Christians celebrate the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple on February 2. Sometimes it’s called the Purification of the Virgin, but the real emphasis is on Jesus. While that’s how we view it, that’s not how Joseph and Mary would have thought of it. The reason we have it a bit muddled is because Luke, who tells us the story, seems to have begun the tradition of this combination of events.
For Jews, purification and presentation were two separate traditions. Mary had to be purified at the Temple and thus needed to be there in person. That’s the first tradition. The second involved the “ransoming” of a firstborn. Since a firstborn belongs to God, a “ransom” had to be paid, but the child did not need to be physically presented for this to happen. It seems that Joseph and Mary were eminently practical. Since they had to be at the Temple for Mary, they might as well take advantage of the visit to pay the ransom while they were there. By offering Jesus to God in person, they went a bit above and beyond what ordinary custom required.
This episode actually focuses on Mary. After the birth of a child, a Jewish woman needed to perform a ritual purification in accord with the laws in the Torah. Joseph and Mary, being devout Jews, traveled from their home in Nazareth to the Temple in Jerusalem to complete this ritual, which took place forty days after the birth of a boy (eighty days after the birth of a girl).
This was not a quick afternoon jaunt because it is about a 130-mile round trip. While we don’t know how long it would have taken them, we know that pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago trek typically walk twelve to twenty miles a day, so it would take at least three or four days each way to go from Nazareth to Jerusalem. Undoubtedly, they traveled with others in a caravan for protection and companionship. It might have been a bit of a “vacation” in a sense because Jerusalem was definitely the “big city.”
Once they got there, Mary and Joseph offered either two turtledoves or two pigeons, the option provided for those who could not afford a lamb. While this is often taken as a sign that they were poor, it’s also possible they merely were good stewards of their money. If two pigeons worked just as well as a lamb, why go to the added expense of a lamb unless you wanted to show off? It’s clear that Mary and Joseph were not showy types. So, Joseph opted for the typical, more modest offering.
While we can look at the theological implications of this event, there is a practical takeaway for us as well. Mary and Joseph were fulfilling the rituals of their religious practice, but they weren’t ostentatious about it. When we do what our faith requires, perhaps we need to remember their example.
“Saint Joseph. One cannot love Jesus and Mary without loving the Holy Patriarch.” –Saint Josemaría Escrivá
Mary and Joseph, help me to live my faith in a quiet yet consistent way, as you did yours. Amen.