Beginning in November, or even earlier, merchants remind us how many days ("shopping days") remain until Christmas. But, as far as I know, only the Catholic Church keeps track of the days since Christmas. If you add the days between Christmas and New Years (7), the month of January (31) and the first two days of February, you reach a total of 40.
I have asked groups of children - and adults - if they know what happened forty days after Jesus' birth. They give all kinds of wild guesses, but seldom the correct answer. We have it in today's Gospel: the purification of Mary and the presentation of Jesus.
After childbirth the mother remained apart for forty days. This custom may have emerged for very practical reasons. The birth of child brings enormous joy, but also great pain and stress. The mother needs time to recover physically and emotionally. While the time needed varies from woman to woman, forty days seems like a good average.
So, forty days after Jesus' birth, Mary received the rites of purification. They did not imply any sin, but rather physical and emotional re-integration into the community.
At the same time the mother was "purified," her child, if he was the first born male, was presented. Parents who possessed sufficient resources offered a lamb, but the poor could substitute a pair of pidgeons.* Thus Joseph and Mary fulfilled the rite which extended back to the Escape from Egypt (c. 1250 B.C.).
When Jesus - as Son of God - submitted to the rituals of Israel, he infused in them a new meaning. They became what we call "mysteries" - events on which we can meditate over and over, yet never arrive at the full depth.
St. Sophronius tells how ancient Christians celebrated this event with a candle-light procession:
"Our lighted candles are a sign of the divine splendor of the one who comes to expel the dark shadows of evil and to make the whole world radiant with the brilliance of his eternal light. Our candles also show how bright our souls should be when we go out to meet Christ."
*No doubt the early Christians saw an irony: the parents who could not afford a lamb, present the true Lamb of God.
Bulletin (Animal Rights & Human Rights; Reflection on Cloning, 30th Anniversary of Roe v. Wade)
Financial Report (July 1 - December 31, 2002)
Seapadre Homilies: Cycle A, Cycle B, Cycle C
Simple Catholicism (New! Thanks to my niece Sara Bloom)
Pictures from Peru (Portrait of my mom, third anniversary Mass - January 27, 2003)