The Holy Family performed four Jewish practices in Infant Jesus’ life within a timeframe of 33 days. The first two were the circumcision and naming of Jesus on the eighth day, and the others were the ritual purification of Mary and the presentation of Jesus in the Temple of Jerusalem. Circumcision was the permanent sign of Abrahamic covenant. It was irrelevant for Jesus because he was God incarnate. His mother Mary was free from original sin and had a virgin conception through divine intervention. So, there was no need of ritual purification for her. However, the Holy Family submitted to the customary Jewish practices and set the example for us to follow the directives of Jesus and His church.
The Circumcision and Naming of Jesus
(Luke 1:21) On the eighth day when the baby had to be circumcised, he was named Jesus, the name the angel had given him before he was conceived.
The Presentation in the Temple
(22) When the day came for the purification according to the law of Moses, they brought the baby up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord, (23) as it is written in the law of the Lord: Every firstborn male shall be consecrated to God. (24) And they offered a sacrifice as ordered in the law of the Lord: a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons. (25) There lived in Jerusalem at this time a very upright and devout man named Simeon; the Holy Spirit was in him. He looked forward to the time when the Lord would comfort Israel, (26) as he had been assured by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before seeing the Messiah of the Lord. (27) So he was led into the Temple by the Holy Spirit at the time the parents brought the child Jesus, to do for him according to the custom of the law. (28) Simeon took the child in his arms and blessed God, saying, (29) ”Now, O Lord, you can dismiss your servant in peace for you have fulfilled your word (30) and my eyes have seen your salvation, (31) which you display for all the people to see, (32) a light for revelation to the Gentiles and the glory of your people Israel.” (33) His father and mother wondered at what was said about the child. (34) Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, his mother, “Look! This child is destined to cause the rise and fall of many in Israel. He will be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the secret thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. (35) As for you a sword shall pierce your heart too.” (36) There was also a prophetess named Anna, daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. After leaving her father’s home, she had been with her husband for seven years, and since then she had been continually in the Temple, serving God as a widow night and day in fasting and prayer. (37) She was now eighty-four. (38) At that very moment she came up to them and gave praise to God and spoke of the child to all who looked forward to the deliverance of Jerusalem.
The Circumcision and Naming of Jesus
(21) On the eighth day when the baby had to be circumcised, he was named Jesus, the name the angel had given him before he was conceived.
When God made a covenant with Abraham, God said, “You shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin and that will be the sign of the covenant between me and you. When he is eight days old, every male among you will be circumcised, generation after generation.” (Genesis 17:11-12a). Israelites named the male child during circumcision because God changed Abram’s name to Abraham when He made the covenant with him and established circumcision as its sign (Genesis 17:4-5).
Eighth day has a special significance in the Bible. Genesis frames the creation narrative within a week, including the Sabbath day. Israelites considered eighth day as a day of fresh beginning because it is the start of a new week. Jewish purification took seven days, followed by the next day as a day of renewal or sanctification.
Unlike at the circumcision of John the Baptist (Luke 1:59-66), when Joseph and Mary arranged Jesus’ circumcision, the family and friends could not attend. The reason was that the Holy Family was in Bethlehem, far away from Nazareth, their homeland. So, Luke gives only a simple statement about the circumcision and naming of Jesus. Usually, a village rabbi performed the circumcision after reciting a benediction and closing the ceremony with a prayer over a cup of wine.
This feast of circumcision and naming of Jesus falls on the New Year day in the modern times. So, every New Year’s Day reminds us of the baptism and naming of Jesus. We also start the New Year with resolutions for a better living. This feast can be a relevant occasion for us to renew our covenantal relationship with God that we made through baptism.
Joseph and Mary knew that Jesus, who is God and author of the covenant, had no need of circumcision. Still, they yielded to the Jewish custom of circumcision. Though the Holy Family was away from home and had inconveniences, they did the circumcision on the eighth day itself. They also obeyed Angel Gabriel’s instruction to name the child Jesus. Jesus is Joshua in Hebrew, and Joshua means “Yahweh is salvation.” Joshua was the successor of Moses who led the Israelites to Canaan, the promised land defeating Jericho. Jesus is the new Joshua who waged war against Satan, became victorious, and led his people to the new promised land, heaven.
The Presentation in the Temple
(22) When the day came for the purification according to the law of Moses, they brought the baby up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord.
According to the Mosaic Law, there was a period of ceremonial uncleanliness for women who gave birth to children. “When a woman conceives and gives birth to a male child, she shall be unclean for seven days as in the days of her monthly periods.” (Lev. 12:2). Even after completing the seven days of uncleanliness, “she shall wait for thirty-three days to be purified of her bleeding. She shall not touch anything that is consecrated nor enter the sanctuary until the days of her purification are completed.” (Lev. 2:4). If the child was female, the duration of uncleanliness was 14 days and the state of blood purity was an added 66 days. Thus, the period of purification for the mother who gave birth to a male child was 40 days and a female child was 80 days.
According to the Biblical numerology, 40 is symbolic of a period of purification, preparation, or testing. After giving birth, a woman has a discharge known as lochia that might last for four to six weeks. The term lochia derives from the Greek word lokheíos, that means “of childbirth.” Lochia is a combination of blood, mucus, and uterine tissue coming from the wound that occurred when placenta tore away from the uterine wall. It is a post-delivery healing process. During this time, Jewish religion did not allow women to enter the sanctuary or to touch anything sacred.
On the 40th day after childbirth, the family offered the sacrifice for cleansing at the Nicanor Gate on the east of the Court of Women in the Temple. The women who lived far from the Temple were not obliged to be present in the Temple for the purification ceremony. Since Bethlehem was only six miles south of Jerusalem, Joseph and Mary went to the Temple for the rituals.
(23) As it is written in the law of the Lord: Every firstborn male shall be consecrated to God.
The evangelist quotes from Exodus 13:2, “Consecrate to me every firstborn. The first to open the womb among the Israelites, whether human or animal, is mine.” The LORD asked Moses to tell the children of Israel the reason for the consecration of the first born: “As Pharaoh stubbornly refused to let us go, the LORD slew every firstborn in Egypt, of man and beast alike. That is why I sacrifice to the LORD all the males that open the womb, but the firstborn of my sons, I redeem.” (Exodus 13:15). The offering of the first-born male to God was a grateful remembrance of God saving the first-born male of Israelites at the time of the original Passover from Egypt, while the angel killed the first born of the Egyptians (Exodus 12:12). Since Jesus was also the first-born male of Mary, she and Joseph presented Jesus in the Temple.
The Israelites believed that their firstborn males and animals belonged to God. They sacrificed animals and bought back the child from God by giving five shekels to a priest. That amount was worth a month’s income. That helped to support the priests who consecrated themselves to God’s service in the place of the first-born sons of Israel (Number 3:11-13). Thus, the non-Levites ransomed their firstborn for five shekels (Numbers 18:16). They did this on the 30th day by presenting the child to a local priest and paying him the money.
However, in Jesus’ case, the Bible does not mention any such payment. Joseph and Mary took Infant Jesus to the Temple and offered him to God. The parents did not redeem Jesus because he came to serve God as a priest like the Levites. He later sacrificed himself as a priest and lamb for the remission of humanity’s sin. Since Mary’s purification and presentation of Jesus in the Temple happened 40 days after Christmas, the feast falls on February 2nd according to the church calendar.
(24) And they offered a sacrifice as ordered in the law of the Lord: a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.
God had commanded to offer a yearling lamb as a burnt offering and a pigeon or a turtledove as a purification offering on the 40th day after giving birth to a male child (Lev. 12:6). If the mother could not afford a lamb, she could substitute the lamb with a turtledove or a pigeon (Lev. 12:8). Since Joseph and Mary came from Bethlehem and Joseph was out of work, they had no lamb and could not afford to buy a lamb. So, they joined other poor couples to offer only the birds.
(25) There lived in Jerusalem at this time a very upright and devout man named Simeon; the Holy Spirit was in him. He looked forward to the time when the Lord would comfort Israel.
No one knows for sure the details of this Simeon, except the evangelist’s description. Though not all scholars agree, some identify him with Shimeon, the son of Hillel and father of Gamaliel and president of the Sanhedrin.
St. Luke gives some description about Simeon:
1) Simeon lived in Jerusalem.
Simeon being a holy and elderly man filled with Holy Spirit was living in Jerusalem, the Holy City of God (Psalm 48:2, 9).
2) Simeon was righteous.
According to the Hebrew Bible, righteousness is one of the chief attributes of God. The importance of righteousness is on good ethical conduct. “You shall not pervert justice in measuring length, weight or quantity.” (Lev. 19:35). The Bible characterizes Noah, Abraham, Job, Jesus’ foster father Joseph, and many others as righteous people. The call of Christians is to be imitators of God in righteousness.
3) Simeon was devout.
The meaning of devout is God-fearing, reverential, or pious. Simeon was visiting the Temple to keep up his devotion to God.
4) Simeon was awaiting the consolation of Israel.
From a political point of view, Israel was awaiting liberation from foreign rulers. They were continuously under pagan rulers like Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, and Romans. The Israelites remembered God delivering their ancestors through Moses from the Egyptian slavery and leading them to the promised land. They were expecting such a deliverer, giving them freedom, peace, and prosperity.
From a socio-religious point of view, the lower-class people of Israel, the Samaritans, and the Gentiles lost hope in salvation because the high-class Jews taught that God’s favor was only for the elite group. Jesus came to offer consolation for the less fortunate in the community. Quoting from Isaiah 61:1-2, Jesus proclaimed: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me. He has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives and sight to the blind; to free the oppressed and to announce the Lord’s year of mercy.” (Luke 4:18-19). For Jesus, this was a spiritual liberation from the bondage of Satan, sin, suffering, and spiritual death. The liberative actions of Jesus and the descend of the Holy Spirit brought consolation for Israel and for all the nations.
5) Holy Spirit was upon Simeon.
This phrase shows the Holy Spirit’s presence in a person to conduct a special purpose. Simeon’s mission was to prophecy on Jesus and give witness to Joseph, Mary, and to those present in the Temple. In the New Testament, all who receive baptism receive the Holy Spirit to give witness to Christ in their lives.
(26) As he had been assured by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before seeing the Messiah of the Lord.
Simeon had a message from the Holy Spirit that he would be fortunate to see the coming of the Messiah in his lifetime. Jesus himself later expressed that many prophets and kings of the Old Testament wished for it. “Then Jesus turned to his disciples and said to them privately, ‘Fortunate are you to see what you see, for I tell you that many prophets and kings desired to see what you see but did not see it, and to hear what you hear but did not hear it.’” (Luke 10:23-24).
Simeon was an elderly person nearing death. He was anxiously waiting for the fulfillment of this assurance he had received through the Holy Spirit. The apocryphal book called the “Gospel of Nativity” presents him as 113 years old.
(27) So he was led into the Temple by the Holy Spirit at the time the parents brought the child Jesus, to do for him according to the custom of the law.
Joseph and Mary were not expecting the visit of Simeon and Anna. They might not even know them. The Holy Family might have been standing in line at the Nicanor Gate in the Temple with the two birds for offering. The Holy Spirit inspired Simeon to approach the child who was the Messiah.
(28) Simeon took the child in his arms and blessed God, saying…
Simeon did not bless the child but blessed God for the grace he received to see the Infant Jesus who would be his Savior and consolation. He might have found himself unworthy to bless the God incarnate.
(29) “Now, O Lord, you can dismiss your servant in peace for you have fulfilled your word.”
The elderly Simeon found fulfillment in his life by seeing and holding Infant Jesus in his hand. He knew he was nearing death. Simeon felt satisfaction and gratefulness to God at the end of his life for the blessing he received. So, he bid farewell to the world after witnessing the hope of salvation for himself and for the entire world.
(30) “And my eyes have seen your salvation, (31) which you display for all the people to see, (32) a light for revelation to the Gentiles and the glory of your people Israel.”
Simeon, who came to see the Infant Jesus, made some prophesies about him and his mother. The following are the prophesies he made about Jesus:
1) Jesus is salvation.
The meaning of Jesus is, “Yahweh saves.” It showed that Jesus would implement salvation for all humans.
2) The salvation prepared in the sight of all
People of all nations could see, hear, and experience Jesus. God had promised Abraham that he would bless all nations through his chosen descendants, Israel. Many centuries before the incarnation of Christ, Isaiah had prophesied: “The LORD has bared his holy arm in the sight of all the nations; all the ends of the earth will see the salvation of our God.” (Isaiah 52:10). The Angel of the Lord had said to the shepherds, “I am here to give you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.” (Luke 2:10). When the Jewish leaders were narrow-minded by misinterpreting the Holy Scripture stating that the Messiah was for Israel’s salvation only, Simeon predicted that his salvation would be for all nations.
3) Jesus was light also for the Gentiles.
This means Jesus would shed the light of faith to all nations who were in spiritual darkness. Isaiah had prophesied this. “On this mountain he will destroy the shroud cast over all peoples, the covering spread over all nations.” (Isaiah 25:7). “I will make you a light for the nations, so that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.” (Isaiah 49:6).
4) Jesus brought glory to Israel.
When Jesus was born, the shepherds saw “a great multitude of angels from heaven, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest.’” (Luke 2:13-14). When the Messiah redeemed all nations, he glorified Israel because he was born and appeared as an Israelite.
(33) His father and mother wondered at what was said about the child.
Though the evangelist uses “child’s father” for Joseph, he was not writing against the virgin birth of Jesus but was acknowledging Joseph’s legal fatherhood. Ordinary people understood and spoke of Joseph as the father of Jesus. It was also an expression of respect toward Joseph.
Joseph and Mary’s amazement was not on what they heard of Jesus because they already knew those things from their earlier encounter with Angel Gabriel and what the shepherds had shared with them. The reason for their wonder was that Simeon, who was a stranger to them, was coming to them unexpectedly and prophesying exactly what they knew about the infant.
(34) Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, his mother, “Look! This child is destined to cause the rise and fall of many in Israel. He will be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the secret thoughts of many hearts will be revealed.”
Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother.
Simeon did not bless the child because he knew that the child was God incarnate and did not need his blessing. Though he blessed Joseph and Mary, he addressed his prophecy on the child only to his mother Mary. Simeon knew that only Mary had blood relation to the child and only she would see Israel’s rise and fall because of the child.
This child is destined for the fall and rise of many in Israel.
According to Isaiah, “The LORD of hosts is the one you must regard as holy; he is the one you must dread. He will be a sanctuary; yet for both houses of Israel he will be a stumbling-stone, a rock that brings them down. He will be a trap and a snare for the people of Jerusalem. Many of them will stumble, many will fall and be broken, be trapped and captured.” (Isaiah 8:13-15). Simeon presented to Joseph and Mary similar contradicting effects from the child. As the Lord of Hosts, Jesus will be the refuge and salvation for many and will cause the destruction of others who would reject him.
When Jesus taught the parable of the tenant farmers, (Luke 20:9-18) he said the vineyard owner would put to death the unfaithful farmers who killed his son and would hand over the vineyard to others. Then he continued quoting Psalm 118:22, “The stone rejected by the builders has become the keystone.” Jesus continued saying, “Everyone who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces; and on anyone the stone falls will be crushed.” (Luke 20:18). This destruction happened in 70 A.D. at the fall of Jerusalem and will happen again at the second coming of Christ. “Then he will say to those on his left: ‘Go away from me, you cursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels!’” (Matthew 25:41). How people respond to Jesus’ message would determine their eternal destiny. Thus, Jesus’s ministry fulfilled Simeon’s prophecy and will fulfill again at his second coming.
A sign that will be contradicted
Jesus was also a sign of contradiction. The disciples of Jesus and many others received healing, peace, and salvation from him. Many loved him, gave him hospitality, and supported him during his public ministry. Others opposed, humiliated, tortured, and crucified Jesus. Even after his victorious resurrection, the Jews and the Romans continued to put him down and persecuted his followers for centuries.
(35) “As for you a sword shall pierce your heart too.”
You yourself a sword will pierce.
Mary would suffer along with her son. She saw the sufferings and crucifixion of her son, Jesus. While standing at the foot of the cross, Mary saw the piercing of her son’s heart. She was aware of the emotional piercing of Jesus’s heart during his public ministry, especially during his trial. Those were equivalent to emotional piercing of Mother Mary’s heart. Thus what God had said to the serpent was fulfilled: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; They will strike at your head, while you strike at their heel.” God called Mary to cooperate with her son to strike the head of the “serpent” who hurt both Jesus and his mother. Simeon reminded Mary of this call she had.
The thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.
There is a shade of evil implied in the “thoughts,” when used in the Greek. The words of Jesus were sharper than a two-edged sword. “For the word of God is living and effective. Sharper than any two-edged sword, it pierces to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and judges the intentions and thoughts of the heart. All creation is transparent to him; everything is uncovered and laid bare to the eyes of him to whom we must render account of ourselves.” (Hebrews 4:12-13). Jesus rejected those who justified themselves as righteous and received the childlike into the Kingdom of God that he reestablished.
(36) There was also a prophetess named Anna, daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. After leaving her father’s home, she had been with her husband for seven years, and since then she had been continually in the Temple, serving God as a widow night and day in fasting and prayer.
A prophetess, Anna
Luke introduced Anna as a prophetess when there was no prophet for over four centuries after Prophet Malachi who lived around 450 B.C. During this intertestamental period with no prophet, the Jews split into diverse groups. They interpreted the Holy Scripture according to their interests and developed burdensome traditions. Hence, Jesus had to reinstate the laws to their original intentions. That caused disagreements between Jesus and the Jewish groups.
Though Luke presented Anna as a prophetess, he does not specify any of her foretelling. As a prophetess, she was a preacher of the Word of God, especially to the women who came to the Temple. Her name in Hebrew is “Hannah” which means grace. There was another prophetess in the Old Testament with the same name and similar religious practices. That was Hannah, the mother of Samuel.
There were five prophetesses before Christ. Miriam, the sister of Moses, was the first one (Exodus 15:20), who led the women of Israel in praising God for saving Israel while drowning Pharaoh and his army in the Red Sea. Another prophetess was Deborah (Judges 4:4) who was also a judge of Israel before the reign of kings. Huldah was also prophetess (2 Kings 22:14). The other prophetesses were Noadiah (Nehemiah 6:14) and Isaiah’s wife (Isaiah 8:3). Then came Anna, who arrived at the presentation of Jesus in the Temple. The prophetesses were very few and served only short-term compared to the male prophets of the Old Testament.
The tribe of Asher
Asher was Jacob’s eighth son from Zilpah, Leah’s maid and Jacob’s concubine (Genesis 30:12–13). This tribe was one among the 10 Northern tribes that fell into idolatrous worship (2 Kings 17:16). So God withdrew his support, and the Assyrians attacked and dispersed the Northern Kingdom in 722 B.C. A very few faithful from the ten tribes had migrated to the south so they could continue to worship the true God in the Temple. However, they had to sacrifice many of their family members, friends, land, and inheritance. Anna’s family was one among such exemplary people who wanted to continue their faithfulness to the true God. Thus, God involved a lady outside the Judah tribe of Israelites, to give witness to Infant Jesus.
(37) She was now eighty-four.
After seven years of her married life, Anna became a widow. Instead of considering a second marriage, she dedicated her life for God in the Temple. She remained in the Temple, worshipping God day and night with fasting and prayer. She got shelter in the Temple premises like Prophetess Huldah (2 Chronicles 34:22) and spent her time in the Women’s Court. As a prophetess, she might have been guiding women who came for worship and might have volunteered to clean the Temple. The Jews considered such service at the Temple as a noble task for God. So, Anna might have been a familiar character for the worshippers, especially women. She also might have been the leader of a community of widows who settled there for worship and service in the Temple.
(38) At that very moment she came up to them and gave praise to God and spoke of the child to all who looked forward to the deliverance of Jerusalem.
Anna, who was always in the Temple, came forward to meet the Holy Family because she noticed divinity in the child Jesus. She might have listened to Simeon’s prophecy. So, she thanked God for the gift of seeing the Savior born as a child. As a prophetess, she accepted the mission to preach on the Holy Child. Her target group was the people who were awaiting the redemption of Jerusalem from the foreign rulers. Anna was already a familiar and credible preacher known to the community. She was the first woman to proclaim the good news to the public and the second evangelist after the shepherds in Bethlehem (Luke 2:17-18).
Simeon and Anna
Why did Luke present the witness of Simeon and Anna? According to Deuteronomy 19:15, “Only on the testimony of two or three witnesses can a case be resolved.” The Holy Spirit guided Simeon and Anna to witness that Infant Jesus was the Messiah whom the generations had been waiting for. Simeon and Anna were holy people and advanced in years.
Simeon had been awaiting to see Jesus, as God had revealed to him. He came at the exact time to the Temple under the Holy Spirit’s guidance. Anna was already in the Temple and came forward, realizing that the Messiah was there. Simeon wanted to die in peace, believing that his mission was over. However, Anna continued to preach the good news to the people who were awaiting the consolation of Jerusalem.
Evangelist Luke was not one among the 12 apostles. He did not closely follow Jesus during his public ministry. Then how did he come to know the infancy narrative of Jesus? Luke had interviews with Mary, the mother of Jesus. Mary had kept everything that happened in Jesus’ childhood in her heart (Luke 2:19, 51). She shared her experience with the evangelist so he could document them for the future generations.