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Editor's Note: This is an edited excerpt from Rev. Alban Butler's 1866 edition of The Lives of the Fathers, Martyrs and Other Principal Saints, Vol. II.
The divine law, as conveyed by Moses to the Jewish people, serves to remind us and them that, according to the transgression committed by Adam, humanity is inherently sinful from conception and liable to the wrath of God. This law mandated that a woman, following the birth of a child, should remain for a designated period in a state termed "unclean" by this legislation. Throughout this period, she was forbidden from public appearances and from touching any objects sanctified to God (Leviticus 12:2).
The duration of this period was 40 days following the birth of a son, and it was twice as long for a daughter. At the end of this period, the mother was obliged to present a one-year-old lamb and a young pigeon or turtledove at the entrance of the tabernacle or temple. The lamb was to be offered as a burnt sacrifice, signifying recognition of God's supreme power and to give thanks for the mother's safe delivery; the pigeon or turtledove was intended as a sin offering. Following these sacrifices to the Almighty by the priest, the woman was considered purified from the ceremonial impurity and was restored to her prior privileges.
A young pigeon or turtledove was required as a sin offering from everyone, regardless of their wealth. However, understanding that the cost of a lamb might be too heavy for those with limited means, the law made provisions for such situations. In these instances, it was acceptable to offer two pigeons or two turtledoves instead: one as a burnt offering and the other as a sin offering.
Our Savior, conceived by the Holy Ghost, and His blessed Mother, always remaining a pure virgin, were truly not bound by the law's requirements or intentions. But to the world, which was unaware of her miraculous conception, Mary appeared to be obligated to fulfill the law. Her humility led her to willingly conceal her unique privilege and dignity, adhering strictly and meticulously to the law's humbling demands. Unlike pride, which flaunts its gains and seeks undue honor, humility relishes in obscurity and self-abasement, avoiding any distinction or praise. The humble recognize their unworthiness and redirect all glory to God, the rightful recipient.
Mary's devotion and eagerness to honor God through strict observance of His law led her to perform this religious act, despite her exemption. Being of modest means, she offered what was prescribed for the poor — a detail noted by St. Luke as reflecting her humble worldly status (Luke 2:24). Her offering, though modest, was presented with a sincere heart, which is of utmost importance to God. The King of Glory chose to manifest His glory in poverty, highlighting the value of a suffering and humble life and to counteract our pride. We, who are inherently poor and flawed in God's sight, often desire to appear wealthy, innocent and saintly, a tendency that this divine example aims to challenge.
Today, we also honor a second profound mystery, directly concerning our Redeemer's person: His presentation in the temple. Beyond the law requiring a mother's purification, another law commanded that the firstborn son be dedicated to God. Encompassed within these two laws were additional statutes, such as the requirement for the child, following its presentation, to be redeemed with a specified sum of money (Exodus 13:13) and for specific sacrifices to be made during this event.
Mary meticulously observed all these rituals and regulations. She not only fulfilled the fundamental requirements of the law, such as presenting herself for purification and offering her firstborn, but also paid close attention to every detail. She spent 40 days at home, refraining from entering the temple and from participating in sacred rites, despite being the living temple of the God of Israel. On the day of her purification, she traveled several miles to Jerusalem, carrying the Savior of the World in her arms. At the temple gate, she awaited the priest, made her offerings of gratitude and atonement, and presented her divine Son through the priest to the Eternal Father with the utmost humility, adoration and thankfulness. She then redeemed Him with five shekels as mandated by the law and received Him back as a sacred trust, until the Father would call upon Him to fulfill the ultimate redemption of mankind.
It is evident that Christ was subject to the law. As St. Hilary notes, "The king's son, who is heir to the crown, is exempt from servitude; how much more so Christ, the Redeemer of both our souls and bodies, was not bound by any law that required His own redemption." However, He chose to model humility, obedience and devotion, and in a solemn and public act in the temple, He renewed His self-offering to the Father for the fulfillment of His will and the redemption of humanity, a commitment He had initially made privately at the moment of His incarnation.
Imagine the sentiments with which the divine Infant presented Himself to the Father! His offering was the greatest act of honor and glory to the Father, a satisfactory sacrifice for the indignities our sins had inflicted upon the Godhead, and a sufficient ransom for our souls from eternal death. How willingly and lovingly He offered Himself to endure all His sufferings! To be flogged, crowned with thorns, and shamefully put to death for our sake!
Every Christian is thus called to present themselves to God alongside this divine victim, through whom acceptance by the Father is assured. We are to dedicate ourselves, with all our senses and faculties, to His service. If lethargy or any other vice has led us to neglect this critical duty, we must lament our past failures and today make a resolute and earnest dedication of ourselves to the Divine Majesty, with heightened zeal, echoing St. Augustine's heartfelt admission: "Too late have I known thee, too late have I begun to love thee, beauty more ancient than the world!"
Yet, for our offering to be acceptable, it must be whole and unblemished. Offering God a divided heart or a heart tainted by deliberate sin, especially when joined with Christ's offering, would be disrespectful. Our hearts must first be purified through genuine remorse and penitence; our affections must be severed from worldly allure through thorough self-denial. Our offering must be honest and intense, sparing no room for any sinful desires or tendencies, nor allowing any division in our commitments. It should be all-encompassing, ready to endure and act entirely for the sake of divine honor.
If we offer our hearts to Christ in this manner, we shall receive Him along with His grace and blessings. Just as He was presented in the temple by His mother's hands, we too should make our soul's offering through Mary, seeking His grace through the same intermediary.