About forty days had elapsed since the birth of our Savior at Bethlehem, and the time had now come when Jesus was to be presented to the Lord in the Temple, and the sacrifice was to be offered for the purification of the Mother. As an acknowledgment of God’s sovereignty over the Chosen People, whether as the source of all blessing in childbirth or as the liberator of Israel from Egyptian bondage, God had not only set aside the Levites as His peculiar property in place of the entire people, but ordained, moreover, that every firstborn child should be presented to Him and redeemed with five shekels. The presentation had to be performed by the father thirty days after the birth, or, in the case of a male child, even later (Exod. 13:2; 34:19; Num. 18:15); the mother, however, was obliged to free herself from legal stain forty days after childbirth by offering a lamb or, in the case of the poor, two doves (Lev. 12:6, 8).
This would have been the first Candlemas procession, and it was formed by the most venerable and holy personages in all the history of the Church.
Saint Joseph, therefore, bade adieu to Bethlehem with sincere gratitude to the people who may have befriended him, but above all with thanksgiving to God for all the many joys occasioned by the birth, manifestation, and circumcision of the Child who had been given to him there. The road to Jerusalem led again over the plain of Rephaim, which at this time was resplendent in the adornments of spring. Here it was that on a former occasion Abraham journeyed to sacrifice his son Isaac on Mount Moria.
From the elevated border that crowned the valley of Hinnom the Holy Family could view on the opposite side the great city of Jerusalem with its pinnacled walls, the glorious fortress of David, the mighty Temple, and the verdant Garden of Olives in the background. Saint Joseph with his family spent the night either in the city proper or in one of its little suburbs. On the following day, at the hour of the morning sacrifice, he went up to the Temple with the Child and His Mother. For the first time the Savior saw with His mortal eyes the gorgeous Temple with its massive portals, bridges, enclosures, and the Court of the Gentiles, through which, by ascending the flights of stairs, the way led to the vast Gate of Nicanor.
Simeon & Anna
There an old man, venerable in stature and appearance, seemed to be waiting for them. He approached them, bowed reverently, and stretched forth his arms toward the divine Child. It was Simeon. The Holy Spirit had enlightened and inspired him to come to the Temple to greet the Savior. Our Blessed Lady presented the Child to him.
As one lost in rapture, according to Fra Angelico’s unsurpassable representation, he contemplated the little one in his arms as one does a precious and familiar old portrait. At the sight of God’s beauty ever ancient, ever youthfully new, his own heart, grown weary of life, became young again; and his lips hymned forth the wonderful song of praise that the Church even now recites every evening in thanksgiving for the blessings of each day of redemption.
A marvelous, glorious vision, it seems, appeared to him in the eyes of the divine Child, in which he foresaw all the mysteries of the God-Man down to the vesper scene on Calvary. Above all he thanks God in his hymn of praise that his hour has come and that he has seen the salvation of the world. Now he is ready to die, for nothing really beautiful remains any longer in life to attract him. He then beholds the divine Light, which he raises in his trembling arms, as it sheds its effulgence not over Israel only but even the most distant isles of the Gentiles. But with pain and regret he sees this light as a judgment, and this child as a stumbling block and a sign that shall be contradicted for innumerable people throughout the ages, not only among the Gentiles but even in Israel.
Deeply affected, he returns the child to His Mother and prophesies to her, her own fateful destiny under the image of a cruel sword that would pierce her heart and soul.
Meanwhile Anna made her appearance, a woman venerable in age, the living exemplar of the Temple, in which she had dwelt amid prayer and fasting from her youth. She, too, recognized the Savior and exalted Him as the Messiah, and her pale, careworn cheeks and dull eyes quickened again with youthful joy and happiness. To all who cared to listen she made known the momentous revelation concerning the Messiah.
Then, too, there were the important prophecies spoken concerning the Child. But Simeon, the just one, had inflicted a keen wound upon Mary, and upon Joseph also, in foretelling the child’s future, a wound that knew no healing in the lifetime of either. “What will become of this beloved Child?” Saint Joseph may frequently have asked himself as he clasped the Son of his heart in his arms, and by degrees saw Him develop into the most lovable of the children of men, comparable only to the angels.
Joseph and Mary now passed through the stone parapet and ascended the steps leading to the bronze Nicanor Gate, glittering with overlaid gold. In this gateway, to the right, were two smaller entrances through which the women after childbirth and the lepers passed for the ceremony of legal purification. The women had to present themselves to the priest, and after a prayer and a blessing they were admitted to the Women’s Court. Here were the large collection boxes with trumpet-shaped openings into which the money for the various sacrifices was deposited. According to the amount given, the private sacrifices of lambs or doves were offered after the morning sacrifice.
Mary submitted to this ceremony in conformity to the example of her Son, who Himself had obeyed the ritual law of circumcision and presentation in the Temple, although neither she nor He was bound according to the intent of the lawgiver. Since the thirteenth century, art has represented Saint Joseph as a participant in this ceremony in that he carries a basket or cage containing the doves for Mary’s sacrifice.
It was either after or during this ceremony that, through the father, the presentation and redemption of the firstborn took place. Saint Joseph, as the father, placed the Child in the arms of a priest, who, raising Him aloft and holding Him toward the Holy of Holies, offered Him to the Lord, and after the payment of the five shekels returned Him to His father while pronouncing the words of benediction.
Our Savior submitted to this ceremony, though needing neither consecration nor sanctification. The union of His humanity with the Second Person of the Godhead had sanctified and united Him to God in such a manner as no sacrament or ceremony could do. Never before during the time of the Old Testament had such a glorious sacrifice been offered in the Temple. Its majestic grandeur shed its radiance over the sacred edifice and throughout all the earth and all times, and caused the utter poverty and inadequacy of the ancient worship to be revealed in a more brilliant light.
Now indeed did the new Temple shine with that transcendent glory that the prophet foresaw would come to it from the Messiah’s presence and manifestation within its precincts (Hag. 2:10). All the sacrifices of the Old Law combined their brilliance in the splendor of this sacrifice; by it the ancient priesthood reached the pinnacle of honor and distinction, while God Himself stooped to earth in a more loving and condescending manner than at the dedication of the first Temple by Solomon. Here on Mount Moria it was that Abraham offered his firstborn son.
Another Abraham is here now offering his Son, but one incomparably more just and more pleasing to God than the first Abraham. It is Saint Joseph. Hence, he has been chosen by God to be patriarch of the New Law. And if Mary and Simeon and Anna were present with Saint Joseph at this ceremony and together praised God with the words “God is good and His mercy endureth forever; we have received His mercy in the midst of His Temple” (Ps. 117:1; 47:10), this would have been the first Candlemas procession, and it was formed by the most venerable and holy personages in all the history of the Church.
Editor’s note: This article is adapted from a chapter in Father Meschler’s book, The Truth About Saint Joseph: Encountering the Most Hidden of Saints. It is available as an ebook or paperback from Sophia Institute Press.
image: polychrome relief of the Presentation of the Child Jesus in St. Vitus Cathedral (Prague), photo by Renata Sedmakova / Shutterstock