The Deeper Meaning of the Presentation in the Temple

By Clement Harrold

For many Catholics, the fourth joyful mystery—the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple—can be a difficult scene to meditate on. What’s the episode about, anyway? And what might be its deeper meaning?

Beginning with the first question, it’s important to remember that the Presentation described in Luke 2:22-38 is not the circumcision of Jesus. That already took place eight days after His birth. Rather, the Presentation took place in order to fulfill two different dictates of the Mosaic Law.

The first of these, drawn from Leviticus 12, mandated that mothers needed to be purified forty days after giving birth to a male child. This is why the Presentation is celebrated in the Church’s calendar on February 2nd—also known as “Candlemas,” an allusion to Simeon’s words about the boy Jesus being “a light for revelation to the Gentiles” (Lk 2:32)—because the event takes place forty days after the nativity (counting December 25 as day one).

In order to make the purification, the mother in question was required to sacrifice a lamb as well as either a pigeon or a turtledove. The law made provision, however, for those families who were too poor to afford a lamb, in which case they could sacrifice two pigeons or two turtledoves instead. St. Luke goes out of his way to inform the reader that this is exactly what the Holy Family did, thereby reminding us of their material poverty (see Lk 2:24).

The second precept of the Mosaic Law which Mary and Joseph were following is the requirement from Exodus 13:2 that all firstborns be consecrated to God in a special way. More specifically, this ritual rested on the understanding that the firstborn naturally belonged to God, and so the child’s human parents were expected to “redeem” (from the Latin redimō, meaning to “buy back”) their child by paying five shekels to the priest.

All of this helps us to see that the Presentation in the Temple was about two important things: (1) the purification of Mary and (2) the redemption of baby Jesus. So far so good. But there are two other elements here which are worth paying attention to. For one thing, the Mosaic Law nowhere demanded that the purification or the redemption take place within the Temple. This means that the Holy Family was being extra devout by going to the Temple for this special day.

Additionally, there is one detail in the Presentation narrative which is startling for its absence. While St. Luke does mention that Mary and Joseph bought the two turtledoves, he never takes the time to mention the paying of the five shekels to redeem baby Jesus. In other words, he cites the redeeming-of-the-firstborns precept laid down in Exodus 13:2, but he leaves out a description of this redemption taking place. Why might that be?

For the late Pope Benedict XVI, in his Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, the answer was obvious. St. Luke leaves a literary silence in the passage in order to drive home the point that the infant Jesus belongs to His Heavenly Father:

Evidently Luke intends to say that instead of being “redeemed” and restored to his parents, this child was personally handed over to God in the Temple, given over completely to God. . . . Luke has nothing to say regarding the act of “redemption” prescribed by the law. In its place we find the exact opposite: the child is handed over to God, and from now on belongs to him completely. (p. 3)

Understanding this detail can help us bring the fourth joyful mystery to life in a new way. The Presentation isn’t just another boring religious ritual. On the contrary, it is a deeply symbolic moment pointing to Jesus’s divine identity, and to Mary and Joseph’s perfect cooperation with His divine mission.


Further Reading:


Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives (Image, 2012)



Clement Harrold is a graduate student in theology at the University of Notre Dame. His writings have appeared in First ThingsChurch Life JournalCrisis Magazine, and the Washington Examiner. He earned his bachelor's degree from Franciscan University of Steubenville in 2021.

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