When the days were completed for their purification
according to the law of Moses,
Mary and Joseph took Jesus up to Jerusalem
to present him to the Lord,
just as it is written in the law of the Lord,
Every male that opens the womb shall be consecrated to the Lord,
and to offer the sacrifice of
a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons,
in accordance with the dictate in the law of the Lord.
There is something strange about today’s feast ― the Presentation of the Lord. The reading says “Mary and Joseph took Jesus up to Jerusalem.” In part, their purpose was “to offer the sacrifice of a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons” (Lk 2:22-23). This was a very old Jewish ritual. Forty days after the birth of a male child, its mother would “bring to the priest … a lamb or, if she could not afford it, two turtle doves or two young pigeons” (Lv 12:1-8). So they were simply following the Law.
But that’s not what’s strange about it. We should also notice that the text says Mary “took Jesus up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord” (Lk 2:22). Indeed, that’s where this feast gets its name: the Presentation of the Lord. Mary and Joseph are offering their child to God. But that’s a little odd, isn’t it? I mean, he is God? How can you offer God to God? What kind of offering is this? What’s going on here? To answer this, we need to reflect on what it means to even make an offering to God. And perhaps it’s best to look at the very first sacrifice that was ever made.
Do you remember Cain and Abel from the Book of Genesis? Do you remember why Cain killed Abel? Recall that Cain’s sacrifice was found unacceptable: “The Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was angry… and when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel and killed him” (Gen 4).
There’s a question that very rarely gets asked about this story. That is: what was wrong with Cain’s sacrifice? Well, if you read closely, you’ll notice that Abel is said to have “brought the firstlings of his flock” for his offering (Gen 4:4). He did not wait until he had a larger and more secure flock to make his sacrifice. Cain, on the other hand, is vaguely said to have made his grain offering “in the course of time” (Gen 4:3). In short, Abel was willing to offer sacrifices even if he could lose much. Cain was not.
This tells us something about what Mary and Joseph were up to the day they presented Jesus in the Temple. Indeed, here’s the interesting thing about that old Jewish ritual: when a new mother would go to the Temple forty days after the birth of her son, there was no need for her to bring the child along with her. The point was for the mother to make an offering: a lamb if she could afford it, two birds if she could not. But there was no need to present the child alongside the sacrifice.
That Mary and Joseph offered turtledoves indicates that they were poor. But that they presented Jesus along with their turtledoves indicates that they had something far more valuable to offer. And, like Abel, they wanted to offer “the firstling of their flock,” the most valuable thing they had: their son. Indeed, this son also happened to be God’s Son. They could offer God to God.
In life, it is often the case that we are so sick, tired, broken, and poor that we can only offer God “a pair of turtledoves,” that we can only offer God our problems, our weaknesses, and our pain. But just when we think that all we have are two measly birds, Mary and Joseph show us that it is precisely in our pain and brokenness that we possess the most valuable thing of all: Jesus. “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” Jesus said. “Theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 5:3). It is by being poor in spirit that we come to possess Jesus, that we find ourselves able to offer him up in a Temple.
And so our two pathetic turtledoves are not so pathetic after all. They are precisely the thing that allow us to make a sacrifice like Abel’s or like Mary’s. Our poverty is what places us in contact with God. Our pain is what gives us something valuable to sacrifice. It’s what gives us Jesus. And so when we offer our measly turtledoves to God — when we offer him our weakness and our poverty, “the firstlings of our flock” — we find that we have actually offered to God something much more than turtledoves. We have actually offered our most intimate contact with God. We have actually offered something akin to Jesus himself.
~Anthony Rosselli (PhD cand., theology, University of Dayton) writes out of St. Luke and Ascension Parishes in Franklin County, Vermont. These columns are archived here.