Jesus lived and died a Jew. This description of his Jewish mother and Jewish foster father bringing him to the Jerusalem temple forty days after his birth so that Mary could go through the purification ritual prescribed by Leviticus 12 and also that the first-born child could be consecrated according to the law of Exodus 13: 2, 12. Luke’s choice of language highlights of irony: the one who was announced to the shepherds as “Messiah and Lord” being now “presented to the Lord” according to the “law of the Lord” and offering a sacrifice “in accordance with the dictate in the law of the Lord.” This language faces, straight on, the mystery of the divine Son in solidarity with humanity by living out the practices of an ordinary Jewish family. The last verse of the Gospel reading hints in a single sentence how that human solidarity will be lived out for the next thirty years: “The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.” We sometimes forget that Jesus’ full humanity required him to learn his mother-tongue like any other child, mainly from his mother. But there’s more to this passage.
In the response of old man Simeon, Luke has given us a canticle that has long served as the evening prayer of the Church in the Liturgy of the Hours, called by the words that begin it in Latin, Nunc Dimittis (“Now you may dismiss . . .”). The song uses words from Isaiah (42:6 and 49:9) to celebrate who this child is going to turn out to be, “a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and glory for your people Israel.” The people of Israel had long identified their community as embodying the vocation of the Servant of the Lord that Isaiah here describes as a “light for the Nations (or le’goiim).” I once heard a Jewish scholar leaving a divinity school to teach a state university describe himself in his farewell address with those words: “Yes, I’m going to be an or le’goiim.”
Luke shows how the early church applied those words both to Jesus
(as here in Simeon’s canticle) and to the church itself, as
it carries out Jesus’ mission. When Paul and Barnabas meet
with some rejection by the synagogue in Antioch of Pisidia, he applies
Isaiah Servant song about himself and Barnabas: “We now
turn to the Gentiles. For so the Lord has commanded us, ‘I
have made you a light to the Gentiles, that you may be an instrument
of salvation to the ends of the earth’” (Acts 13:4-47).
And the same Isaian image is applied to the risen Jesus (working
through the church) in Paul’s speech King Agrippa at Acts
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