Probably every parent who looks at a newborn, whispers three prayers. The first prayer is to thank God for the gift of life, which is so visibly precious in its fragility. The second prayer is to ask God to protect the child, as parents know not only the physical dangers but the spiritual dangers that may harm the child. The parents also pray for a blessed life for this child, a happy life, a productive life. 

Only a few parents might make a fourth prayer, surrendering their child into God’s hands. Parents might be afraid what would happen, as if surrendering to God might bring challenges one would not wish upon their child.

The Israelites believed that the first-born belonged to God. They were so convinced that life was a gift from God that they believed that every child, especially the first-born, should be offered back to God.

They offered their first-born animals to God. They sacrificed their first-born sheep and cattle. They believed that their first-born sons had been spared when the first-born sons of Egypt had died.

The Jews brought their first-born sons to the temple and offered the child to God. They would then redeem or buy back the first-born by offering an animal sacrifice in the child’s place (Ex 13:11-16). This might seem to suggest giving with the right hand and taking back with the left hand. But clearly they recognized that life itself and particularly the life of their child was a gift from God. St. Thomas describes this offering as a “certain consecration” (3a. 37, 4).

Why this emphasis on the first-born? When the first child is born, the parents know that they are able to have children. Traditionally among Africans, the first-born takes the place of the parents.

St. Paul reminds us that Jesus filled the role of first-born: “He is the First-born among many brothers and sisters” (Rom 8:29).

Jesus is the eternal Son of God. He was God’s gift to Mary and Joseph and through them to the whole world. Since He is God’s gift, why did Mary and Joseph offer Him back to God?

This feast is related to Christmas, bringing to a close the Christmas season. The Son of God takes on Himself our humanity to offer it to God. St. Paul declares: “He became poor that we may become rich” (2 Cor 8:9). At Christmas, everything is sweet, guests come to see the new baby and angels sing glory to God.

But today, the old man Simeon, first announces that the Child will bring light to the nations and be the glory of Israel, but then, like a cold wind, he informs Mary, “This child is set for the rise and fall of many in Israel and a sign that will be spoken against and a sword of sorrow will pierce your heart also” (Lk 2:34-35).

The Letter to the Hebrews emphasizes the reality of Jesus’ humanity: “Since the children share in the flesh and blood, Jesus Himself likewise partook of the same nature” (Heb 2:14).

Jesus’ “flesh and blood” relates Him to us: “He had to become like His brothers in every way” (Heb 2:17). St. Thomas Aquinas explains that Christ took “a nature capable of suffering” (Commentary on the Letter to the Hebrews, 139).

According to Thomas the act of taking of our nature in itself exalts our nature: “This taking hold of human nature unto the unity of the person of the Son of God exalts our nature beyond measure” (Commentary on the Letter to the Hebrews).

Traveling to Jerusalem, Mary and Joseph could not have imagined the full depth of their action in offering him. Perhaps they hoped that He might bring light to both Jews and Gentiles, but they could not have imagined that He would be “a sign that will be opposed.” Pope John Paul II spoke of Simeon’s words as a “second Annunciation,” through which Mary discovers that her Son will bring about salvation “in misunderstanding and sorrow” (Mother of the Redeemer, 16).

The Letter to the Hebrews moves from the Incarnation to the sacrificial self-offering on the Cross. It was because Jesus had taken our nature that “by His death might rob the devil of his power and free those who, through fear of death had been slaves their whole life long” (Heb 2:14).

Thomas explains that fear of death gives us a disordered love of this life: “Hence, if a man overcomes his fears, he overcomes everything; and when fear is overcome, all disordered love of the world is overcome… fear makes cowards of us all” (Commentary on the Letter to the Hebrews, 144).  Jesus breaks the fear of death when we see that “the Son of God willed to die” and “by showing the immortality that awaited us,” we do not fear death.

Christ becomes a merciful high priest for us: “He intercedes for us as our advocate” (Rom 8:34). Thomas explains that Christ always was merciful to us but especially at the Passion:

For mercy consists in having a heart grieved at another’s misfortune: in one way, by merely recognizing the misfortune, which is the way God recognized our wretchedness without suffering; in another way, by experiencing our misfortune, which is how Christ experienced our misery, especially during the Passion (Commentary on the Letter to the Hebrews, 153). 

Jesus’ offering of Himself to the Father is, as the Letter to the Hebrews assures us,  redemptive suffering, helping us in our trials and temptations. St. Thomas comments, “… in that nature which He assumed, in order to experience in Himself that our cause is His own…  He suffered and was tempted; therefore, He is able to help those also that are tempted. Or, another way: He became merciful and faithful, because in suffering and being tempted He has a kinship to mercy” (Commentary on the Letter to the Hebrews, 154). 

The fact that Luke makes an explicit reflection upon the effect of Jesus’ sufferings on Mary is an unusual touch for the Gospels. It demonstrates that Jesus and Mary had a relationship similar to that of children with their mothers. Parents suffer because of their children, for instance, through their children’s sicknesses and difficulties. Children’s struggles affect their parents. The rejection of Jesus by the people of the village, by members of the family, and by the religious leaders was like a sword that pierced Mary’s heart every day.

The Gospel for the feast of the Presentation recalls that Mary was purified after the birth of her Child by the offering of two turtle doves. Saint Paul VI in his apostolic letter, Marialis Cultis, affirms: “The feast of February 2, which has been given back its ancient name, the Presentation of the Lord, should also be considered as a joint commemoration of the Son and the Mother, if we are fully to appreciate its rich content. It is the celebration of a mystery of salvation accomplished by Christ, a mystery with which the Virgin was intimately associated as the Mother of the Suffering Servant of Yahweh, as the one who performs a mission belonging to ancient Israel, and as the model for the new People of God, whose faith and hope are always being tested by suffering and persecution (see Lk 2, 21, 35) (Marialis Cultis, 7).

 St. Thomas asks why the mother needed to be “purified” after the birth of her holy Child. He explains”

“As the fullness of grace flowed from Christ on to His Mother, so it was becoming that the mother should be like her Son in humility: for ‘God giveth grace to the humble,’ as is written James 4:6. And therefore, just as Christ, though not subject to the Law, wished, nevertheless, to submit to circumcision and the other burdens of the Law, in order to give an example of humility and obedience; and in order to show His approval of the Law; and, again, in order to take away from the Jews an excuse for calumniating Him: for the same reasons He wished His Mother also to fulfil the prescriptions of the Law, to which, nevertheless, she was not subject” (3a. 37, 4).

St. Thomas recalls the words of St. Athanasius: “He was presented to the Lord, that we may learn to offer ourselves up the Lord” (Athanasius, on Luke 2:23). Every Christian is called to offer themselves to God.

On this day, we recognize that each of our lives are gifts given by God and that our call is to dedicate those lives to Him is also as special gift.

Saint John Paul II believed that those in the Consecrated Life offer themselves. In 1997, he designated the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord as a World Day of the Consecrated Life. St. Thomas speaks of the vows as a holocaust, an offering of external goods, renouncing the greatest bodily pleasures” and the surrendering of our will to God. “Holocaust” might suggest annihilation of ourselves. Thomas looks to St. Gregory for an explanation of “holocaust,” as “the offering to God of all that one has” (Homily 20, on Ezekiel, 2.2ae. 186, 7).

In this offering, Thomas tells us, we are “removing from ourselves whatever may hinder our affections from tending wholly to God, for it is in this that the perfection of charity consists” (2a2ae. 186, 7). [1] This focus on God makes us more sensitive to our neighbor, as Thomas appeals to Paul’s hymn of charity to show that charity is the mother of all the virtues, e.g. love is patient, is kind etc. (2a2ae. 186, 7, ad 2).

In our service to others, we share in bringing Jesus’ light. We also by our association with Jesus have a share in His sufferings, even as His mother did.

Denis Vincent Wiseman, O.P.

[1] The references to the Summa Theologiae give the part of the Summa. This is the Secunda secundae, the second part of the Second. It is question 186 and the 7th article in that question.