A week is made up of 168 hours. We dedicate one or two of these to God (Mass, prayers, rites and devotions) while the rest are for us, to foster our own interests and look after our business.
Religion is often seen as a set of devotional practices to be performed with a varying degree of faithfulness, in order to keep friendly relations with God. We have a prodding feeling at the back of our mind urging us to give something to him, that he may be well disposed towards us and grant us his blessings. We have an urge to please him to avoid his punishment. But is this really what God wants us to do?
Israel too had practiced a religion: they offered sacrifices and incense in the temple of Jerusalem. They fasted and raised songs and prayers, and yet the Lord – through the prophets – declared that this is not the kind of worship he likes.
We read a condemnation of this wrong relationship with God in the book of Malachi. This prophet lives in a very difficult period, about 450 years before the coming of Christ. The chosen people were living a licentious life, and had abandoned the practice of love and justice; the poor were exploited, the priests’ behavior was unworthy of their status and nobody expected God to keep his promises.
This is how the verses preceding today’s reading describe the discouraged and misguided opinion of the people: there is no difference between the good and the bad people, “every evil doer is good in the sight of the Lord”. Some go as far to say: “Where is the just God?” (Mal 2:17)
The Lord’s reply to this provocative question is a solemn promise” “Lo, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me”. And he continues: after the coming of this messenger, another mysterious person will appear, who will be called “the Lord”, the messenger of the covenant”. He “will come to the temple” (Mal 3: 1).
What will this person do? The prophecy goes on to tell us that he will purify the religion of Israel. He will be like the “refiner’s fire”, like “the fuller’s lye”. Fire eliminates and destroys the slag and the precious metals appear in their splendor and brightness. Fuller’s lye too burns and hurts if poured on a wound, but it disinfects, purifies and cleans the stained clothes.
The coming of Jesus fulfilled this prophecy. He entered into the temple to purify it: he put an end to a religion founded on rites that had been turned into mere external practices and he introduced the only religion acceptable to God: the religion of the heart based on love for others. Religion has no need of temples (Jn 4: 21-24), and can be practiced anywhere.
What about our churches then, what are they for? Has Jesus abolished all rites? Are our religious practices useless?
Jesus has abolished, once and for all, religion, which does not come from faith in him and from acceptance of God. Such “religion” is merely a sequence of empty gestures. He has however instituted his own religious rite – the Eucharist – so that we can express our fidelity to him and our full acceptance of his own proposal of life.
Our religious practice may also need purification through fire and lye. The Eucharistic Bread that we divide and share out in our communities is not always a sign of our lives willingly given up for our brethren. Too often it is but a rite that does not transform our hearts, and we continue to live with our selfishness, our passions, and our infidelities. Perhaps the prophecy is not yet fulfilled in us: our temple is still impure, we have not allowed the “Angel of covenant”, “the Lord of the universe”, Jesus, to enter with his “fire”, with his “lye”, that is, with his Spirit.
Second Reading (Heb 2:14-18)
All of us, I am sure, have been ministered to by doctors both caring and not so caring. Some examined us summarily, listened to our complaints, asked for a few questions, and then dismissed us with a diagnosis and a prescription handed out with detachment and indifference. They just didn’t care. These doctors were evidently not sharing our anxieties and preoccupations.
Others on the other hand welcomed us with a smile and listened attentively to what we had to say. They sowed a personal interest in us even before we went into the details of our illness, and finally might have assured us with words such as: “There is nothing to worry about. I had the same problem myself and got over it. I realize you are in pain and how much you are suffering. I also know how difficult it is to live in fear. Take courage, we will find a solution.”
We would undoubtedly trust this kind doctor more then the first, not only because of his competence and professionalism, but also because he himself had experienced what we were going through.
The Son of God did not stay up in heaven, pointing out to us the way to freedom from on high. He did not tell us what we should do and how we should behave with cool detachment. He did not instruct us how to overcome temptation simply by using beautiful words. He took a personal interest in us, got involved in our dramas, shared our doubts, our anguish, and our problems.
The passage of the letter to the Hebrews that we read today tells us that he did not rush to help the angels rather he reserved his attention for humankind, since “He had become like his brothers in every way. Because he himself was tested through what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested”(vv. 17-18). He suffered death to show us that death is not a fall into nothingness, but a rebirth into a new life in God, and entrance into the blessed condition of the risen. He has thus freed us from the fear of death (vv. 14-15), a fear that enslaves and turns people into ungenerous and narrow-minded persons, unable to love and to give up their lives in immolation.
Gospel (Lk 2:22-40)
Israel was looking forward to the fulfillment of the prophecy of Malachi that we read today in the first reading. They were living in expectation of that terrific day when the Lord would enter his temple in all his glory and power, to judge and condemn those who had not kept the law.
Israel was expecting from its God a show of force, a force that would destroy his enemies, but lo, – a surprise – only a weak and frail looking child lovingly held in the arms of a man enters the holy temple. They would have liked to see “fire and lye” burning up the wicked, but instead the prophet Simeon proclaims this child the “light” that will enlighten all peoples of the earth, a savior both for the children of Abraham and for the pagans, for the righteous as well as for the wicked.
The first part (vv. 22-24) describes the presentation of Jesus in the temple.
Jewish law prescribed that all first-born, of man and animal alike, be offered up to the Lord (Ex 13: 1-6). But children could not be sacrificed; they had to be ransomed. The parents were to bring to the priests of the temple an animal without blemish to be sacrificed instead of the child. The rich offered a lamb, while the poor could only afford a couple of pigeons or turtledoves.
The parents of Jesus keep this law and Luke stresses the fact that the family of Nazareth is poor, belongs to the class of the poor and therefore cannot afford to offer a lamb. Luke never fails to stress the poverty of the family of Nazareth. In the passage of today we do find, however, another fact being stressed a good five times (vv. 22-24, 27, 29): the Holy Family observes scrupulously all the prescriptions of the law of the Lord. Jesus has faithfully fulfilled the will of the Father, as manifested in Scripture, right from birth.
This part contains some very important teaching for us and for our families. Parents worry about giving a good upbringing and a good education to their children, and rightly so, but this is not enough. They have a much more important task: they must consecrate their children to the Lord right from their births. This is not done by submitting them to special rites or ceremonies, but by giving them a good Christian education, in line with all that is written in the Gospel.
Many parents are convinced that they have given a good Christian education to their children, when they force them to attend religious services and practices. These external impositions are not at all enough and may even backfire when the child reaches adulthood. Education to faith is much more than teaching religious practices. It means instilling in the heart of the child a love for “the way” of love and self-immolation, it means handing him over to the Lord to be transformed into a peacemaker for all mankind.
Children learn more with their eyes than with their ears. The way parents live and practice their Christian life is the best catechesis for their children. If parents pray at home the children will learn to pray with them. If parents read the Bible their children will learn to search the light for their life in the Word of God. If parents attend faithfully the meetings of the Christian community the children will become committed Christians too. If parents practice love, forgiveness and generosity towards their neighbor, the children will imitate them in this too. This is how Christian parents of today are expected to “consecrate” their children to the Lord.
The second part (vv. 25-35) is the heart of today’s gospel. We see the old man Simeon making a gesture full of meaning: he takes the child from the arms of his parents and presents him to the whole world.
Simeon is the symbol of the people of Israel who for centuries had been expecting the Messiah. His gesture means that Jesus has come for the whole world and is no longer the property only of the Jewish people. He says that he is destined to bring salvation to all the peoples of the earth and to the light for all nations (vv. 3032).
There are people who, on growing older, become either depressed or nervous or touchy or all three. Their state of discontent is, at time, caused by illness, or by declining strength. Often, however, this arises from a fear of death, and from the inability to foster great hopes and lofty ideals. They are unable to spice their last God-given years with joy and meaningful activity and they pass their time grumbling, lamenting criticizing all those who spend their lives trying to brighten up their lives.
Simeon was an exemplary old man: he was “righteous and devout”. He let the Holy Spirit guide him and so he was able to know and understand the meaning and goal of his existence. He was not afraid of death because his life was constantly enlightened by the light of the Word of God. Though his days were coming to an end, he was happy and prayed the Lord to welcome him into his peace. He did not regret his youth, he did not complain about the evil he saw in plenty around him. He spoke to God and kept looking ahead. He was well aware that the world would not change the short term, but he was happy all the same: he had witnessed the dawn of salvation. He was full of joy like a farmer who, having sowed, dreams about the rainy season and an abundant harvest. Simeon was not a selfish man, and was not seeking his own good. His thoughts were for others, for all of humankind, he saw the joy that all people will taste when the kingdom of God is established.
Do the older members of our communities radiate to the young this same kind of joy, optimism and hope in a better future? Do they keep up an ongoing dialogue with the Lord?
Simeon made a second prophecy, this time addressed to Mary. He told her that her Son would be a sign of contradiction (vv. 34-35).
The image of the sword piercing the soul of Mary has often been interpreted to signify that she was to suffer at the foot of the cross. Not so. The Mother of Jesus is seen here as the symbol of Israel. In the Bible, Israel is seen as a woman, a mother who, made fertile by God, conceives and gives birth to a son, the Savior. Mary is a true symbol of Israel.
Simeon sensed the drama of his people: they will be torn apart – he said – it will experience a very painful laceration. When the Messiah sent from heaven comes some will open up their hearts and minds to him and will be saved, while others will reject him and be ruined.
The third part (vv.36-38) presents another elderly person: the prophetess Anna. She is 84: this figure is the product of 7 x 12 and carries a specific symbolic meaning. 7 means perfection while 12 stands for the people of Israel. Thus Anna is Israel that, having fulfilled its mission, presents the expected Messiah to the world
This prophetess is from the tribe of Asher, the smallest and most insignificant of the tribes of Israel. Moses in his last benediction to his people before he died mentions this tribe last (Dt 33: 24). Luke, by stressing the fact that Anna is from this tribe, wants us to know once more that the poor are the first to recognize Jesus as the Savior.
Anna had been faithful to her husband and had refused to remarry after his death. The evangelist sees in this a very deep theological meaning: like Simeon, she is the symbol of that small part of the people of Israel, the Lord’s spouse, that had remained faithful. Anna entertained only one love in her life, and lived her widowhood up to the day she recognized her Lord in Jesus. She then rejoiced as a bride who finds her bridegroom.
Anna never left the temple (v. 37). It is the house of her bridegroom. She did not hunt around for lovers. She had no time to lose. Neither did she go from house to house gossiping and backbiting. She was aware that the days she had to live were precious and must be passed close to her Lord and in service to the community.
The elderly do not feel useless if they live in expectation of the coming of the Lord: there are so many humble things to do and their brethren know their help is precious. They, like the elderly prophetess have the task of speaking of Jesus to all who are searching for meaning and joy in their lives.
The fourth part (vv.39-40) ends with the return of the holy family to Nazareth and with the remark on the growth of Jesus. He is no different from the other children of his village, except for the fact that he is “filled with wisdom and the favor of God was upon him”. Although he was God he fully accepted his human condition and share the experiences of all people.
The biblical sites are often tied to a theological significance. The sea, the mountain, the desert, the Galile of the Gentiles, Samaria, the Jordan river, the land beyond the lake of Genezareth are much more than simple geographical indications (often not entirely accurate).
Luke does not specify the place where the baptism of Jesus took place, but John alludes to it: “It happened in Bethany beyond the Jordan, where John was baptizing” (John 1 : 28). The tradition has correctly located the episode in Bethabara, the ford where even the people of Israel, guided by Joshua, crossed the river and entered the Promised Land.
The gestures of Jesus present explicit references to the passage from slavery to freedom and to the beginning of a new exodus to the true Promised Land. Bethabara has also another recall, less obvious, but equally significant: the geologists ensure that this is the lowest point on earth (400m below sea level).
The decision to start from there the public life cannot be random. Jesus came from the heights of heaven to free people. He went down into a deeper abyss to show that he desires the salvation of every person. He wants to save even the most derelict, the one dragged by guilt and sin in an abyss no one imagines the possibility of getting out. God does not forget and does not abandon any of his children.
To internalize the message, we repeat: “And the grace of God appears, bringing salvation to all people”