02 February 2015

The Redemption of the Lord

We have been returned, as it were, to Christmas once again—on this fortieth day of Christmas, which is really the conclusion of the Christmas cycle.  In just a few weeks, with the Feast of the Transfiguration of Our Lord, we will be turned toward the glory of His Cross and Passion, in the hopeful expectation of His Resurrection.  But for the moment, the Word of God has called us to behold and receive the infant Lord Jesus in the courts of His House, His Holy Sanctuary.

This festival day actually recalls and celebrates two different events, which coincided in the visit of the Holy Family to the Temple in Jerusalem.  In accordance with the Law of the Lord, there is the purification of St. Mary following the birth of her firstborn Son, and then also the redemption of the same little Lord Jesus, who was not a Levite but from the tribe of Judah.

We acknowledge that the Blessed Virgin Mary is indeed a saint by God’s grace and forgiveness in Christ Jesus, her Son, but that she was, to begin with, a sinner in need of such forgiveness—in need of cleansing and purification.  That much is simple and straightforward enough.  And yet, it is profoundly ironic that she would be required by the Law of God to undergo purification for bearing the spotless and holy Son of God!  She a virgin undefiled, who conceived by the Holy Spirit and gave birth to the Savior of the world, had to be purified for that very reason.

To be sure, such requirements of purification were not unique to St. Mary.  They belonged to the ceremonial and sacrificial Law of God, whereby He sanctified and set apart His people (Israel) from the pagan nations of the world.  His Law, in this regard, dealt not only with sins per se, but also with other aspects of natural life.  This ceremonial Law drew strict boundaries between what was pure and clean, whole and complete, on the one hand, and what was flawed or blemished, diminished or incomplete, on the other hand.  And again, the purpose was to sanctify and set apart the chosen people of God, and thus to reflect the absolute holiness of God Himself.

In addition to these lines of purity, the ceremonial Law of God attached special and particular significance to bodily functions pertaining to procreation and childbirth.  It is in this category, of course, that St. Mary’s purification falls today.  To consider what this means, think back to the Garden of Eden and to the consequences of the Fall into Sin:

In the first place, God cursed the woman with pain in childbirth; but then He also promised a Savior Who would be the Seed of the Woman.  Thus, both the Law and the Gospel, the curse and the blessing, the consequences of sin and its forgiveness are all centered in the Woman precisely as Mother: centered in her ovaries and womb.

From Eve onward, then, especially among the chosen people of God, every aspect of a woman’s fertility and childbearing was both a proclamation of the curse of sin and a proclamation of the promise of the Gospel.  And in a very real sense, the bleeding that follows childbirth and continues for roughly six weeks (or forty days) is likewise both a consequence of the Fall into Sin and a foreshadowing of the blood that would be shed by the Woman’s Seed, that is, by the Savior Jesus Christ, God in the flesh, who would bleed and die for the forgiveness and salvation of the world.

The same sacrificial blood of Christ, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, was signified by the requisite sacrifice of a lamb—or, in a case of poverty, the sacrifice of a turtledove and a pigeon—for the purification of a woman following childbirth.  Indeed, like everything else in the Old Testament, the point and purpose of this ceremonial and sacrificial Law of God was to prepare the people for the coming of the Christ.

Therefore, if the fertility and childbearing of each and every other woman recalled the Fall into Sin and the promise of the Gospel, all the more so, the childbearing of this Woman, in particular, that is, the childbearing of this Blessed Virgin Mary, the Mother of God, was the ultimate fulfillment of both the curse and the promise of God in the Garden.  Through her, through the very pain and process of childbirth, God has given Himself to bear our sin and to be our Savior, to sacrifice Himself and to shed His own blood for the sins of the world.

Far from being exempt from the requirement of purification, St. Mary was the Mother, above all others, whom this Law of God was really all about.  Not as though she had sinned in giving birth to the Son of God, but because His birth encompassed and dealt with the whole reality of sin and its forgiveness, for the salvation of all sinners languishing under its curse.  Indeed, as St. Paul writes in his Epistle to the Galatians, Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the Law, being made a curse for us!  In very much the same way that our Lord’s circumcision on the Eighth Day fulfilled the covenant of circumcision, so does St. Mary’s purification on this fortieth day fulfill the first promise of the Gospel in the Garden of Eden.  It is a declaration, in accordance with the Law of God, that the promised Seed of the Woman has arrived to crush the serpent-devil’s head.

Likewise, the same principle and significance are also at work in the Presentation of our Lord, which is the other ceremonial Law that is fulfilled on the fortieth day of Christmas.  It goes back, not to the Garden of Eden, but to the Exodus from Egypt.

Most of you will no doubt recall the devastating tenth plague, which the Lord brought against Pharaoh and the whole land of Egypt: The Lord God sent the Angel of Death by night to slay all the firstborn sons of both man and beast, from the firstborn of mighty Pharaoh on his throne all the way down to the firstborn of the lowliest captive in prison.  The firstborn sons of Israel, however, were spared from this plague of death, because they were covered and protected by the blood of the Passover Lamb.  Where the Lord’s Angel saw the blood of the lamb, he passed over the home.

Henceforth, the Lord commanded that the firstborn sons of Israel (both man and beast) would belong to Him by right.  Indeed, it needs to be understood that all the Children of Israel belonged to the Lord, even as all the earth is the Lord’s and all the fulness thereof.  But even more so, the firstborn sons belong to Him, because He spared them from death and sanctified them for Himself in the Exodus.  Thus, all the firstborn animals among the people were to be sacrificed to the Lord, and all the firstborn sons of the people were to be given to the Lord for His service.

Now, as part of the Covenant that God established with Israel at Mt. Sinai, He set aside for Himself the entire tribe of Levi to serve Him as priests among the people.  And as such, He established that all of the other tribes would redeem their firstborn sons from service, for the redemption price of five silver shekels.  For the people to pay this price for the redemption of their firstborns served as a constant reminder that both they and their sons and daughters, and their animals, and all of their earthly goods, belonged in fact to the Lord their God.  And all the while, then, the tribe of Levi was responsible for the priestly Divine Service of God, including the offering of the many and various sacrifices that He had commanded, all of this in preparation for the coming of the Christ.

Which now brings us to the Presentation of that very Christ in His Temple on this day:

The Lord Jesus Christ, Who is not only the firstborn Son of Mary, but also, from all eternity, the “Firstborn,” the only-begotten Son of God the Father.  In Him we behold the love and mercy, the grace and peace, and the divine Glory of the one true God in the flesh.

In contrast to the Israelites in Egypt, this firstborn Son of God will not be spared the plague of the Angel of Death.  On the contrary, He has come to bear and suffer that plague in His own Body on the Cross.  Indeed, this one Lord Jesus Christ, the almighty and eternal Son of God, has come to be the Passover Lamb, so that His own holy and precious blood might cover His people from death and release them from the bondage of sin.  Accordingly, it is the very Body and Blood of this same Lord Jesus that are set before you and given to you as your Passover Meal, your Feast of Salvation.

What is more, Jesus Christ, the Son of God and Mary’s Son, is the merciful and great High Priest who supercedes and replaces the Levitical Priesthood of the Old Testament, once and for all, by His own voluntary sacrifice (of Himself), and by His innocent suffering and death on the Cross.

In keeping with the Law, Jesus would have been “redeemed” by Joseph and Mary at the cost of five silver shekels, since He was not from the tribe of Levi.  Yet, St. Luke does not mention any such payment or redemption, implying instead that the true theological significance of our Lord’s Presentation was not a redemption from service but consecration for service unto God.

To say it another way, the little Lord Jesus, less than two months old, was consecrated to become both the Priest and the Sacrifice, and thereby, also, the Temple itself in His own flesh and blood.

Bearing all of this in mind, you may see that the Presentation of our Lord is the fulfillment of the Passover, the Exodus, the Priesthood, and the entire Old Testament Liturgy, for the redemption of all people—yourself included—from the slavery and eternal punishment of sin, death, and hell.  Not with any silver, but with His own body and life!

It is in that Body of Christ Jesus, here within His Church of the Gospel–Word and Sacraments, and especially in His sacrificial flesh and blood—in this, the New Testament Passover Feast—that you now meet the Lord Himself, as did St. Simeon there in the Temple.  In this Lord Jesus Christ, in His own flesh, you behold your Light and your Salvation, indeed, the Savior of the world.  And as you take Him up into your arms, as you receive Him into your own body, you also may depart in peace, according to His Word of the Gospel.

For He has become like you in every respect, save only without any sin of His own.  And He has taken all of your sin upon Himself, and carried it in His Body to the Cross.  He has suffered all that you must suffer; He has been tempted in every way that you are tempted; and He has borne the judgment of God and the damnation you deserve, so that you may be covered by His blood and spared eternal death.  Indeed, He has sacrificed Himself for you, for the forgiveness of all of your sins; and here and now He gives to you Himself, His Body and His Blood, for Life and Salvation in Him.  And this true Body and Blood of your Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, will strengthen you and keep you steadfast in the true faith, unto life everlasting.  Depart in His Peace.

In the Name + of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

No comments: