My wife used to say that the feast of the Presentation, or Candlemas, was the deadline for taking down Christmas decorations. Reared in a minimally liturgical tradition myself, I had thought Christmas was basically over by New Year’s, if not on December 26, so this was rather exciting news. We observed a serious Advent: no tree until almost the end, and then, ideally, one we cut down ourselves. A tree that’s green on December 24 deserves the chance of making it through January.
Still, the end comes, as every end always does. This end, the end of our greenery, this feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, comes on the fortieth day after Christmas, as the boy himself was brought to the temple forty days after his birth.
He was brought because of God’s claim upon the first to open any womb in Israel: “All the firstborn are mine; for on the day that I smote all the firstborn in the land of Egypt I hallowed unto me all the firstborn in Israel, both man and beast; mine they shall be: I am the LORD” (Num. 3:13). A firstborn animal was destined for sacrifice; a firstborn man, however, would be spared, and a substitute would be offered instead. Joseph and Mary took what Fr. Andrew Mead, rector emeritus of St. Thomas Church in New York, likes to call “the poor person’s option”—a pair of common birds. Those birds died in Christ’s place. His own death would be postponed; nonetheless, he belonged to the Lord.
God’s claim upon the firstborn, however, is not the origin of sacrifice. From the start it is a purely human initiative. Noah’s first action upon leaving the ark after the flood is to offer some of the animals in sacrifice, though God did not ask him to do so. And God’s reaction to the sacrifice is ambiguous; on the one hand, God smells the “pleasing odor”; on the other hand, he recognizes that “the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth” (Gen. 8:21). For, as Robert D. Sacks writes in his commentary on Genesis, “the desire to sacrifice reveals both the highest and the lowest in man's soul in one act.” It conveys the mixed state of the human heart—our desire to give thanks to God, but also our desire to “force the highest power to do one's bidding.” Thus, while Noah was saved from the flood because God saw that he was “righteous” and “blameless,” he too shares in the evil human heart.
The temple with its sacrificial rites is a school for the human heart as it really is. One may not sacrifice just anything, anywhere, but only certain things and only in certain ways and only in certain circumstances. The ritual of temple sacrifices restrains chaotic desires and channels them toward higher goods. Blood is still shed and flesh is still eaten, but it is not human blood, and the animal flesh that is eaten has not its life, its blood (Gen. 9:3-6).
When presented in the temple forty days after his birth, Jesus participates in this centuries-long project of dealing with the evil of the human heart. But it is not just participation. That day in the temple, an aged man recognizes that, with Jesus, the project has come to its end.
Simeon is his name. He takes Jesus into his arms, blesses God, and says that he is now ready to die himself: “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace,” because “mine eyes have seen thy salvation” (Luke 2:29-30). He explains to Joseph and Mary that Jesus will be the cause of many falling and many rising; and he tells Mary that a sword will pierce “thy own soul also.”
Simeon sees that the project of dealing with the human heart will culminate in something to come in Jesus’s life—something that will bring to light all that has been hidden in the heart, in every heart. And he doesn’t need to stay around to see it; he already has.
The child is but forty days old, and the prophet sees his sacrificial death. Pigeons have died on that day in Jesus’s place. Years later, he will die himself as the end of the line of all these sacrifices: the end of the problem of the human heart.
There are four words I love to hear in Christmas sermons: “No Easter, no Christmas.” Jesus’s entrance into this world, the stories of his birth, the festivities with which we remember it all—the feasts of Annunciation, Nativity, Circumcision, Epiphany, and Presentation—none of these would be of any importance had he not been offered up as a sacrifice for the millennially-problematic human being. He took care of the human problem without requiring that human beings be wiped out. On the contrary: The revelation of the restored human heart is there to be seen in his Resurrection. “No Easter, no Christmas”—that is what Simeon saw at the Presentation. Seeing this, we can be content, whenever our own time comes, to say to God, “now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace.”
Victor Lee Austin is theologian-in-residence for the Episcopal Diocese of Dallas.
First Things depends on its subscribers and supporters. Join the conversation and make a contribution today.
Click here to make a donation.
Click here to subscribe to First Things.