ON THE surface, Candlemas is a simple initiation ceremony, primarily for the family but with a social dimension as well, marking the child as belonging to a community. When babies are born, adjustments are needed. Society makes room for the new person’s existence, and recalculates the status of the parents, especially the woman who has given birth.
In ancient societies, she moves into the special social and legal category of “mother” — and in modern societies, some would argue, into a category in which everything she does is ripe for criticism, and nothing that she chooses is good enough. In fact, every first-born child creates two new beings: usually (and in biblical times always) a new mother and a new father. Like mothers, fathers have social expectations attaching to their new position (Matthew 13.55).
Luke’s account points to deeper meanings. Most important is a double recognition: first, that this child is the long-expected saviour, sent both to the children of Israel and to the Gentiles (non-Jewish races); and, second, that a man and a woman — representing faithful Israel — have been waiting a long time to see this world-changing moment with their own eyes. There has never been a better time than now to remember the importance of being present at certain family and social events, to fulfil ancient traditions.
All three readings touch on purification. In Micah, God does the purifying — like “a refiner’s fire”, which sounds powerful and positive, or like “fuller’s soap”, which doesn’t (a fuller is someone who cleans and felts grubby, greasy wool using harsh chemicals). In Hebrews, purification is effected through a double test, of sacrifice and suffering.
It does not take long to realise that this theme takes us into sensitive territory. Variations in the translation of the Greek hint at the need for care in expressing gender, whether in grammar, biology, or exegesis. In Hebrews, the NRSV follows its standard practice of taking the Greek word for brothers (adelphoi) to encompass sisters, too. But, to justify this practice, we need to be confident that whoever wrote this letter was really thinking of women as well as men in the communities to which he (?) was writing. It is not enough that we merely wish that the term included both; or that we decide that he should have meant both, and so adjust the meaning to fit.
No more than Hebrews does Luke’s Gospel reveal Bible times as a paradise of gender equality — although his own positive attitude to women throughout his telling of the gospel story is well known. Here, trying to explain the law of Moses to Gentiles, he either mistakes or simplifies the process. Full marks to the NRSV for faithfully transmitting the statement that both Mary and Joseph came to be purified. The 1611 Authorised Version followed the 1662 BCP in attributing a need for purification to Mary alone.
Some ancient interpreters suggested that “their” purification was a reference to Mary and Jesus rather than Mary and Joseph. But this is to infect the Gospel with later ideas of baptising infants for the washing away of sin. Under the Mosaic law, Mary’s purification would have been understood as physical, not moral or spiritual. The idea of babies’ needing purification would not have made much sense.
Through the blessing given by Simeon, Luke acknowledges the part played by Joseph: an adoptive father is a real father, no question. Yet he still marked Mary out as uniquely (my eisegetical addition) filled with divine favour (charis: Luke 1.28, 30). By repeating the word “favour”, he makes a verbal connection between her and her son a theological one, too.
Purification of women after childbirth was once common in the Church of England. It had its own office (known as “churching”) in the BCP. That faded away in the 20th century, at about the same time as “all women labouring of child” was cut from the the Litany in alternative versions (because it was felt that science left nothing for intercession to achieve?). Common Worship — thanks be — restored prayer for women going through childbirth.
To make sense of God the purifier, we can add Malachi to Micah; for Malachi reveals purification as a moral and spiritual quality, too: “he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness.”