It seems an unusual requirement that Mary and Joseph should consecrate God’s own Son back to Himself. And yet, in obedience to the Law of Moses, Mary and Joseph do just that, obeying the requirement that “Every male that opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord” (Luke 2:24). This law hearkens back to the Passover, when God rescued His people from slavery in Egypt by the death of every Egyptian first born, whether human or animal. In the familiar story, only those households which had been marked by the blood of a lamb were spared. In a sense, the freedom of Israel was only purchased by the death – the sacrifice – of Egypt’s first-born children. As God had made this sacrifice – all people are His children, after all – Israel owed Him a debt for its life and freedom.
The fulfillment of this debt is what is signified by the command first laid down during the Exodus: “The Lord said to Moses, ‘Consecrate to me all the first-born; whatever is the first to open the womb among the people of Israel, both of man and of beast, is mine’” (Exodus 13:1-2). Even after arriving at the Promised Land, Israel is required to pay back to God every first-born animal, but He allows them to redeem their own first-born sons by an animal sacrifice. For when the children thus redeemed inevitably ask their parents about the meaning of this ritual, God supplied a ready answer: “By strength of hand the Lord brought us out of Egypt, from the house of bondage. For when Pharaoh stubbornly refused to let us go, the Lord slew all the first-born in the land of Egypt, both the first-born of man and the first-born of cattle. Therefore, I sacrifice to the Lord all the males that first open the womb; but all the first-born of my sons I redeem” (Exodus 13:14-15).
Because of this debt, Jesus, the first-born son of Mary fell under this command. He belonged to His Father both in light of His divine sonship and because of Israel’s debt. An integral part of God redemptive plan for mankind, however, was that Christ would become fully man in order to fully redeem mankind, all without losing any portion of His divinity. By the ceremony of the Presentation at the Temple in Jerusalem, Mary and Joseph redeem Him for humanity. By paying the poor man’s price of a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons, Christ is made fully a member of the people Israel in His humanity. By becoming a member of Israel, who stand before God for all mankind, Christ places Himself in a position to sacrifice for all mankind, finally making good the very first debt incurred by Adam and Eve regarding the forbidden fruit: “…for in the day that you eat of it you shall die” (Genesis 2:17).
Thus, the Presentation in the Temple becomes for us a reminder of the climax and goal of Christ’s life on earth: the Cross. Out of perfect love, receiving nothing for Himself, God became man – fully man, purchased from the debt of the Exodus – in order to assuage the debt that kept all people from their Creator. By sacrificing everything, God purchased for all people what they themselves had foolishly thrown away: union with Him. This Christmas, let us remind ourselves of the depth of this gratuitous love, and pray in thanksgiving that God chose to become one of us that we may be one with Him.
-Br. Antony Augustine Cherian, O.P.
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