Luke recalls when Jesus, Mary, and Joseph travel to Jerusalem and enter the temple. The purpose of their family’s trip was to abide by two Jewish rituals, which their family would have wanted to fulfill, as they sought to live into the laws of their faith tradition. The first ritual relates to the purification of a woman after childbirth, and the second ritual relates to the presentation of a couple’s firstborn son. While in the temple, Jesus and his parents encounter Simeon, a holy man, and then Anna, a prophet. Simeon and Anna were both filled with joy and hope, that through this child all of God’s people would know the transformative and healing love of God. When they laid their eyes on Jesus, they knew, all of the laws and teachings of scripture were fulfilled. Jesus is God’s love made manifest, and it meant that everything was changing.
Yet there is something a bit peculiar about this story. As it only only occurs in Luke’s gospel. Luke primarily wrote to gentiles, or rather folks outside the Jewish community. So here you have Luke, who is quite possibly a gentile Christian, describing the fulfillment of Jewish ritual law, to an audience outside the Jewish faith tradition. What would gentiles have known about Jewish law, and why would it have mattered to them?
Luke frequently wrote in his gospel and in the Acts of the Apostles about the equality of all God’s people--Jewish and gentile. By explaining that Jewish law was fulfilled at Jesus’ birth, Luke can loudly proclaim to anyone paying the slightest attention that Jesus was here for everyone. In doing so, it put Jewish and gentile folks on equal footing, right from the get-go.
Yet this story is as much about ritual as anything else. The gentiles encountering Luke’s story would have been unfamiliar with Jewish ritual law, and generally speaking, so are we. Unless you happen to spend a lot of time unpacking the first five books of the Bible, where the law is revealed. Which most of us do not. Besides, we know God is still speaking, so let's drive in and take a closer look.
The first ritual law that today’s gospel responds to is the purification of Mary. After the birth of a son, the mother was ceremonially unclean for seven days, and underwent purification for thirty-three days (Leviticus 12:1-8). For a total of forty days a woman primarily kept to the home, not allowed in the temple or to touch holy objects (Leviticus 12:1-8). If the mother gave birth to a daughter, the purification period doubled (Leviticus 12:1-8). This period of time allowed her body to rest after the ordeal of childbirth, and her body would be restored to good health and its natural cycles.
This law might seem sexist at first glance, especially when you consider that the period doubles if she gives birth to a daughter. Yet the heart of this purification period has to do with the blood of childbirth, her menstruation cycles, and the Jewish belief that life comes from blood. The blood of life indicated the ability to create and bare children, which is why the purification period doubled when a woman gave birth to a daughter. One day, that infant daughter would have the lifeblood course through her as well. The reality of this purification ritual is that it uplifts the sacredness of life, and a woman’s ability to give life. After this ritual period, the mother would go to the temple and offer a lamb and a pigeon or turtledove. If she could not afford a lamb, she could offer two turtledoves or pigeons instead. The fact that Mary offers two turtledoves indicates that their family was poor.
The second ritual law relates to the presentation of Jesus at the temple. It was expected that a couple would offer their first son to God, as the first fruits of their marriage. A promise that their son would serve God, often as a priest. It was also a reminder of Israel's deliverance from Egypt, when the firstborn sons of the Egyptians died, and those of Israel were spared. (Exodus 13:2; 22:29)
Ritual laws were both a way of life and a form of praising God in all things. Mary and Joseph did not make a purification offertory or present Jesus simply because the law required it. They did so because it was a way to praise God for their abundant blessings. It was not simply a checklist, but rather a way to show God their pure hearts and love for God.
Long after Jesus died and rose again, Jewish Christians continued to keep many rituals primarily because it was a way to continue practicing their faith and praising God. While the law was no longer required, the daily rituals brought them closer to God.
Any ritual that does not harm or exclude others, and draws us closer to God, is a ritual worth keeping. While ritual laws may no longer be part of our tradition, at our core, we still need ritual. Rituals have a way of planting our feet firmly on the ground. So no matter how we might be feeling about the impeachment trials, the public health crisis of gun violence, or the brokenness within ourselves or our relationships with others, we can turn to rituals as a way to ground us in God.
Which is why I come to church each Sunday. It’s not actually because I’m a priest. I am here, week in and out, because I need the ritual of breaking bread together as community. I need communion to remember that I am a child of God, and no matter how broken I may feel, or the brokenness I must face in the world when I walk out these doors, we are all beloved and we are better when we see that beloved-ness in one another and the world.
What daily rituals bring you closer to God? Which ones ground you and renew you, week after week? Do you study scripture? Do you pray on your own, with friends, or family during the week? Do you mediate? Walk in the woods? Light a candle? How do you find yourself praising God in all things?
God is everywhere, in the most extraordinary and ordinary of things, people, places, and relationships. How do you recognize the sacredness of life and the presence of God in your life? Or maybe, what ritual are your yearning to begin? What would that look like? May we praise God in all we think, say, and do. Amen.
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