Seward United Methodist Church
Monday, August 02, 2021
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Rituals

Luke 2:21-40

Luke’s Gospel offers something none of the others do: A glimpse into Jesus’ childhood and adolescence. In addition to this story, there is also, of course, the “coming of age” story of 12 year old Jesus in the Temple.

The most likely explanation for why Luke offers this is because he had access to Mary when he wrote. Who else would have known these stories and still be alive to tell them? And we shouldn’t miss that there are very personal details about Mary in these stories. Verse 19 of this chapter says, “Mary treasured these things in her heart and thought about them often.” That sure sounds like an eyewitness detail.

But how did Luke have access to Mary? We’re pretty sure that Mark wrote his Gospel first. His is the shortest Gospel, and almost all of it is included in Matthew and Luke. That would make it seem that Matthew and Luke had his Gospel in hand and used that as a starting point, and then expanded it to address their particular audiences.

Luke was a Gentile. He was from Troas in modern day Turkey. We know that because the first time he appears in the Book of Acts is when Paul and Silas were in Troas, in Acts 16. All of sudden, the pronouns change from “they” to “we.” Luke had no firsthand knowledge of any of these events, but in the intro to his Gospel, he writes, “Having carefully investigated all these accounts from the beginning, I have written a careful summary.” By the way, if you like obscure trivia, Troas takes its name from Troy, the city the Greeks destroyed in the Trojan War.

The best guess then is that Luke wrote his Gospel while Paul was in prison in Caesarea Philippi, which begins in Acts 23. Luke went with Paul to Jerusalem. And when Paul was sent to Rome after his imprisonment, Luke went with him. And so he had two years, or more, to do “careful investigation” and speak with eyewitnesses like Mary.

The text begins with “Eight days later.” That would be eight days after Jesus’ birth, the day of circumcision. Luke suggests that the name Jesus was actually given to him on the 8th day. Now we know that was the custom in the first century world in general, but we don’t know if that was also the Jewish custom of the time. Luke also says that John the Baptist was named on the day of his circumcision. So it seems it likely was the practice of the day. A circumcision would be done in the home, not in the Temple.

Then, when it was time for the purification offering, Jesus was taken to the Temple. There were actually two different rituals being done here. The first was the

Redemption of the Firstborn. This is related to us in Exodus 13 and Numbers 18. Every first born male belonged to God. They were bought back from God with the price of five silver shekels. The second was the Purification Offering, and this was related in Leviticus 12. After giving childbirth, a woman would be “ritually unclean” for 40 days, if it was a boy, or 80 days, if it was a girl. Then she would go to the Temple and offer a lamb and a dove or pigeon for a purification offering. If she was poor, which Mary and Joseph were, then she could offer two doves or pigeons.

While they are in the Temple, they have two encounters. The first is with Simeon, a prophet. He has been waiting for the coming of Messiah and it was revealed to him that he would not die until he saw the Messiah. He sees Jesus, and proclaims, “Now I can die in peace. I have seen the Savior of all people.” He blesses Mary and Joseph and tells them that Jesus will be rejected by many and will be their undoing. This no doubt refers to the religious elites who rejected him. He will be a great joy to others who hear and receive him. In these ways, the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. “And a sword will pierce your heart.” No doubt this refers to the grief Mary will experience in seeing her son die.

They also encounter Anna. The name Anna is a Greek version of the Hebrew name, Hannah. And there are certainly some similarities to the story of Hannah and her son Samuel in this story.

Anna is very old. She is either 84 years old or she has lived as a widow for 84 years after her husband died. It’s debatable which is the right interpretation. If the second, she is about 105 years old. She has lived a life of continual prayer and worship in the Temple. She also testifies about Jesus as the promised king to come.

Having concluded the necessary rituals, Mary and Joseph return home to Nazareth. And Jesus grows. He grows physically. He grows in wisdom. He grows in his relationships with others and with God. The words here are reminiscent of the same thing Luke said about John the Baptist, and similar to the words used to describe the Old Testament prophet Samuel. Again, there are intentional similarities between these stories.

Jesus grew. To be human is to grow. And it’s certainly strange to think of the Son, the second Person of the Trinity, taking on human flesh and becoming a helpless baby. But he became fully human, and to be human is to grow.

I think this story has a lot to say about rituals. We see three of them being observed in Jesus’ life here, and as we read the Gospels, we find that Jesus continued to

observe rituals, such as the religious festivals, Sabbath in the synagogue, and daily prayers.

Rituals are observances that recognize and invite God’s presence into daily life. But rituals have fallen on hard times in our world. As our world has become increasingly busy and increasingly secular, most rituals have fallen by the wayside. Observing rituals now seems obsolete to many, even to some Christians. Christmas Eve, Easter, baptisms, weddings, and funerals are some of the last vestiges of rituals in our society. And many people, most people probably, don’t even observe those any more. Or in the case of weddings and funerals, if they are observed, sometimes they are done so without any religious tone, in which case they really aren’t rituals any more. By definition, a ritual marks an occasion by inviting and recognizing God’s presence in it. As one person said that I found in my reading: “God has receded from the awareness and experience of everyday life.”

But there is great value in rituals. They mark both daily life and special occasions with a recognition that all of life is sacred and that God is present in all things. Without rituals, then we restrict God to a very few places and events. God is still present in a church building or a worship service maybe, but not in daily life. And of course, God is present in all things. We just don’t really recognize that without rituals. Rituals celebrate the goodness and mystery of life.

There are many places that we can have rituals. Morning and nighttime can be marked with rituals like prayer, reading Scripture, and devotions. Mealtimes can be occasions for ritual. Offering grace is a ritual. Family dinners can be a ritual, especially in a time when they are too rare. Coffee with a friend can be a ritual. Birthdays, anniversaries, and special days are good occasions for rituals. These are all opportunities when we can recognize and invite God’s presence into daily life.

Where can you incorporate rituals into your life? The point of a ritual is not the thing itself. Obviously a ritual can be an empty ritual. A thing done just to do it. The point is to remember to be aware that God is in the midst of all things: daily life and special occasions. When we celebrate a ritual, we invite God’s presence. We remind ourselves that he is with us. And then all of life becomes a sacred time.

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