On Purification, Baptism, and Peace

Homily offered by Father Matthew C. Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Feast of The Purification of S. Mary the Virgin (Candlemas), 2020.

There is no normal reason why Saint Luke should use the personal pronoun “their” to describe who’s purification is taking place. Mosaic law within Jewish custom specifies that the purification is only for the mother. And while in Jewish tradition, this ritual normally was understood to remove ritual uncleanness so as to allow a return to active worship within the community, for Mary the opposite pertained: she had experienced contact with an unfathomable holiness in the birth of God her Son, and so her purification was not to make clean what was dirty, but rather to make normal what was mystical. The same patterns applies to why the priest purifies the chalice after administration of Communion: the chalice is not dirty, for it was filled by the Precious Blood of Christ, filled with heaven. It is purified so as to return it to normal use, until which point it is taken again into the heights of heaven as a vessel for the Sacrament.

So why did Saint Luke use the word “their” instead of “her” purification? He understood what Jewish practice was, how purification was for the mother only. Luke wrote “their” because he always wrote with the eyes of his heart enlightened and transformed by Christ Crucified and Risen: for in such a view, in offering Christ to God she is offering His Body: and His Body is the Church; His Body is the members of the Church through baptism, because in baptism we are taken up into the heavenly reality permanently and engrafted into the divine Body of Christ. And so “their purification” is a moment of cryptic teaching by Luke, to be found by the people of God meditating upon the Gospel according to Saint Luke that through baptism we are purified: Mary’s return to normalcy after her contact with the ineffable allows us to be offered by her in the Temple because she knows in her Son’s body is all Israel, all the People of God. It is an extraordinary detail, Luke’s use of “their.”

Moreover, it is an extraordinary way that the old man Simeon responds to taking up Our Jesus into his arms and blessing God. I mean it is his words that are extraordinary, for his response is a petition to God, a request made to the maker of all things visible and invisible. This is Simeon’s petition: “Lord, now lettest thou Thy servant depart in peace, according to Thy Word; for mine eyes have seen Thy salvation which Thou hast prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to Thy people Israel.” It is Simeon who is having a moment of transformation: an experience where the eyes of his heart have been enlightened. And having been transformed, Simeon petitions God to let him depart in peace, according to the Word of God. Here he echoes Mary’s response to God at the Annunciation: she said, “Let it be unto me according to Thy Word”; Simeon repeats those very last words, “according to Thy Word.” An immediate experience of God that we recognize throws us into such humility that we become so obedient, so attentive to God that all we can say is “Let it be unto me according to His Word.” And of course, “His Word” is Jesus Christ, the Eternal Word of God. And so Simeon’s petition really is: “Lord, now lettest thou Thy servant depart in peace, according to Jesus Christ, Thy Son and Thy Word.”

Brothers and sisters, see how this fully accords with the end of the Mass, the Dismissal. The priest says, “Go in peace, to love and serve the Lord.” It is as if those words of dismissal are a direct response to Simeon speaking for the congregation gathered at the Altar having been fed by the eucharistic Body and Blood of Christ. Just as Simeon, we have beheld Christ, and we have received Christ, holding Him in our hearts because we are filled with Him. And because we are filled with Him, we are filled with His peace. Of course we depart in peace: Christ’s peace is in our bodies through the Eucharist—“Go in peace” more fully expressed is “You are full of Christ in your bodies: now go into the world and carry the fullness of peace with you everywhere you go”—for our eyes have seen God’s salvation which He has prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to the true Israel, the people of God.