Scripture: Luke 2: 22-40 Nigel Bunce
Christianity began as a breakaway sect of Judaism
The Scriptural evidence of this has always been right before our eyes. Yet, it is only in recent years that we have come to appreciate the Jewish roots of Christianity. All the characters in today’s story of Jesus’ Presentation in the Temple are Jews. Mary, Joseph, Jesus himself, Simeon, Anna. So were the writers of the New Testament Scriptures – the four Gospel writers and Paul. And Jesus followed the rituals of Judaism to the end of his life.
Somehow, emerging Christianity managed to forget its and our Jewish heritage. One factor was the split that occurred after the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE. The Jewish authorities could no longer accept as part of Judaism the splinter sect that was becoming Christianity. This becomes plain in the Gospel of John. He calls the Temple leaders “the Jews”. That identified Jews as ‘them’ not ‘us’. It led pretty directly to 2000 years of anti-Semitism.
Today’s Gospel story is an example of the Jewish roots of Christianity
Mary and Joseph took the baby Jesus to the Temple in Jerusalem, “to present him to the Lord.” This was not the day when Jesus was named. That had happened on the eighth day (January 1 in our calendar). In an era of high neonatal mortality, it made sense to wait a week before giving the baby a name. By that time, there was a good chance that he or she would survive.
The Presentation of Jesus was very important in Temple-era Judaism. It was a purification ritual. Jewish law was extremely strict on the question of purity. Giving birth is messy. New-born babies have blood on them. That made both mother and child ritually unclean.
Ritually unclean persons had to avoid contaminating those who were clean. So they had to keep apart physically. Mary’s period of ritual uncleanness was thirty-three days because she had given birth to a son. If it had been a daughter, her period of uncleanness would have been twice as long. The religious ceremony declared both baby and mother to be ritually clean again. Now, they could reintegrate into society.
Mary and Joseph were doing “the right and proper thing”
Jesus was Mary’s first born male child. Because of that, he had to be offered to God. This tradition originated in the Exodus story. God spared the first born Israelite males on that first Passover. In exchange, God had a claim on all first born males ever after.
This was true for animals as well as people. Farmers had to offer the first-born male lamb or kid to the Temple for sacrifice. Human parents of a first born son had to pay money. In effect, they bought the child back from God. It was (and in Orthodox Judaism it still is) the father’s responsibility to make the payment to the priest.
Although the Temple no longer exists, the State of Israel mints special ‘redemption coins’. Parents must purchase these to pay the priest the redemption fee. Joseph paid the priest to buy two young birds. They were sacrificed to God in the boy’s place.
Within their own faith tradition, they took Jesus to the Temple for the necessary rituals. One can make a rough comparison with baptizing Christian children as “the right and proper thing”. But there is a crucial difference. In Judaism, a child is automatically Jewish – a member of the symbolic family of Abraham – by way of birth to a Jewish mother. Whereas every Christian must choose to become a follower of Jesus. Adults make these promises for themselves. For young children, relatives and friends make the promises on their behalf.
Simeon and Anna show again the Jewish roots of Christianity
Their part in the Christian story was to recognize Jesus as the long-awaited Messiah. Simeon was a devout man who attended the Temple liturgies. He wasn’t a priest.
In his hymn of praise, Simeon called Jesus ‘a light of revelation to the Gentiles’. That was what Isaiah had foretold [Chapter 49, v. 6]. The Messiah will be “a light to the nations, that God’s salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”
That they might all be one
Jews understand themselves to be God’s Chosen People. In the early books of the Hebrew Scriptures, the Israelites had a tribal relationship with the divine. Isaiah foresaw a new role for them. They were to bring knowledge of God to the Gentiles as well.
Today’s Scripture held the promise of setting all that in motion. But not among a cast of Christian characters. Instead, all were Jews and they remained Jews. That reminded me of an experience when Michelle and I visited the Bahai Temple near Chicago. Their philosophy is that ultimately, the great religions of the world should be as one.
What God wants of us is unity, but not uniformity. Every religion has its militants, zealots. People who are sure that their beliefs are the One True Way. Everyone else is wrong. And, at worst, they should be exterminated. There are militant Christians, Hindus, Muslims, Jews – even militant Buddhists. Think of Miyanma and the treatment of the Rohinga people! And yet all major religions teach love and kindness as the way to live. Also, some variant of the Golden Rule. Treat others as you hope that they will treat you. So let’s make this a New Year resolution for 2021, Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me.
And may we all remember that our tradition of two thousand years of Christianity built on the even older foundation of Judaism. And this idea of building on foundations laid by others is true for us too. We have all had mentors — parents, teachers, more experienced work colleagues. As Isaac Newton said: “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.” I am deeply conscious that I owe any successes that I have had in life to the mentors — those giants — who generously took the time to offer me their wisdom and experience.