Scripture Reading: Luke 2:21-40, Leviticus 12:1-8
Babies’ lives follow a certain rhythm: eat, sleep, poop, cry. Repeat. For the infant Son of God and His mother Mary, life had likely fallen into a predictable routine, one similar to new moms today. But, in the days after she had given birth to Jesus, Mary had to submit to an older ritual that may not seem as familiar.
According to the Levitical law, after childbirth a woman was considered ceremonially unclean for one week followed by another thirty-three days of isolation—double if she’d given birth to a daughter. After that time had passed, parents were instructed to go to the temple and sacrifice a one-year old lamb, or, if they couldn’t afford one, two turtledoves or two young pigeons.
From our cultural standpoint, it’s hard to understand all this. The requirements seem arbitrary, confusing, and—when it comes to the post-childbirth stuff—definitely patriarchal. But if we can put down our modern-day objections for a moment, there’s something beautiful to witness in these few short verses.
Remember: Jewish life was full of custom, ritual, and symbolism. The rites existed to remind Israelites of one story over and over again: sin separates us from God, and the only thing that atones for our sin is the blood of a spotless sacrifice. Simply put, we are unclean until something clean bleeds on our behalf. So the customs may look unfamiliar to us, but their purpose is clear. Tradition urged the people of God to grapple with their broken relationship with God.
And so, following the Scripture, Mary and Joseph arrived at the temple with their baby boy and a sacrifice in hand. Luke tells us that they bought the cheaper sacrifice allowed by Leviticus: two doves or pigeons. I find it interesting that Mary and Joseph couldn’t afford a lamb, even as the baby in their arms would be the ultimate Lamb of God (John 1:29). But that’s beside the point. The main character in this passage isn’t Mary or Joseph. It’s not even Jesus. It’s Simeon.
When I first read this passage, I assumed Simeon was a priest. But after reading the passage a few times over, I realized that all we’re told about Simeon was that he was a “righteous and devout” man (Luke 2:25). A man! How encouraging is it that we don’t have to hold a position in the church or in the world to play a meaningful role for God? The only things we’re told about Simeon are the only ones that matter: he loved the Lord, and he knew God’s Word. He was a man who hoped and longed for Israel’s consolation and comfort. And on the right day, at the exact right time, Simeon felt nudged by the Holy Spirit to go up to the temple.
I wonder what he was expecting to find. I wonder if he felt excitement in his breast as he opened the door, the light pouring in on a couple and their infant son. What happened when he held Jesus and looked in His face? What did Simeon see in that little baby’s eyes?
He cried out as custom gave way to the Comforter.
He rejoiced as ritual met its match in the Redeemer.
He sang out, as every symbol found its perfect fulfillment in the Savior.
Simeon’s eyes had seen the Lord’s salvation face to face in the babe who was named Jesus. Through Him, God Himself has come near to be with us, to rescue and redeem and restore us.
Claire Gibson is a freelance writer and editor whose work has been featured both locally and nationally in publications including The Washington Post, and Entrepreneur Magazine. An Army kid who grew up at West Point, New York, Claire is currently growing roots in Nashville, Tennessee. She loves her husband, Patrick, and their dog, Winnie.