“And when the days of purification were fulfilled according to the Law of Moses, they took Him up to Jerusalem to present Him to the Lord, as it is written in the Law of the Lord: ‘Every male that opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord;’ and to offer for sacrifice according to what is said in the Law of the Lord, a pair of turtle doves or two young pigeons'”(Lk. 2:22-24).
In the fourth joyful mystery of the Rosary, we reflect on two requirements of Jewish law, the purification of the mother after childbirth, and the presentation of the firstborn son in the Temple.
The Law of Moses prescribed that a woman after childbirth was to keep to herself for forty days if her child were a boy, and eighty days if it were a girl, after which she was to present herself in the Temple for the ceremony of purification. At that time she was to make an offering to the Temple, which for the poor was two doves or pigeons (Lev.12:1-8). The purification referred to was strictly a "legal” uncleanness, and did not imply any moral fault in childbirth. Our Blessed Mother had conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit, and was not subject to the law of purification. Nevertheless she, the purest of the pure, presented herself for the purification rite just as all other mothers, giving an example of deep humility and of perfect obedience to the law. Too, since the virginal birth of her Son was not known outside of the Holy Family, they wished to avoid any possibility of scandal by fulfilling this customary observance.
According to Jewish law, if the firstborn were a male, he belonged to God, and had to be offered to Him. This was in acknowledgment of God’s sovereignty and right to the firstborn; and in memory of the fact that God had spared the firstborn of Jewish families on the night of the first Passover. The firstborn son, however, was redeemed or bought back by offering five shekels to the Temple.
As the Holy Family awaited their turn amid the numerous families that had arrived for the same ceremonies, there was in the Temple a saintly man named Simeon, to whom it had been revealed by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death until he had seen “the Anointed of the Lord.” And beholding the Child in Mary’s arms, he recognized Him as the Messiah he had longed to see. The yearnings of his heart fulfilled, he took the Child in his arms and exclaimed:
“Now dismiss your servant in peace, 0 Lord, according to your word; Because my eyes have seen the salvation which you have prepared for all nations, a light to enlighten the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel”(Lk.2:29-32).
Mary and Joseph, wondering at this unusual occurrence, were filled with joy at Simeon’s praise of their Child, as are all parents when their children are praised. Yet, as they were marveling at these words, Simeon turned to Mary, the one true parent of the Child, and uttered this fearful prophesy:
“Behold, this Child is destined for the fall and for the rise of many in Israel, and for a sign that shall be contradicted. And your own soul a sword shall pierce, that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed”(Lk. 2:34-35).
A SIGN OF CONTRADICTION
This tiny Infant will be a light to the Gentiles, and the glory of Israel; but He will also be the occasion for the rise and fall of many. Through faith in Him, many in Israel will rise to new life in Him; others, blinded by pride and hatred, will oppose His mission, and seek to trample His teaching underfoot.
This Child will be a sign of contradiction, a visible sign of conflict between opposing camps - those with Him, and those against Him. In His presence there can be no neutrality, for He is a light that men cannot ignore, a light that reaches to one’s inmost being, and forces one to take a stand for Him or against Him. “He that is not with Me, is against Me.” (Mt.12:20).
For many He is the corner stone on which their life is built; for others, He is a stumbling block, according as men accept Him or turn their backs on Him. That is as true today as when Christ walked the hills of Palestine, for the sign that He is, and the sign of His miracles, even His resurrection - is denied and reasoned away by some. While He has been the source of grace and sanctification for those who accept His teaching and become His followers, so He has been the occasion of rejection and rebellion on the part of those who have found His teaching to stand in the way of their pride and concupiscence. The history of twenty centuries has fully confirmed the predictions of Simeon that this Child would be a “sign of contradiction.”
And the blows that lash out against Our Blessed Lord, also strike His Mother. His suffering and death would pierce the Heart of Mary with a great sword of sorrow, so that through Him and through her, many hearts would be moved to declare themselves either for or against Him and His message.
THE CHURCH - A SIGN OF CONTRADICTION
The institution which Christ founded, like Himself, is a sign of contradiction to the wisdom of the world. It will meet the same rejection, the same opposition by the kingdom of the world. “If they have persecuted Me, they will persecute you also” (Jn.15:20). Just as Jesus suffered for three hours the terrible torture of Calvary, so His Mystical Body, the Church, underwent three centuries of persecution, which were but a continuation of Calvary. And as after three days, Jesus rose from the dead glorious and immortal, so after three centuries of persecution His Mystical Body, the Church, rose from its underground existence to a new freedom, and began to spread throughout the world.
Yet, if the Church, the Kingdom of God on earth, was liberated after centuries of persecution, that does not mean that the kingdom of the world was overthrown. While its leader, the devil, was conquered by the passion and death of Jesus, he is allowed to prowl about the world “like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour” (1 Pet. 5:8). If the visible conflict between the world power and the Church ceased for a time under the Emperor Constantine, the hidden conflict, that battle for souls between Christ in His Mystical Body and the devil and his collaborators, continues on with the same intensity. And the Evil One’s collaborators include not only the countless number of fallen angels under his dominion, but a great number of humans whom he has deceived and who are working for his cause.
For this reason, as Christ is a sign of contradiction to the world He came to redeem, so the Church, His Mystical Body, will be in conflict with the spirit of the world in its efforts to hand down the message of Christ throughout the ages. In addition, each individual Christian will be a sign of contradiction amid the allurements and maxims of this world, in the measure that he lives his Christian vocation.
THE ROOT OF THIS DIVISION
As Pope John Paul II pointed out, the root of this division between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of the world, lies in a corruption of the idea and the experience of freedom “conceived not as a capacity for realizing the truth of God’s plan in their life, but an autonomous power of self-affirmation, often against others, for one’s selfish well being.” (Familiaris Consortio, n. 6).
Perhaps at no time in the twenty centuries of the Christian era, has there been such a distortion of the true meaning of freedom as in our own day. It follows from a widespread rejection of the Gospel, “the truth that makes one free” (Jn.8:32). Today, influenced by the secular humanism of this century, the freedoms guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution are interpreted by the Courts and legislative bodies of our country as the right to take the life of the unborn, the right to seek the physician’s aid in ending one’s own life, the right of the media to publish and telecast immoral matter, the right of our educational system to exclude religion from public education, the right to publish pornographic filth, etc.
Thus, the history of the Church is but a history of the struggle between freedoms that are in mutual conflict, which, as our Holy Father points out, corresponds to the well known expression of St. Augustine, a conflict of two loves:
- the love of God, to the point of disregarding self..
- the love of self, to the point of disregarding God..
THE CROSS - A SIGN OF CONTRADICTION
The love that Jesus spoke of in His farewell address has the dimension of sacrifice, the sacrifice He was about to make on Calvary the following day. “Greater love than this no one has, that one lay down his life for his friends” (Jn. 15:13). Love, as the world understands it is essentially self-seeking; love in the Christian sense is essentially self-giving....self-sacrificing.
The division between those whose first love is God, and those whose first love is self - might also be expressed as the division between those who accept the place of the Cross in the following of Christ, and those who reject all sacrifice except it be for personal gain.
No one has spoken of the wisdom of the Cross in the christian life more eloquently than St. Paul in his epistle to the Corinthians, some of whom had failed to grasp this fundamental point of his teaching.
“The message of the cross is complete absurdity to those who are headed for ruin, but to those of us who are on the way to salvation it is the power of God.... The Jews demand signs (miracles), and the Greeks wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified - to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Gentiles foolishness; but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ, the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Cor. 1:18,22).
Those who are on the way to salvation see the Cross as “the power of God,” because it has conquered the devil and sin. When we speak of the “cross” in this context, we refer not to the wood instrument on which Christ died, although that is a most precious relic; but rather the life-giving passion and death of the Savior on the Cross, and the untold suffering He underwent on our behalf. And because of that life-giving death, the Cross - i.e., the trials of daily life - has a redeeming value when borne in union with the passion of our divine Savior. All this, however, is sheer folly to one without the supernatural gift of faith, as St. Thomas Aquinas points out:
“The message of Christ’s Cross contains something which to the human mind seems impossible - that God should die, or that the Almighty should give Himself up into the power of violent men. It also contains things which seem contrary to human wisdom, for instance, someone being able to flee from contradictions and yet not doing so” (Commentary 1 Cor.).
In the Old Testament, God often manifested His presence by miraculous signs of various sorts. Mindful of this, the JEWS in the time of St. Paul demanded some miraculous manifestation to prove God’s approval of Paul’s preaching Christ’s redeeming passion. For them the wisdom of the cross was a scandal, a stumbling block. Their attitude was an obstacle to the gift of faith, for they imposed limits on how they would receive God’s revelation.
As for the learned GREEKS - the rationalists of St. Paul’s day - they looked upon themselves as the masters of truth, so that anything that could not be proved by logical argument they rejected. Hence they failed to attain a knowledge of God despite the way God revealed Himself in the Scriptures and in the wonders of nature. To them apply the words of the prophet Isaiah:
“With the ear you will hear and not understand; and seeing you will see and will not perceive. For the heart of this people has been hardened” (Is. 6:9).
Because of this, God willed to reveal Himself, His truth, His love - to those who have faith, and to do so in a way that better reflects divine wisdom, through the preaching of the Cross (1 Cor. 1:21). How aptly our Savior’s words apply: “Father, Lord of heaven and earth, to you I offer praise; for You have hidden these things (the mysteries of the kingdom) from the learned and the clever, and have revealed them to little ones,” that is, to the disciples.
The wisdom of God’s plan of redemption, therefore, is a sign of contradiction to the worldly mind, for the Cross is at the very heart of the Christian message. In that plan of salvation God uses things which to man’s mind seem foolish and weak, precisely so that His wisdom and power will be all the more manifest shining through our human weakness. If, therefore, we are to conquer with Jesus, if we are to seek His help in overcoming some grave problem in ourselves or others, we must not forget that it was on the Cross that He conquered. It is through the crosses of life, borne in union with Him that He continues to conquer.
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. As high as the heavens are above the earth, so high are my ways above your ways and my thought above your thoughts” (Is.55:8).
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