Crowds filled the streets as the young couple made their way toward the base of the temple complex. The woman had given birth forty days before and the time for her ritual purification was at an end. She, her husband, and newborn son had travelled from nearby Bethlehem to Herod’s magnificent temple in Jerusalem to complete the process of her ritual purification.
The “mikveh”, ritual purification baths, located down between the staircases near the southern wall of the temple were their first stop. Joseph waited outside with the baby while Mary descended the steps to go take her ritual purification bath. Once finished, she was free to rejoin her husband and baby and enter the temple complex.
They passed through the subterranean staircase of the Huldah Gates to enter the sunlit, expansive court of the Gentiles. The temple courts were busy and crowded as people jostled to offer sacrifices, and pay their temple taxes under the ever watchful eye of Roman guards who lined the colonnades on two sides of the complex. The young family pressed through the crowd to The Court of Women, also known as The Court of Treasury, where they were met by the priest on duty. The standard sacrifice for purification was a lamb, but for those too poor to offer one, a pair of small doves or pigeons would suffice. This is the offering Joseph and Mary presented to the priest.
Once the priest confirmed that the requirements had been met, the group moved to the Nicanor Gate a bit nearer to the temple and at the top of fifteen semicircular steps. Here the priest performed a traditional ceremony- the “redeeming” of the firstborn. This ceremony was a remembrance of God’s deliverance of Israel from Egypt when the plague of the firstborn spared the Israelites. In this ceremony of remembrance and dedication, the priest first proclaimed thanks for the gift of the newborn child and then joyful gratitude for the child’s redemption. Finally, the offering was given and then the ceremony was complete.
But this child was different, and a holy man and woman standing in the shadows knew it and could not remain silent.
Luke 2:25-40 gives us the remarkable account of Simeon, an elderly man, filled with the Spirit of God, who was “waiting for the consolation of Israel” (Luke 2:25) and Anna, a widow of eighty-four years who had devoted her life to fasting and prayer. As these two champions of the faith watch this beautiful, but most certainly commonplace ceremony, the Spirit of God reveals to them the true identity of the baby in their midst.
Simeon moves forward, takes the baby in his arms, and praises God.
“Sovereign Lord, as you have promised you now dismiss your servant in peace for my eyes have seen your salvation which you have prepared in the sight of the people,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.”
Anna joins him in worshipping God for this child who is given for the “redemption of Jerusalem.” (vs 38)
They have waited long, and watched faithfully until their bodies are stooped with age and their eyes have grown rheumy and weak, but in this moment Simeon and Anna see more clearly than all the rest. The tiny, sleeping infant at the center of this celebration of redemption is in fact The Redeemer of All.