simeon. We are welcome whether our offerings are the stuff of our poverty like the Virgin, or the sign of privilege like Nicanor. We are welcome. You are welcome. Welcome home.
We begin with the simple historical fact that Jesus was a Jew… It is impossible for Jesus to be understood outside of the sense of community which Israel held with God… The Christian Church has tended to overlook its Judaic origins, but the fact is that Jesus of Nazareth was a Jew of Palestine when he went about his Father’s business, announcing the acceptable year of the Lord. (Thurman, Howard. Jesus and the Disinherited. pp 15-16, 1949)
The Church has struggled with Jesus’ Jewish identity, sometimes violently, sometimes lethally at the expense of the lives and property of Jews. One of those responses has been anti-Judaism – related to, but distinct from, anti-Semitism. Anti-Judaism minimalizes, trivializes, demonizes and/or declares Judaism incomplete, invalid or insufficient. This is sometimes called supercessionism, the idea that Christianity replaces and completes Judaism. However, the Christians who hold to this theology vehemently disagree with the same notion in Islam.
The History Channel’s blockbuster production of the bible sadly perpetuates the Christian heresy of anti-Judaism in its depiction of Jesus. First, the producers erased Jesus’ ethnic identity by refusing to cast an actor who shares Jesus semitic ancestry and looks like the semitic peoples of the world in North Africa, the Middle East and West Asia. They cast a European for Jesus and for most of the ancient Israelites (see my previous commentaries here and here) and for most of Jesus’ disciples. However, they cast semitic-looking actors for the Pharisees and a Moroccan for Satan (for more on that click here). This identifies the Israelites, Jesus and his immediate followers with whiteness over and against the Jews. The construct of whiteness is a thoroughly modern one from which Jews have been excluded and to which they have been included as their social and political fortunes wax and wane with regard to the dominant culture.
Second, Jesus’ religious Jewishness is erased in the production. Jesus is a Torah-observant Jew who wears tzit-tzit, the holy fringe on his garments. (See Num 15:38–39; Matt 9:20; 14:36; Mark 6:56; Luke 8:44) He does not wear it in the production contrary to the Gospels – not even in the synagogue! Likewise the History Channel Jesus does not cover his head in public or even when teaching. As an observant fringe-wearing Jew and Torah teacher Jesus would cover his head – and not with a pashmina as he does that one time in the synagogue scene (see image above immediately following synagogue service).
The synagogue service (taken from Luke 4:16-30, greatly abridged) perversely misrepresents Jewish liturgy, worship and tradition. There is a cantor chanting in a lovely trope (musical intonation). But what is he chanting? Well, he starts with:
וַיְדַבֵּר מֹשֶׁה אֶל־בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל
And Moses spoke to the Israelites…This is the beginning of a couple of verses in the Torah, Lev 24:23; Num 9:4; 17:6) but the cantor does not chant Torah. He chants part of a medieval hymn,
לכה דודי לקראת כלה פני שבת נקבלה
Come my beloved, to greet the bride, and welcome Shabbat. That song would not be composed for more than a thousand years yet and would be sung on Friday night as Shabbat breaks, not afterwards on Saturday as depicted. Jesus is called to the bema to read from the scroll of Isaiah with the words “y’amod Jesus.” However, his Hebrew name includes his father’s name. No Jew is called to the bema or Torah without a full name – naming practices vary contemporarily with regard to including mothers but in the first century Jesus would have been called up as “Yeshua ben Yosef.” Omitting his father’s name is tantamount to calling him a bastard. While there are scenes in the gospels in which Jesus’ paternity is questioned and challenged, this is not one of them.
The lethal legacy of anti-Judaism means that Christians cannot be cavalier about misrepresentations of Judaism with any ethical integrity. Johanna van Wijk-Bos writes convictingly in the preface to her 2005 Making Wise the Simple: The Torah in Christian Faith and Practice, “After Auschwitz” Christian teaching and preaching must take place in the light of what was perpetrated in Christian lands by Christian hands, and must take account of the ultimate consequences of Christian “teaching of contempt” for Judaisam and the Jews. (p xviii)
Theologically speaking, Jesus was and is still a Jew – from the perspective of a confessing Christian who believes that he is very much alive. Jesus’ Judaism is manifest in his teaching and preaching, and in his love of God and for scripture. Historically speaking, the processes by which the followers of Jesus became known as Christians, distinct from Jews and primarily Gentile took centuries and included many reversals and struggles.
Emptying Jesus of Nazareth of his ethnic and religious identity and their markers leaves a hollow shell that can be filled with anything at all – insert dominant culture here – and devalues and denies the specificity of the Incarnation.
The third episode of the History Channel's ratings-shattering series, The Bible, moves from the Israelite scriptures of Judaism and Christianity to the New Testament added by Christians to the canon we share with Judaism. I have previously responded to some of the issues of the series here and here and here. Today I'd like to reflect on some of the differences between the scriptures that Jesus knew and preached and the ones presented and, to some degree, created by the History Channel. (That the scriptures of Jesus were set in Africa – Egypt and West Asia – ancient Israel and Canaan and not Europe as their casting claims, must be repeated.)
To begin with, there was not a single collection of bound scripture in the time of Jesus. (Not that HC claims that there was.) There were collections of vellum (leather) scrolls – not papyrus as shown in tonight's episode. And, all of the scrolls that would become biblical books were not yet in the canon, that is on an authorized table of contents. This passage from Luke identifies the bible as Jesus knew it (or as the author of the gospel knew it, or both):
Luke 24:44 Jesus said to his disciples, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the Torah of Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms must be fulfilled.”
Jesus is describing the tripartite canon of Judaism in which the Torah (Pentateuch in Greek) is Genesis through Deuteronomy, the Prophets are the Former Prophets: Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings – the latter two being single, double books, the Latter Prophets: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and the Twelve, (Hosea – Malachi) and, the Writings beginning with the Psalms. (Curiously, the rest of the Writings seem to be in flux: Proverbs, Job, the Song, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther, Daniel – not a prophet in Jewish tradition, the double books of Ezra-Nehemiah and Chronicles.) Notice all of the scripture from the third division that has not yet made it into the canon by the time of Jesus – nothing other than Psalms.
The iconic scholar-saint, preacher-pastor, mystic and mentor, Howard Thurman, wrote of the "religion of Jesus" including the scriptures of Jesus in his groundbreaking volume Jesus and the Disinherited. That book shaped my own vocation as a biblical scholar. The scriptures of Jesus were the scriptures of the Hebrew Bible (including those of the Aramaic Targums and perhaps to some degree those translated into Greek, the Septuagint.) Christians have problematically traditionally referred to the scriptures of Jesus as the "Old" Testament or Covenant, in part because of language in Jeremiah and other places that God would do something new in the world including a "new covenant." As a result, Christians have struggled to articulate the relationship between the two testaments. Some have completely rejected the First Testament, except perhaps for the book of Psalms, and have been rejected by the Church as heretics, frequently called "Marcionites" after a bishop infamous for his rejection of the texts that were the scriptures of the same Jesus he confessed as Lord. Others look to the scriptures of the First Testament as a series of predictions – sometimes coded – pointing to Jesus of Nazareth as the Son of God, serving little other purpose. Others receive them as fully scripture, inspired and authoritative as are the newer texts in the collection.
As a Hebrew Bible scholar who loves the Hebrew (and Aramaic and Greek) scriptures of the First Testament, I am always troubled when they are given short shrift, whether by preachers in Lectionary traditions who think preaching the gospel means preaching (nearly if not completely exclusively) from Matthew, Mark, Luke and John or representations of the biblical narrative in print and other media like the History Channel's production that reduce the First Testament to a mere prologue to the "real" story. I am mindful that Jesus preached the gospel without the lectionary, and he did so from the scriptures of Israel, the scriptures of Judaism.
The History Channel begins the Jesus story midway through the third of five episodes. Yet anyone whose ever held – let alone read – a Christian bible knows that the pagination of the First Testament is more than double the Second. There are 23,261 verses in the shorter version of the First Testament used by most Protestants in the 66-book bible and 7941 verses in the New Testament. By the way, the Protestant Bible is the shortest and newest of Christian bibles and used by the fewest number of Christians around the world, yet its adherents – particularly in the American context – are the loudest. Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican and Episcopal bibles like the original 1611 King James Version of the bible, Martin Luther's revolutionary translation and the earliest manuscript with both testaments, Codex Sinaticus, have 72 to 80 books or more and are read by the vast majority of Christians on the planet, more than a billion and a half people. There is perhaps the most diversity among the Orthodox with Ethiopian Orthodox including Jubilees and the Books of Enoch and some Slav churches including all four Esdrases. There are 29,474 verses in longer versions of the First Testament, including the Deutero-canonical (or Apocryphal Books). Many are unaware that the shorter Protestant bible was created in the new America, during the revolutionary war when a printer took it upon himself without the authority of a church council to print a bible whose contents he chose. That bible, The Aitken Bible is also significant for having been printed with the authority of the Continental Congress.
In other words, 75% of the bible we have is the bible of Jesus and of his people, the foundation of his ministry; 25% of Christian bibles tell and interpret the story of Jesus. The History Channel has ignored those proportions. To be sure, they are entitled to tell the story however they choose. But their choices are doing nothing to counter the rampant biblical illiteracy in this country.
For example, after watching the most recent episode will viewers understand the context and content of the Immanuel prophecy? That it was of a child who had already been conceived in Isaiah's time? That before that child learned how to tell good from bad the kings arrayed against Ahaz would be gone? For Christians, those verses also prophecy of Jesus, but they never lose their original meaning in their original context.
Is 7:14 …Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. 15 He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. 16 For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted.
This Epiphany as we reflect on the ways in which Jesus the Messiah is revealed I celebrate that his life giving Body and Blood were consubstantiated in the Virgin's womb and that he is Son of God, Son of Woman and Child of Earth. While hailed as the Son of David, Jesus is also the Son of Ruth, the only woman who figures in both his and David's genealogy.
Ironically, most of the women in biblical genealogies are erased even as their reproductive labor and child-nurture perpetuate and preserve their people. The genealogy below reclaims women whose names are given in the scriptures and re-inserts them in Matthew's genealogy.
A genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of Miriam, the daughter of Anna:
Sarah was the mother of Isaac,
And Rebekah was the mother of Jacob,
Leah was the mother of Judah,
Tamar was the mother of Perez.
The names of the mothers of Hezron, Ram, Amminadab,
Nahshon and Salmon have been lost.
Rahab was the mother of Boaz,
and Ruth was the mother of Obed.
Obed’s wife, whose name is unknown, bore Jesse.
The wife of Jesse was the mother of David.
Bathsheba was the mother of Solomon,
Naamah, the Ammonite, was the mother of Rehoboam.
Maacah was the mother of Abijam and the grandmother of Asa.
Azubah was the mother of Jehoshaphat.
The name of Jehoram’s mother is unknown.
Athaliah was the mother of Ahaziah,
Zibiah of Beersheba, the mother of Joash.
Jecoliah of Jerusalem bore Uzziah,
Jerusha bore Jotham; Ahaz’s mother is unknown.
Abi was the mother of Hezekiah,
Hephzibah was the mother of Manasseh,
Meshullemeth was the mother of Amon,
Jedidah was the mother of Josiah.
Zebidah was the mother of Jehoiakim,
Nehushta was the mother of Jehoiachin,
Hamutal was the mother of Zedekiah.
Then the deportation of Babylon took place.
After the deportation to Babylon
the names of the mothers go unrecorded.
These are their sons:
Jechoniah, Shealtiel, Zerubbabel,
Abiud, Eliakim, Azor and Zadok,
Achim, Eliud, Eleazar,
Matthan, Jacob and Joseph, the husband of Miriam.
Of her was born Jesus who is called Christ.
The sum of generations is there: fourteen from Sarah to David’s mother;
fourteen from Bathsheba to the Babylonian deportation;
and fourteen from the Babylonian deportation to Miriam, the mother of Christ.
“A Genealogy of Jesus Christ: Alternative to Matthew 1” was complied by Ann Patrick Ware of the Women’s Liturgy Group of New York, who has graciously put this text in the public domain for all to use.