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Presentation of Jesus at the Temple (Luca Longhi, ca. mid 16th century)

Americans celebrate February 2nd as Groundhog Day, but the celebration is properly Candlemas, an ancient Christian holiday which got mixed up with an even more ancient winter holiday of pagan Germany (which involved forecasting the weather based on the behavior of badgers and bears). We will get to the bottom of that ancient pagan badger worship thing at some later date: for now, let’s talk about Candlemas which is one of Christianity’s oldest holidays and has been celebrated in Jerusalem since at least the 4th century. The original form the ancient holiday took was as “The Feast of the Presentation of Jesus Christ” (the synoptic gospel source for all of this is the second chapter of Luke) and it celebrated the redemption of infant Jesus at the temple of Solomon (Luke has muddled this up with the purification ritual for women who have given birth, but for the sake of clarity I am going to ignore that as well and write only about infant redemption which is the critical ancient Monotheistic kernel of this holiday).

Baby Jesus required redemption from the temple because he was Jewish–more specifically, he was a firstborn Jewish male infant and thus the somewhat rare rite of pidyon haben was required. Here is what the Book of Exodus has to say concerning the subject (this is from Exodus Chapter 13–so the speaker here is, uh, God and the listener is Moses, understood to be the chosen representative of the chosen people):

That thou shalt set apart unto the Lord all that openeth the matrix, and every firstling that cometh of a beast which thou hast; the males shall be the Lord’s. And every firstling of an ass thou shalt redeem with a lamb; and if thou wilt not redeem it, then thou shalt break his neck: and all the firstborn of man among thy children shalt thou redeem. And it shall be when thy son asketh thee in time to come, saying, What is this? that thou shalt say unto him, By strength of hand the Lord brought us out from Egypt, from the house of bondage. And it came to pass, when Pharaoh would hardly let us go, that the Lord slew all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both the firstborn of man, and the firstborn of beast: therefore I sacrifice to the Lord all that openeth the matrix, being males; but all the firstborn of my children I redeem.

Exodus 13: 12-15

Wow! This is some old-school religion! Yet, to be honest, I am not sure I would understand any of that if it had not been carefully explained to me. Here is the best interpretation/explanation I can offer. All firstborn male mammals belong to God (in his pre-Abraham days as a god of nomadic shepherds, El was very big on sacrifice: this is frequently reflected in the Old Testament and sometimes glimmers of the truly old ways of human sacrifice can be seen–as in the stories of Abraham and Isaac or of Jephthah’s daughter). God no longer wants human sacrifice, but first born males are pledged to the temple and the priestly caste as servants. This obligation, however, can be dispensed with through a business transaction: parents can trade the price of a lamb, 5 shekels of silver to the kohens to redeem their child from the Lord’s service [One of the twelve tribes of Judaism, the Levites, were the priests. Moses’ elder brother Aaron was of this tribe. Because of Aaron’s special service, God made him high priest, and all of his descendants, the kohanim are priests. Jews with the surname Levi or Cohen have special priestly duties and privileges to this day]

The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple (Fra Angelico, 1440-1442) fresco

Jesus lived in Judea during the final days of the Temple of Solomon. His parents had to take him to the temple and pay the priests. Luke specifies that Joseph and Mary took the option given to poor people, paying the price of a pair of doves rather than of a lamb (doves, like sheep and asses, are sacred animals in Christian mythology). In the temple an ancient prophet, Simeon recognized Jesus and prophesied him to be “A light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel”. This is what is celebrated by Candlemas aka”The Feast of the Presentation of Jesus Christ” and it was of great importance to the first Christians living in ancient Israel. The original meaning of all of this, however has faded over thousands of years and it is now difficult to understand (except to very devout Jews) and so The Feast of the Presentation of Jesus Christ has now become Groundhog Day in the country’s largest Christian nation! I wonder what will happen to February 2nd in another thousand years or so.

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