Today we celebrate the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord, which was originally known as the feast of the Purification of the Virgin Mary. It is a very old feast, likely celebrated by the church as early as the mid-200s. So it is important and ancient. In a minute I want to explain that very strange phrase from Simeon to the Blessed Mother that “A sword shall pierce thy soul so that the thoughts of many hearts might be revealed.” So stay tuned.
According to Jewish law, the firstborn male child belonged to God, and the parents had to, in a sense, “buy him back” on the 40th day after his birth, by offering a sacrifice of “a pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons” (Luke 2:24) in the temple (thus the “presentation” of the child). On that same day, the mother would be ritually purified (thus the “purification”), because in Jewish law a birth made her ritually unclean. So the same day that their child would be presented in the temple would be the same day that the mother would be made ritually pure–this is why this feast has been called both the presentation of the Lord and the feast of the purification of Mary.
Saint Mary and Saint Joseph kept this law, even though, since Saint Mary remained a virgin after the birth of Christ, she would not have had to go through ritual purification. In his gospel, Luke recounts the story (Luke 2:22-39).
This is the explanation of the passage that we hear in the gospel which reads:
When the days were completed for their purification
according to the law of Moses,
Mary and Joseph took Jesus up to Jerusalem
to present him to the Lord,
just as it is written in the law of the Lord,
Every male that opens the womb shall be consecrated to the Lord,
and to offer the sacrifice of
a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons,
in accordance with the dictate in the law of the Lord.
So, in a sense, what Mary and Joseph do is to redeem their child with the sacrifice of the pair of turteldoves. What do you do when you “redeem” something? You regain the possession of something in exchange for some kind of payment. When you redeem a coupon, you give a coupon and you gain some value of money for the coupon. But that’s just a coupon. That’s just about goods and services. How do you redeem a soul? How do you redeem a life? You do that with blood, because blood is life. This is the symbolic action of what a Jewish couple would do with their first-born son. Since the first born son belonged to the Lord, they had to buy back his life with another kind of life–the life of an animal sacrifice. This is what was called a REDEMPTION.
We have all heard this word. You should recognize this word as what Christ did for us. Didn’t Christ redeem US? Didn’t he come for our REDEMPTION? So what does that mean? Since we are much more important than just goods and services, but since we are souls and lives, he had to give his own blood. An animal sacrifice just wouldn’t do anymore. Man had fallen to far into sin. If you want to think of this in spiritual terms–and rather scary terms–every time you sin, you actually become more and more in “debt” to Satan. He extends more and more power over you the more and more you give yourself TO him. Well, the sacrifice of Jesus “buys us back” (REDEEMS us) from the power of the devil, and we are embraced back into the loving arms of God.
Jesus is the ransom. He pays the price for our sins.
In Mark 10:45 Jesus said, “the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matt. 20:28). This is a powerful statement. Jesus redeemed his followers from sin. The price of this redemption, however, was his own life (1 Tim. 2:6; 1 Pet. 1:18,19), the supreme expression of his love for us (cf. John 15:13). That Jesus described his death as a ransom payment is clear. But to whom was the ransom paid? Jesus never said. There are different theories about this, my brothers and sisters. I just suggested that the ransom may have been paid to the devil. But some people think this gives him too much power. Perhaps the ransom is paid actually to God the father, because every time we sin we offend God and in a way justice demands that we make up for these offenses. Whatever our theory
The Feast of the Presentation of the Lord should remind us that we do not belong to ourselves. Even Jesus Christ the son of God was “redeemed” by the Prophet Simeon in the temple that day by two young pigeons. All this fight about “I’ll do with my body what I want” is the most unacceptable, unchristian attitude you can possibly have. We are NOT our own. Our bodies and our souls are NOT ours. Did you make yourself? Are you going to judge yourself at the end of time? Are you just going to answer to yourself? I think not. And this idea can bother us if we are independent thinkers and doers, but it can also give us some liberation. It can also give us an explanation of why we should be doing the Lord’s will above our own–because I am not my own. My breath is not mine and my soul is not my own creation. I belong to my master who made me and REDEEMED me from the power of death, and so I OWE him, don’t I? Ultimately we LOVE our master and we serve him because we love him rather than simply out of a sense of duty–but if a sense of duty is all that we can muster right now, God will accept that. Pray for the grace to feel his love.
But back to Mary and Joseph and Simeon. On the day of the presentation of the Lord, Simeon was the priest who “redeemed” Jesus–he is the priest who accepted the sacrifice of Joseph and Mary. He is the one who pronounced Mary “pure” again and she was allowed to worship again in the temple. This would have been the first time that Jesus would have ever stepped formally into the temple in his life as a human being. But as we learned, he had been told by the Holy Spirit that he would not die until he saw the REDEMPTION of God’s people in the birth of the Messiah. And so this event fulfills that promise. His first words are full of emotion. Imagine an old man, his eyes full of tears, waiting day after day in the pain of his old age for an old promise to be fulfilled, and finally seeing the Holy Family–and knowing that he stood before the savior of the world. He says:
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 the sight of all the peoples:
a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and glory for your people Israel.”
Wow. Doesn’t that blow your mind? I think it’s beautiful.
But I would like to end with a comment about one single line in the prophecy of Simeon. At one point he turns to the Blessed Mother and says, “and you yourself a sword will pierce—so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.” Anyone out there make note of that? I think it’s one of the more fascinating lines in scripture. What does it mean?
First of all, let’s look at the literalGreek. It is very emphatic. It says, “You yourself.” It also says that a sword will “pierce,” literally, her soul–her self, her entire being. And the word for “pierce” is actually dierchomai, which more often means to “wander through something” or “pass through” something, not pierce something. As a matter of fact, in the roughly 43 places where this verb is used in the New Testament, in no other place does it mean “pierce ” but in this one. Could that not possibly mean that what the sword is really doing is, in a way, “wandering through” Mary’s soul all throughout her life? This sound poetic, but for those of you who care about such things like I do I find it fascinating to pursue its meaning. That is why I took the time to do this research myself. Again, interestingly, there are two primary Greek words that are used for “sword” in the New Testament. One is machaira and one is romphaia–the former one, machaira, is the more common one and it is the one that is usually used for a literal–like the sword that Peter used to strike the slave’s ear off. But that isn’t the word used for sword in this passage about Mary. It is the latter word, romphaia–and that is only used a few times in the New Testament. And interestingly enough, all of the usages of that word but the one about Mary are found in the Book of Revelation, and they refer to the sword that comes from the mouth of the Lord, the sword wielded by his hand, or the sword that the angels will be given to punish men. So all of the uses of this word actually have a kind of positive connotation. They all refer to a kind of battle of the Holy Spirit, or the judgment that comes from heaven–the word does not refer to the kind of swords men use in horrible earthly battles. THIS is the sword that will “pass through” Mary’s heart. The battle of the spirit. The judgment of God. It still has some painful connotations, but they are not as negative as what we might imagine.
The romphaia is a saber– long and broad cutlass (any weapon of the kind, literal or figurative). The rhomphaia is defined as a ‘brandishing’ weapon, that ‘flourishes triumphantly, menacingly, or defiantly’, causing God’s children to grow spiritually. The rhomphaia (sword of the Spirit) is never used in the New Testament in conjunction with non-believers. Isn’t that awesome? Y’all I LOVE this stuff!! This sword that wanders through or passes through or “pierces” Mary’s heart is the same thoughts and feelings and judgments of God that lay bare the heart of every believer. God’s are the thoughts and feelings that convict us–those are the thoughts and feelings that convince us that WE DO NOT BELONG TO OURSELVES, and that OUR thoughts and feelings and actions are not the sum total of everything.
But we still haven’t connected that statement about the sword “wandering through” Mary’s heart with the second statement, again with the literal greek: “that the inner reasonings and intentions (the dialogismoi) of many hearts might be revealed.” Well, first we see that the Holy Spirit is going to wander through Mary’s heart with his sword and lay bare all Mary’s secret thoughts and intentions. And because of that, the same thing is going to happen to us.
Y’all, I don’t want to bore you, especially at 7:30 in the morning. But this homily is for those of you who are serious about the word of God. Let me try to give you an image for what I think is going on here. Have you ever met someone who is truly wise? Someone who has truly “been there”? Aren’t these almost always been people who have suffered themselves? Think about it. I have met priests who have truly talked to God so much and suffered so much that it is almost as if they could look into my heart and know my thoughts. Because a sword has pierced their heart, my thoughts have been revealed to them. Does that sound familiar? “And a sword shall pierce thy soul that the thoughts of many might be revealed?” I am absolutely convinced that because of Mary’s special relationship with the Holy Spirit and with Jesus, that she had the greatest and most preeminent gift of what is called reading souls. Saints like Padre Pio could do it–just look at you and know exactly who you are and what you’ve done. Y’all, but isn’t this what a mother does more than almost anyone else? You can’t fool mama. And here in scripture we are given a very spiritual explanation of how nobody on earth can fool our heavenly mother. As the saying goes: She’s been there. She’s done that.
From the moment that Mary gave her “yes,” she knew she was not her own. And her whole life she is pulled more and more into the life of Jesus–which means to bear a cross for the redemption of the world. Have you ever been afraid that all your pain and suffering will be for nothing? Well, if you understand these readings, what they are saying is that that doesn’t need to every be true for us. Don’t let your pain just be yours. Don’t let your sacrifices just be yours. Don’t let your body or your soul be yours. Redeem it for someone else. Give those things to someone else. Share that with someone else. Because it is precisely in such a gift that we receive ourselves again. There’s a lot of people in need of redemption out there. But first a sword needs to pierce your heart, so that the hearts of the many that you meet might be set free.
Rev. Dr. Basil Burns