The Circumcision And The Presentation In The Temple (1st January And 2nd February In The Year 5 ? B.C.)—The Sojourn At Bethlehem— The Magi—The Flight Into Egypt—The Death Of Herod (Probably The Year 4 B.C.) — The Return To Nazareth. Part 1.

Pala di Fano (Presentation in the Temple) - Pietro Perugino
"WHEN eight days were accomplished for the circumcising of the child," 1 the Saviour was brought to the synagogue at Bethlehem and there received the sign of the covenant. In the circumstances in which these poor travellers were situated there could be no question of making this day a joyous occasion for a family meeting, as was the usual custom. Zacharias and Elisabeth were in all probability the only relatives who could be invited, for from Bethlehem to Karem, and from these two towns to Jerusalem, was only a few miles distance. It is therefore possible that the holy priest and his wife, being forewarned by grace some months before, may have come to assist Mary and Joseph, to adore the new-born God, and, according to the good-pleasure of the Holy Spirit, to behold something of the mystery of the circumcision.

It was necessary that the Messiah should become one of the Jewish nation, for He was given first to Israel, and through Israel salvation was offered to the world. He must be put under the yoke of the Law, all the obligations of which were accepted by the circumcised. " When the fulness of the time was come, God sent forth His Son, made of a woman, made under the law, to redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons. 2 " He must, as Redeemer, submit to the rite which symbolised the necessity of effort and struggle against sin. And thus was made that wonderful exchange in which the earth gives to the Son of God all its woes, to receive from Him in return all the treasures of heaven. He took upon Himself our humanity in the womb of the Virgin, to make us participators in His divinity; He made Himself subject to the law, that we might be delivered from the curse of the law against transgressors; He took the sign of the sons of Abraham, that we might be received as the sons of God by adoption ; He took upon Himself that struggle and expiation which should fall to the lot of sinners, that He might bestow upon us His righteousness and His innocence. 3

Thus, by the mouth of Joseph, " His name was called Jesus, which was so named of the angel before He was conceived in the womb." This name of Saviour, and the first drops of blood which He shed were the announcement, the promise, the symbol of the fruitful but austere mission which He came to fulfil. After the joy of the nativity, was not this day, for Mary, the day of the first tears ? Her Son had already begun to suffer, and already she had a vague presentiment of His future griefs.

The thought of the redeeming sufferings were to be again recalled to Mary on another day, rich in mysteries, when God, by the announcement of great trials and of great consolations, touched her soul to its depths.

Before long, in fact, the forty "days of her purification according to the law of Moses were accomplished. 4 " They then brought the Child to Jerusalem to present Him to the Lord, as it is written in the law of the Lord: every son, who is the first-born of his mother, shall be called holy to the Lord. They also offered " a sacrifice according to that which is said in the law of the Lord, a pair of turtle-doves, or two young pigeons." It was in view of such offerings that the sellers of pigeons and doves came at first round about the Temple, and in time by the negligence of the priests they were permitted to invade even the sacred precincts.

" And, behold, there was in Jerusalem, a man whose name was Simeon; and the same man was just and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel: and the Holy Ghost was upon him. And it was revealed unto him by the Holy Ghost, that he should not see death, before he had seen the Lord's Christ." And he came by the Spirit into the Temple at the moment when the parents of the Saviour " brought in the child Jesus to do for Him after the custom of the law."6

Except for its modesty and air of meditation, there was nothing outwardly by which the holy family could be distinguished. But, guided by a divine instinct, the old man did not hesitate. Approaching with respect, he asked if he might be allowed to take the child: "Then took he Him up in his arms, and blessed God," that he had at last seen that for which his life had been prolonged; and he uttered these inspired words:—

"Lord, now lettest thou Thy servant 
  Depart in peace, according to Thy word ;

  For mine eyes have seen Thy salvation,

  Which Thou hast prepared before the face of all people ;

  A light to lighten the Gentiles, 
  And the glory of Thy people Israel."

" And Joseph and His mother marvelled at those things which were spoken of Him." It was not that the words which burst forth from the heart of Simeon, as fervent and rhythmical as a song, could teach them anything about the Saviour; but it was marvellous to see how the Holy Ghost was revealing Him to the chosen souls, first to Elisabeth, then to the shepherds, now to Simeon, and to hear these witnesses chosen by God extol the wonders of the Incarnation and the Redemption. These mysteries which shew forth the divine wisdom and goodness, are such as the angels " desire to look into." 7 And Mary, whose insight and intelligence surpassed in many respects that of the angels, pondered on these mysteries with unspeakable feelings of gratitude and love; whoever spoke of them in her presence, especially if they spoke eloquently and under divine inspiration, awoke deep echoes in her soul, and threw her into an ecstasy of wonder and admiration.

Her emotion and that of Joseph was still further increased by the arrival of another person. This was " Anna," who was called " a prophetess," because the Holy Spirit had favoured her with revelations from on high. She was the " daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Aser; she was of great age, and had lived with an husband seven years from her virginity; and she was a widow of about four-score and four years, which departed not from the temple, but served God with fastings and prayers night and day. And she coming in that instant gave thanks likewise unto the Lord, and spake of Him to all them that looked for redemption in Jerusalem."

However, Simeon had not yet said all that God had commanded him. He " blessed " the parents of Jesus, congratulating them upon the grace that had been vouchsafed to them, and desiring that new graces might be poured upon them. Then unto Mary His mother he said: " Behold, this Child is set for the fall and rising again of many in Israel ; and for a sign which shall be spoken against; (Yea, a sword shall pierce through thy own soul also,) that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed."

Because the Messiah came to save men without doing violence to their free will, His work of salvation was to be, at the same time, a work of judgment. The life and light which He brought, would be bestowed on those who came to Him, but those who refused Him, would, by so doing, go to their own destruction. It would be necessary to take part for or against Him ; strength would be given to every one to choose either the love of God or the love of self, which lies dormant in every heart, and thus to reveal his most secret thoughts. And, in that warfare which was to rage around Him, Jesus would have to suffer; His sufferings would be so great that, on His account, His mother's heart would be wounded as by a sword.

Undoubtedly, Mary already knew that the mission on which her Son came could not be accomplished without great sorrows, and those sorrows she expected to share with Him. But on this day it was God's will that she should have more precise and certain warning of that future; and He ordained that it should be announced to her, no longer as it had been already announced to all men, by the Scriptures and the prophets, but by words addressed directly to herself, which struck her to the heart.

Could anything else so poison her life and wither all her happiness beforehand as to predict to a young mother even in the days of her first joy, that the son she held in her arms should one day be the cause to her of a sorrow as sharp and penetrating as a sword which pierces to the heart ? How could she gaze at her child from thenceforth without thinking of the sufferings which awaited him ? How could she give up her heart to the gladness and hope of a mother without immediately wounding it at the point of that sword always waiting to transfix it ?

But Mary's heart was too great, too holy, too beloved by God, too carefully fashioned by the Holy Spirit, to be spared these sorrows. It was the heart of the Co-redeemer, it must therefore be like that of the Redeemer; and in that sacrificial feast of generous offerings, God Himself, by the wound which He made there, rendered more perfect that resemblance. In the heart of Jesus there were always the everlasting joys of love and the beatific vision of the salvation of the world; but there was always also the remembrance of the bitter cup, of unbelieving and lost souls, and of the cross. In Mary's heart was the happiness of contemplating her Son and her God, of loving Him, of receiving His smiles and His love, of knowing Him as the Saviour, the resurrection, and the life of all the righteous; but always also was there the bitter thought of the sorrow and strife.

At the words of Simeon this flood of bitterness penetrated to the soul of the Virgin, but without disturbing its profound peace. She continued on her tranquil way with Joseph, and, accompanied doubtless by the two saintly old people, she carried out the Mosaic rite to the end.

Virginal and pure as on the day when, not long before, she had left the Temple, even more virginal so to say, since she had become mother and the divine visit had consecrated her virginity, she placed herself humbly on a level with other people. She knew that humble obedience to the Law, and the faithful keeping of the Master's secret, would be pleasing to God. She went to kneel below in the court of the women, 8 and a priest descended towards her. She gave him, not a lamb of the first year, as richer women offered, but, according to the custom of the poor, two turtle doves or two young pigeons ; one for the burnt offering and the other " for a sin offering." The priest said over her the prescribed prayer, after which, remembering the infinite holiness of God, she prayed Him to make her more and more worthy in His eyes.

She rose and crossed the women's enclosure, for it was probably at the extremity of this enclosure, and at the point where it joined the men's enclosure, that the presentation of children was made. This presentation was a thank offering from the people of Israel; for, to deliver them, God had smitten the first-born of Egypt, and therefore Israel consecrated its first-born to the Lord. 9 But the offering of this day had quite another value and quite another character. The Child which was brought to the Temple, paid, by Himself alone, all the debt of gratitude both of the chosen people and of the whole world; He paid also the debt of original sin, and rendered to God all the homage for which the ancient sacrifices had not sufficed. " When he cometh into the world, he saith, Sacrifice and offering thou wouldest not, but a body hast thou prepared me; in burnt offerings and sacrifices for sin thou hast had no pleasure. Then said I, Lo, I come (in the volume of the book it is written of me), to do Thy will, O God. 10"

It was this Victim, which but lately the Virgin, praying in this same Temple, had ardently desired and asked of God for the world. Her desires had been granted; into her hands God had placed the sacred victim, and representing the whole world for whom that Victim had been given, Mary presented and consecrated it to God. A day would come—she had just now been reminded of it—when she would join with Him in His bloody sacrifice; to-day it was the adduction, that first act by which she, in whose name the sacrifice was offered, brought the victim before the Tabernacle, and placing her hand upon His head, there devoted Him to the service of God. 11

The priest, of the sons of Aaron, took Jesus into his arms, and turning towards the altar and the sanctuary, presented Him to the Lord. 12 Jesus again accepted His part of Pontiff and Victim, and in virtue of this, gave to His Father the only homage which is worthy of the divine majesty. Mary prayed God to receive her spotless offering, and, accepting for herself and for Jesus the stern decrees of Providence, she joined in the adoration, the love, and the sacrifice of her Son.

The child thus presented in the Temple was consecrated to the Lord ; his life and services belonged to God and to the sanctuary if his parents did not redeem him by the offering of five shekels. 13 This redemption was the rule, and the oblation was therefore generally figurative. But on this day it was quite otherwise; the offering had been accepted, and the divine words " All the firstborn are mine " 14 were fulfilled in their entire significance. Mary completed the ceremony by giving the priest the five pieces of silver; but by His mission, as well as by His sonship, Jesus remained the Holy One of God.

If the holy family returned to Nazareth after the Presentation—and it is not at all certain that they did return there 15 —it was, doubtless, to arrange some urgent business, and for only a few days. For we have strong reasons for believing that they went then to settle at Bethlehem. 16 Perhaps Joseph, seeing that God had brought them there in order that the Messiah might be born in the town of David, thought that they ought to live there, at least till any indication to the contrary came to them from heaven. Whatever may have been the motives of this decision, it seems likely that the parents of Jesus remained at Bethlehem for several months, perhaps even the whole year that followed the birth of the Saviour.

They evidently did not spend that time in the stable which had at first served as a refuge for them. Mary was not even obliged to remain there during the forty days between the nativity and the purification. They inhabited some small house in the little town, 17 and lived there dependent upon their slender resources and the work of their hands.

In all likelihood they still held intercourse, perhaps frequently, with the parents of John the Baptist. They lived too near, and were too closely connected by blood and by the still stronger bond of grace, not to visit each other. Elisabeth and Zacharias came under the humble roof at Bethlehem to adore the King of angels; or perhaps they relieved the poverty of their relatives by offering them for some days the hospitality of their own house; or they might sometimes have met in one of the numerous valleys which divide the mountains of Judea between Bethlehem and Karem. During the first months of the life of Jesus, historic probability is in favour of those scenes of the " Holy Family" so often pictured by the piety of Christian art; the righteous Joseph and the priest Zacharias conversing together upon the greatness of God and of His Law ; the two mothers seated near each other, holding their children upon their knees, and binding yet closer the intimate bonds already formed between them by the love of God and the revelations of the Holy Spirit; Jesus smiling at Elisabeth and willingly allowing her to take Him, and holding out His arms towards His forerunner; John, six months older, trying to direct his first steps towards his Master, or sometimes, following the example of Jesus, allowing himself to be taken by Mary, and resting even more sweetly in her arms than in those of Elisabeth.

But already a trial was at hand to interrupt these days of happiness, and it followed closely on a further glorifying of the Messiah.


St Luke ii. 21 ; verse commented on in the following pages.

2 Galatians iv. 4, 5.

3 " O admirabile commercium : Creator generis humani, animatum corpus sumens, de Virgine nasci dignatus est: et, procedens homo sine semine, largitus est nobis suam deitatem." Office of the Circumcision, first antiphon at Laudes.

4 St Luke ii. 22-39; passage commented on in the following pages.

5 Some writers have identified this holy person with Raban Simeon, son of Hillel and father of Gamaliel, the famous scribe, who was president of the Sanhedrim. This identification seems by no means certain, especially when one considers how common the name of Simeon was. This opinion, however, was held by Patrizi, de evangeliis, lib. III., dissert, xxvi., and is favourably presented by Fouard in his Vie de Jesus-Christ.

6 The words of St Luke seem to indicate that the meeting with Simeon took place, not after the ceremony, but at the time when the holy family entered the Temple.

7 Peter i. 12.

8 The woman who was to be purified probably occupied that place. The rest is the law of the purification (Leviticus xii.).

9 Exodus xiii. I, 2, 11-17; Numbers xviii. 15, 16 ; and elsewhere.

10 Hebrews x. 5-7. Psalm xl. 6-8.

11 Leviticus i. 2-4 ; iii. i, 2 ; and elsewhere.

12 A probable conjecture concerning the rite of presentation.

13 The shekel is a silver coin weighing 9 dwts. 9 gr. (about 2s. 8d.). Five shekels would therefore be worth rather more than thirteen shillings.

14 Numbers iii. 13.

15 Cf. Knabenbauer, in Luram, ii. 39, with the authors quoted for the second explanation.

16 Concerning the sojourn of the holy family at Bethlehem, and the order of events, may be consulted, Comely; Introductio, 1886, t. iii., p. 203-205 ; Knabenbauer: in Matthӕum, ii., I and 22, p. 71-73 and no. Briefly, the two principal reasons for accepting this sojourn, are: 1st. The great difficulty there would be in placing the presentation between the arrival of the magi and the flight into Egypt; 2nd. The intention which Saint Joseph had, on the return from Egypt, of living not in Galilee, but in Judea, which renders it probable that he had already settled there before the flight.

17 St Matthew ii. 11.