ColumnsSunday’s Word

He was like us, to save us

February 2, 2020


Mal 3:1-4

Like a refiner’s fire

Ps 24:7-10

Gates, lift your lintels

Heb 2:14-18

He was like us, to save us

Lk 2:22-40

The Holy Family at the temple 020220.cfm


The second of February famously marks the occasion for celebrations of different kinds. One reason for this may be that like May 1, Aug. 2 and Nov. 1, it marks one of the “cross-quarter” days, according to Robert Graves. These occur halfway between the solstices and the equinoxes. They invite celebration.

The circumcision of Jesus (Luke 2:21) is not the same as the presentation (2:22-24). The first took place “when eight days were completed” after his birth. The second “when the days were completed for their purification.” Furthermore, the presentation of the firstborn, which is called for in Exodus 13:2, 12, is distinct from the purification of the mother, a regulation from Leviticus 12:2, 12, 15. It is there that we hear about the special option for offerings from the poor. “If, however, she cannot afford a lamb, she may take two turtledoves or two pigeons, the one for a burnt offering and the other for a purification offering” (Lev 12:8). Luke compresses all of this into one account, as a narrative convenience.

The note about the offering places the couple in the context of the poor of the land. These are the “Anawim” — the poor of Yahweh. A striking feature of Luke’s account is this portrait of the poor, in the foreground of the infancy narrative, against the operations of the empire in the background, shown in the census of Caesar Augustus (Luke 2:1). But what the powers do not realize is that the events that will change the world are happening in front of us, and not among them. To put it one way, the powers do not know that the calendar is starting over again, and that is the work of the lowly Anawim.

In today’s Gospel reading we meet a couple of other members of this class of people. The common thread among them is they are “righteous,” and they are waiting. Simeon is described as “righteous and devout. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel” (2:25). We also meet Anna, who spoke about the child “to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem” (2:38). This evokes Zechariah and Elizabeth, who are described as “righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commands and decrees blamelessly” (1:6).

We can include in this list a surprising addition. At the end of the Gospel, Joseph of Arimathea, who provided Jesus with a tomb, is described by Luke as “a member of the Council, a good and upright man, … he himself was waiting for the kingdom of God” (23:50-51).

The Anawim, among whom the mystery emerges, are typically, poor, pious and peripheral to the centers of power and influence in their world. The poverty of the villagers in the opening chapters of Luke has been indicated. Their piety is seen in the repeated mention of their being devout, or righteous. They are faithful.

Their peripheral place in society is seen in another repeated refrain. Waiting on the Lord is quite different from achieving matters on your own. Those who wait on the Lord, who wait upon events, are those not in control, without the political power at their disposal to force events in their favor; they are the poor of Yahweh.

Luke’s Gospel constitutes a call to his readers to move away from some of the values that they learned as a part of the imperial culture of that day. For those of us in today’s world, in our own empire and not among the Anawim, we are offered this vision of the pious villagers. The New Testament scholar Sharon Ringe has called Luke’s account, “‘Good News to the Poor’ for the Non-Poor.” That about says it.

 For reflection: Waiting can be another form of prayer, of faithfulness.

Father Beck is professor emeritus of religious studies at Loras College, Dubuque.