Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity
“And He Shall Purify” first appeared in the Jan/Feb 2014 issue of Touchstone.
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And He Shall Purify
The devoutly Christian and once-popular novelist Taylor Caldwell, in A Pillar of Iron, her historical novel on the life of Cicero, imagined that the great orator's Semitic friend, the famous actor Roscius, left Rome and his riches to return to Palestine, to live an ascetic life and to wait for the long-expected Messiah. He took the name of Simeon, she says. That name echoes the Hebrew word for hearing.
Saint Luke tells us that the old man Simeon was "waiting for the consolation of Israel," and was filled with the Holy Spirit. He prayed that God would not dismiss him from the world until he should see with his own eyes the salvation prepared for all the peoples, a light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of Israel. Did he expect that it would be a grown man, coming to the Temple to worship? Someone who would engage him in conversation? A teacher whose words he could treasure?
But the event is far more mysterious. Mary and -Joseph bring the infant Jesus, the still speechless Word, into the Temple on the fortieth day after his birth, according to the law of Moses. The scene inspired the archbishop Rabanus Maurus to compose his hymn Quod chorus vatum, in powerful Sapphic verses, thus translated for The English Hymnal (1933):
Every word of the Lord is gold, but every event in the life of the Lord speaks to us and is golden also. And here Rabanus has caught the wonder of the event that was once known as the Purification. There is no -shedding of blood in Eden. Bloodshed is the most obvious consequence of the Fall. So "if a woman have conceived seed, and born a man child" (Lev. 12:2), she in blood has brought into the world a man tainted with blood, who must be circumcised and in his generative members dedicated to the Lord. And after forty days, she must make an offering of atonement for herself and, presumably, for that sinner-to-be, and then she shall be clean.
But note the mystery here. Christ, who will take upon himself the sins of the world, Christ the Paschal Lamb, is spotless, as his mother Mary is yet a virgin. He who did not need to be circumcised, since he was himself the Lord, sheds his first blood for mankind in that initiatory rite. And he who did not make his mother unclean now enters the Temple on our behalf, as if he were as we are, unclean; and by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, the aged Simeon sees it, and cries out that he is now ready to die.
More than a Foreshadowing
Rabanus does not choose to dwell upon the homely details of the scene, or upon Simeon's admonitory words to Mary, but immediately turns our attention to Paradise, and to the united prayers of the Church in triumph and the Church upon earth. That is because he has in mind the "great and dreadful day of the Lord" (Mal. 4:5), of which this day in the Temple is more than a foreshadowing. The day of the Lord is yet to come, but it is here. Who needs that "purification," which the translator cannily sets forth by itself in a single line? We sinners do. The whole world does, both Gentile and Jew. The light to the Gentiles blazes forth from a fire.
So says the prophet:
And so says the Forerunner:
With that, we can bring together all three rites, circumcision, purification, and baptism. Jesus comes to baptize us in fire. It is more violent than the ritual drowning of baptism. It is more lacerating than the ritual bloodshed of circumcision. Imagine a man-child or a mother tainted with blood. Imagine a lump of sin, of worthless earth and dross, veined and flecked with gold and silver. Imagine what does not shine and is of no use. Imagine man. Jesus the purifier immerses that lump, that son of Levi, into the all-searing and consuming fire of his love. Only then can we sing in full accord with the saints on high:
Anthony Esolen is Professor of English at Providence College in Providence, Rhode Island, and the author of The Ironies of Faith (ISI Books), The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (Regnery), and Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (ISI Books). He has also translated Tasso's Gerusalemme liberata (Johns Hopkins Press) and Dante's The Divine Comedy (Random House). He is a senior editor of Touchstone.
“And He Shall Purify” first appeared in the Jan/Feb 2014 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue. Support the work of Touchstone by subscribing today!
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