The First Sunday after Christmas
December 26-27, 2009
Text: Luke 2:22-40
Dear Friends in Christ,
To understand our text we must go back to Exodus12: “For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will strike all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the Lord.” In Exodus 13, God then commanded that every first born male that opens its mother’s womb is to be consecrated to the Lord. They belonged to Him, because He had passed over the first born of Israel in Egypt.
Now, one note here about the time line of events in Luke 2 and Matthew 1&2. The two gospels cannot be reconciled with any reliability. That does not mean that they contradict each other. Rather, it simply means that we don’t have enough information to fit them together. Christ was born the very last days of the life of Herod the Great. He died in March of 4 B.C. Herod tried to kill Jesus and they fled to Egypt. But we don’t know when in the time line this happens. Nor do we know how far into Egypt they traveled or how long they stayed there. At that time, the Gaza region was part of Egypt. That would only be about forty miles at the closest point. This distance could have been traversed in a day and a half on foot. So Mary and Joseph could have been to Egypt and back before Christ’s appearance in the temple at forty days of age. So we don’t know if this occurs before or after the visit of the Magi. Conventional wisdom is that the Magi would come after this, but I tend think the opposite. I think the Magi had come and gone, Mary and Joseph and Jesus had fled to Egypt and already returned by the time Christ was forty days old. This would place Christ’s birth near the end of February of 4 B.C. This would explain Luke’s note that they returned to Nazareth after this. But as I noted earlier, this cannot be determined with any certainty from the text.
Human beings have always struggled with the birth of Christ. Because this is God, the very maker of the universe, they want to say that Christ could not have been born in a normal manner. Thus, the teaching developed that Christ was born from a closed womb. In other words Mary didn’t have a normal delivery, but the baby just miraculously came out, without labor and without opening the womb. However, the ancient Church father Tertullian writing at end of the second century points out, based on this passage of Scripture, that this could not be the case. They consecrated Christ to God as the first born who had opened His mother’s womb. Tertullian explains that they could not have done what Luke records if Christ had been born, as some teach, from a closed womb. Thus Luther insisted that Christ was born in the normal manner, opening His mother’s womb, passing through the birth canal and all that.
The other question that arises is whether Mary remained a virgin. In Latin the term is “semper virgo.” Here Scripture is not as clear. Many Lutherans including Luther and Walther taught that Mary did remain a virgin. When I was in seminary, Dr. Denger taught that Mary remained a virgin, but Dr. Scaer insisted she did not. Most of the ancient fathers likewise taught that Mary remained a virgin. However, Tertullian is again insightful. He points out that in Jewish law a marriage is not legal unless it is consummated. It should also be noted that scripture attaches no blessing to celibacy and perpetual virginity. A women is considered blessed in Scripture if she has many children.
When Jesus was forty days old they went to temple to consecrate Mary’s first born Son to God, in accordance with the command given at the time of Moses. They also offered the sacrifice for Mary’s cleansing. Women were considered ceremonially unclean after they gave birth. Now this seems a rather messy bit of ceremonial law, but it was intended to protect women. Since they were ceremonially unclean they were limited in what they could do in the household. Nor could they enter the temple or synagogue. Most importantly, they could not have sexual relations. This would allow for a good period of rest and healing. Interestingly, the time was longer if the child was a girl. I think this was perhaps to prevent husbands who were overeager for a son from trying again too quickly.
In the temple Mary and Joseph encountered two very interesting people. The first was Simeon. He had been promised that he would live to see the Christ. The Holy Spirit led him into the temple that day and showed him that this child was indeed the promised Messiah. Simeon takes the child into his arms and sings his great song, the Nunc Dimitis - “Lord, now let Your servant depart in peace, for my eyes have seen Thy salvation...” Simeon is saying that he can now die in peace. But he also warns of the tumult Christ will bring and that Mary too will bear much suffering because of this Child. The second person is an elderly woman named Anna. A better rendering of the Greek would be that she was a widow for eighty four years, making her over a hundred year of age. She, like the shepherds, begins to tell everyone that this child is the Messiah, the Christ, God’s anointed One.
Why is all this important? Christ fulfills righteousness in our place. That includes the ceremonial Law of Moses. Here Christ is beginning that task of being our fulfillment of the Law. Christ is here doing what we could not. This is why He is the consolation of Israel and a light to the gentiles. He is opening the gates of heaven for us. He is inviting us in, with the assurance that Law has already been totally fulfilled. We owe no further debt. All the obligations have been fulfilled. And it does not matter who you are, or who your parents are. It doesn’t matter if you are Jewish or Gentile. Christ has done it all for everyone. He is the Savior of the whole world.
What of Simeon’s warning about the fall of many? Who will fall because of Christ? Many in power would reject Him - people like the high priest Joseph Caiaphus. The temple establishment would be wiped away. But in its place would be the Christian Church, Word and Sacrament. In its place would the be Church, built on the foundation of the forgiveness of sins. Here in the temple we see the beginning of Christ’s work of fulfilling the law in our place.