Thought for Evensong: Purification of Virgin Mary – 31st January 2021

Psalms 122 and 132, Haggai 2: 1 – 9 and Luke 2: 15 – 24

I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord!’ Psalm 122: 1

The latter splendour of this house shall be greater than the former, says the Lord of hosts; and in this place I will give prosperity, says the Lord of hosts. Haggai 2: 9

When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought (Jesus) up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord. Luke 2: 22 

Almighty and Everlasting God, we humbly beseech thy Majesty, that, as thy only-begotten Son was this day presented in temple in substance of our flesh, so we may be presented unto thee with pure and clean hearts; by the same thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. Collect for the Purification of Saint Mary the Virgin

Pilgrimage is something associated with Christianity from its earliest days: a journey with a significant destination, but where the getting there is almost as important as the eventual arrival. In a sense, a pilgrimage is a picture of the Christian life, where there is an element of hardship and sacrifice in giving up time and energy to make an intentional journey to a holy place, which parallels life itself and our eventual destination of heaven. Making a pilgrimage is still a popular act of devotion, often associated with a particular saint, like the Camino leading to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. It is also often done as a communal event, where travellers make the journey together, giving each other their own insights and support for those who are struggling. But pilgrimage goes back much further, as we see from Jewish history and the gospels. Intentional journeys were made for festivals such as Passover in Jerusalem, with the Temple as the focal point and destination, and Psalm 122 is one of the psalms of ascent sung by groups of pilgrims to show their gladness and anticipation on the way. 

Many people are drawn to holy places, sometimes spontaneously and sometimes out of a sense of duty or obligation, as in our New Testament reading from Luke chapter two, where Mary and Joseph went to the Temple in obedience to the law. The reading begins by returning us first to the visit by the shepherds to the crib in Bethlehem, and of their excitement about what they had seen. While Mary treasured and pondered the words of the angels the shepherds had passed on, busily spreading the good news. Some time ago I read an interesting suggestion that the shepherds quite probably had business contacts in the Temple, through the supply of animals for sacrifice, and that by the time Mary and Joseph took Jesus the few miles to Jerusalem from Bethlehem, forty days after his birth, expectant people like Simeon and Anna (who feature in the verses that follow) would have been anticipating the arrival of this remarkable baby. This in no way diminishes the devotion of Simeon and Anna in watching and waiting so faithfully.

Luke’s gospel shows the faithful way in which Mary and Joseph followed the Old Testament requirements. Eight days after his birth, Jesus was circumcised and formally given the name Jesus, as they had been commanded. Then, forty days after his birth, Mary and Joseph went to the Temple in accordance with Leviticus 12 for the rite of purification (as a mother was considered ‘unclean’ for forty days after giving birth), and to present their baby to the Lord as their firstborn son. For this they needed to offer two sacrifices, a lamb as a burnt offering and a pigeon as a sin offering. Owing to their humble circumstances, it was permissible for another pigeon to substitute for the lamb. The symbolism of this offering in relation to the firstborn goes right back to Exodus and the flight from Egypt, when the avenging angel killed all the firstborn not protected by the sprinkled blood of a lamb on the doorposts and lintel of the dwellings. We are familiar with the devastating impact this had on the Egyptian population and was a solemn reminder of God’s protection for the Israelites as they obeyed this instruction. It was the final judgement on the hardness of Pharaoh’s heart before the Israelites departed from Egypt for the Promised Land.

The description of the actions of Mary and Joseph show them to be obedient to the angel’s instructions about his name and in following the Mosaic law. While Jesus was clearly a helpless baby and passive participant in all this, nonetheless it shows us how he conformed to the law of the Old Testament and was dedicated to God, as a prelude to his adult life when he ultimately fulfilled his Messianic call to lay down his life as a sacrifice for the sins of the whole world, and brought about the era of the new covenant.

As Simeon was shortly to describe Jesus, he was coming to be a light to lighten the Gentiles. Whatever regrets we may have about the current temporary restrictions on our freedom to worship together – or to go on our own pilgrimages – we can individually offer thanks for the gift of Jesus, the Saviour of the World. 

Kevin Boak

Lay Reader

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