Two Meaningful Things

It’s not necessarily a good thing to have grown up immersed in Christianity.  In fact, I’d liken daily exposure to Christianity to a vaccine.  I’m inoculated from awe and insight.

For instance, Christmas.  I know the story.  Mary and Joseph have to travel to Joseph’s hometown, Bethlehem, to be counted by the government census takers.  While there, Mary gives birth to Jesus, God in the flesh.  There are angels and shepherds and…

Every year, for going on 34 years now, it’s the same story.  I know it’s supposed to be miraculous but, honestly, it doesn’t seem that way anymore. I’m listening to the story through a thick layer of repetition that shields my mind from being penetrated and my heart from being moved.  The story just doesn’t punch me in the gut like I know it would if I were hearing it for the first time, or if I were a shepherd under that star two thousand years ago.

This year, I’m attempting to hear the story in a new way.  I’m reading Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth in different translations and commentaries all month.  Really reading it.  In new words. The repetition alone is helping reveal details I’ve never noticed before and that is making the story more meaningful to me.

Luke 2:21-24 On the eighth day, when it was time to circumcise him, he was named Jesus, the name the angel had given him before he had been conceived. When the time of their purification according to the Law of Moses had been completed, Joseph and Mary took him to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male is to be consecrated to the Lord”, and to offer a sacrifice in keeping with what is said in the Law of the Lord: “a pair of doves or two young pigeons.”

I’m learning for the first time about two very meaningful things going on in this small section I’ve never noticed before.  First, Jesus is Mary’s first son, so there had to be a consecration ceremony called “pidyon-haben.” It literally means “redemption of the first son.” During this ceremony the son is handed over to the Temple officials and dedicated to the service of God. In other words, he becomes a priest, a hired worker in the Temple, a slave to God.  Then, immediately, the son, is “redeemed” or randsomed back from the Temple for the price of five shekels (Numbers 18:16).  An exchange is made.  For five shekels the parents get their son back and a Levite (a descendent of Levi) serves in the child’s place – a substitute priest.

How’s that for foreshadowing?

The second thing I’ve never noticed happening in this passage is the purification of Mary. A Jewish mother was considered ceremonially unclean for forty days after giving birth – so she was unable to worship in the Temple and was cut off from the rest of the community.  After forty days she could sacrifice a year-old lamb as a burnt offering, and a dove or a pigeon as a sin offering, so that she could rejoin her community.  But what if she couldn’t afford a lamb?

The “Law of the Lord” says…

If she cannot afford a lamb, she is to bring two doves or two young pigeons, one for a burnt offering and the other for a sin offering. In this way the priest will make atonement for her, and she will be clean. (Leviticus 12:8)

Suddenly the seemingly innocuous detail about Mary’s sacrifice is meaningful.  Now I get it.  Mary couldn’t afford a lamb.  And why is that important? One smart guy

says that Jesus came to earth partly to “provide a tangible manifestation of God’s attitude toward poverty and injustice.” How better to start showing the world how much the poor matter to God than for God to be born into poverty?