Friday, February 1, 2013

On the Fortieth Day: From the Temple to Calvary

On the Fortieth Day was originally posted as four separate posts. For this edition, however, they have been abridged and combined into one. Even with this shortened edition this post comes to 2,000 words plus. If you do not have time to read the whole piece, I would encourage you to scroll down (indicated by is picture) and read the quotes from St. Pius X on how Our Lady nurtured her Son, the Lamb of God, for the Sacrifice.

I Have Waited:

On the fortieth day of our Lord’s life, the prayers and longings of St. Simeon’s soul were finally realized. Psalm 40 seems to have foretold the thoughts of St. Simeon as he beheld the Messiah in the form of an infant for the first time: “I waited, waited for the LORD; who bent down and heard my cry… Though I am afflicted and poor, the Lord keeps me in mind.” For centuries people have wondered how he recognized the Lord.

There seemed to be no marks of distinction; nor any supernatural aura which illumined the little body of Jesus. However, the Gospel of Luke said he did not come to the temple alone. In fact, St. Simeon “came in the Spirit into the temple.” Under the Spirit’s inspiration and with His promptings, he recognized the Messiah. To be sure, with the Holy Spirit as our guide, we are able to see big things in small places and are able to recognize God in the ordinary circumstances of life.

Among the gifts of the Holy Spirit “are those secret warnings and invitations, which from time to time are excited in our minds and hearts by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Without these there is no beginning of a good life, no progress, no arriving at eternal salvation. And since these words and admonitions are uttered in the soul in an exceedingly secret manner, they are sometimes aptly compared in Holy Writ to the breathing of a coming breeze…” (Pope Leo XIII, On the Holy Spirit) Without these secret warnings and invitations, we are apt to miss what God is doing in our life. Vigilance is required because his work may come in unexpected ways; sometimes amid failures, setbacks and what may seem uneventful. Quite often, the Lord will speak to us or reveal something important to us; sometimes when we are working or when we are still. In any case, we need to exercise a kind of monastic silence at certain times throughout the day in order to hear His voice more clearly. Silence is the language of God. Who can doubt that St. Simeon understood the importance of silence and prayer.

Again, God works through the ordinary. The first appearance of the Messiah in the temple was not flashy. His parents were doing what countless parents had done on the fortieth day of their child’s life, namely, presenting their child as a dedication to the Lord. Although it is certainly possible that St. Simeon may have received a private revelation so as to identify the Son of God, it may have been the case that he was tipped off by a few things.

Mary's House:

First, according to apocryphal literature (books that were not included in the New Testament canon) in early Christianity, such as the Infancy Narratives of James, the Gospel of Pseudo- Matthew and the Gospel of the Nativity of Mary, the Blessed Virgin Mary was dedicated to the temple by her parents St. Joachim and St. Anne when she was only three years old. This is a tradition that the Catholic Church has treated with a great deal of credibility. Furthermore, according to this same tradition, when she was of age, she made known her vow of perpetual virginity to a priest or to the High Priest. Realizing how holy and special she was, the temple priest honored her wish and searched for a suitable husband for her; a man who would honor this vow of hers. Three candidates presented themselves; among them was St. Joseph. It just so happened that according to the apocryphal literature, that a dove descended on St. Joseph and at the same time, his staff miraculously bloomed. In many Catholic churches you will notice a statue of St. Joseph with a staff topped with flowers.

If this story has historical credence, which I believe it does, then upon Mary’s entrance into the temple with her infant Son in her arms, she would have been recognized by the temple priests. Remembering her holiness and her pledge of virginity, it could very well be that St. Simeon, being among the priests, recalled the passage from Isaiah: “Therefore the Lord himself will give you this sign: the virgin shall be with child, and bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.” (7:14)

Having spent eleven, twelve or thirteen years in the temple, the Blessed Virgin Mary would have been recognized by the temple officials. But only one man steps forward to pay homage to the Messiah upon his arrival; and that man was St. Simeon. Later, of course, the prophetess Anna would enter the scene and rejoice with him upon seeing Jesus Christ.

The Sacrifice Begins:

After taking the baby into his arms he prophesied that Jesus would be “a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and glory for your people Israel.” Jesus would prove to be the Hebrew par excellence; the ideal Jew and the Israelite. As for the Gentiles, his Gospel would cast light upon them. “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; Upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom a light has shone. “ (Isaiah 9:1) Since the days of Noah, the Gentiles would lose the Faith and fall not only into religious error but also barbaric practices such as human sacrifices. Indeed, this ungodly sacrificial rite to appease false gods would be practiced on every continent.

St. Simeon then turns his attention to Mary, the mother of Jesus. It is in the temple that she learns of her vocation of co-redemptrix, that is, as one who would suffer with her Son. As the Mother of the new High Priest and the Lamb to be sacrificed, she would be no passive spectator on Good Friday. Rather, Mary would be called to do what Abraham was prevented from doing, namely, offering her Son as a pleasing sacrifice to God. It began with the Presentation in the Temple and was consummated on Calvary just outside of Jerusalem.

It all started when one of the Magi gave to the new born Messiah frankincense. If the Magi came to Bethlehem for the Jesus’ baby shower, frankincense was not your typical gift for such an occasion. It was rather fitting for funerals. To be sure, death is not the first thing a mother wants to think about when her new born comes into the world. On the fortieth day, however, St. Simeon’s prophetic words to Mary would give the gift of frankincense context. After taking the child into his arms, St. Simeon blessed his parents and addressed the following words to the Blessed Virgin: “Behold, this child is destined for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be contradicted (and you yourself a sword will pierce) so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.”

Mother of the Lowly:This innocent, endearing little baby was “destined for the fall and the rise of many.” The saving work of Jesus Christ would not only affirm the righteous and lift up the lowly; it would also usher in God’s kingdom by exorcising evil and toppling the powerful. Not even a year earlier, Mary would proclaim in her canticle, “He has shown might with his arm, dispersed the arrogant of mind and heart. He has thrown down the rulers from their thrones but lifted up the lowly. The hungry he has filled with good things; the rich he has sent away empty.” Even the Mother of God knew that her Son’s saving work would involve conflict.

As stated previously, Mary, as the Mother of the Lamb, did what father Abraham was preventing from doing. When his son Isaac came of age, Abraham was commanded by God to sacrifice his son Isaac on Mt. Moriah, where the Temple stood during the time of Christ. However, at the last minute, Abraham was prevented from doing so. His willingness to do it was merit enough for God. Because of his great faith in God, he was esteemed as the father of God’s chosen people. As for Mary, her faith and act of obedience in offering her Son to the Father would merit for her the right to be called the Mother of God's people. What is more, the presentation of the Lord on the fortieth day was not only the fulfillment of a rite according to the law of Moses, it marked the beginning Mary’s spiritual sacrifice; a spiritual sacrifice which would be consummated at the foot of the Cross some thirty three years later.

It took Adam and Eve, that is, a man and a woman to bring about the ruin of the human family. Likewise, God would use a man and a woman to save what was lost.

St. Paul once said that a woman is saved through motherhood. (I Tim. 2:15) The same can be said for Mary, the mother of Jesus. She worked out her salvation through her own motherhood. But even more than that, through her spotless maternity, she also helped to work out the salvation of the human race. By many popes she has been called the Ark of the Covenant. For nine months, she not only carried the Word of God but she also mystically carried the people of God within the tabernacle of her womb. In the book of Revelation (chapter 12), God's people would be referred to as "her offspring." And it is against Mary's offspring that the Dragon would wage war.

It is fitting, therefore, that St. Simeon prophesied that the Son of Mary would be a sign that was to be contradicted. Indeed, the Cross throughout the centuries would not only serve as an emblem of redemption for souls but it would also portend to be a sign that contradicts evil. As our Lord would tell his Apostles at the Last Supper: “If the world hates you, realize that it hated me first…If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you.” (John 15:18, 20)

Nourshing the Victim:
Pope St. Pius X said “It was not only the prerogative of the Most Holy Mother to have furnished the material of His flesh to the Only Son of God, Who was to be born with human members of which material should be prepared the Victim for the salvation of men; but hers was also the office of tending and nourishing that Victim, and at the appointed time presenting Him for the sacrifice.” (Pius X, On the Immaculate Conception) Far from wincing from the hour of her Son's sacrifice, the Mother of God hastened the hour by asking Jesus to perform his first public miracle at the Wedding of Cana.

But first, through St. Simeon, as with St. Paul (cf. Acts 9:16), the Lord revealed to Mary the suffering she would have to endure. And although the sufferings of Christ were sufficient to save, it was preordained that Mary’s tears would be mingled with the blood of Christ for the salvation of the human race. Accordingly, St. Simeon said to her that “you yourself a sword will pierce so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.” The piercing of a mother’s heart will help reveal the thoughts of many hearts. Interestingly, “The thoughts of many hearts being revealed” is allusion to Judgment Day. St. Paul, in his first letter to the Corinthians, wrote that at the appointed time Jesus Christ will “bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will manifest the motives of our hearts, and then everyone will receive praise from God.” Mary’s suffering, therefore, was no incidental matter. Rather, the piercing of her Immaculate Heart was a precondition for the Day of Judgment. She would be pierced "so that" the thoughts of many would be revealed. Indeed, through her, as one united to her Son, the righteous will be rewarded and the wicked punished.

Rejoicing in Us:

It must be born in mind that Mary was not only a Lady of Sorrow; it is equally true to say that in her sorrow and from her sorrow there was an occasion of great joy. In the same encyclical, St. Pius X said that, “…beside the Cross of Jesus there stood Mary His Mother, not merely occupied in contemplating the cruel spectacle, but rejoicing that her Only Son was offered for the salvation of mankind and so entirely participating in His Passion, that if it had been possible she would have gladly borne all torments that her Son bore.” It is a truth worth contemplating that Mary's love for her spiritual children is equally generous.

Mary’s participation in the Passion of the Christ began with a ritual on the fortieth day. It was there in the Temple that she offered up to the Father the Lamb of God. And it was there in the Temple that she accepted all that it meant for her. Through his faith in God, Abraham became the father of the Jewish people. But through her faith and sacrificial love, Mary became the new Eve and the Mother of all Christians. Who can doubt, therefore, that what she did for her Son Jesus she will also do for us? And what she will do is make us holy through our own trials and contradictions; and more importantly, she will prepare us for the hour of our death so that our transition into eternal life may be without contradiction. "Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. Amen!"