Circumcision, Presentation, and Purification – introduction

These three traditional Jewish rituals took place in the days following the birth of Jesus. Our problem is that they are often confused in art, with elements from one ceremony turning up in images of another.

Let’s start with Luke’s account. (Chapter 2). According to Giza Vermes (The Nativity) he doesn’t get it quite right either.

And when eight days were accomplished for the circumcising of the child, his name was called JESUS, which was so named of the angel before he was conceived in the womb.
   And when the days of her purification according to the law of Moses were accomplished, they brought him to Jerusalem, to present him to the Lord; (As it is written in the law of the Lord, Every male that openeth the womb shall be called holy to the Lord;) And to offer a sacrifice according to that which is said in the law of the Lord, A pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons. And, behold, there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon; and the same man was just and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel: and the Holy Ghost was upon him. And it was revealed unto him by the Holy Ghost, that he should not see death, before he had seen the Lord's Christ. And he came by the Spirit into the temple: and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him after the custom of the law, Then took he him up in his arms, and blessed God, and said, Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word: For mine eyes have seen thy salvation, Which thou hast prepared before the face of all people; A light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel. And Joseph and his mother marvelled at those things which were spoken of him. And Simeon blessed them, and said unto Mary his mother, Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising again of many in Israel; and for a sign which shall be spoken against; (Yea, a sword shall pierce through thy own soul also,) that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed. And there was one Anna, a prophetess, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Aser: she was of a great age, and had lived with an husband seven years from her virginity; And she was a widow of about fourscore and four years, which departed not from the temple, but served God with fastings and prayers night and day. And she coming in that instant gave thanks likewise unto the Lord, and spake of him to all them that looked for redemption in Jerusalem. And when they had performed all things according to the law of the Lord, they returned into Galilee, to their own city Nazareth.

 So, the Key facts:

Circumcision. This took place eight days after the birth of Christ, and is celebrated on January 1st. Luke’s brief account tells us that it was the day on which the child was given the name Jesus.

The presentation of Christ in the temple, and the purification of the Virgin.  These are separate ceremonies, but are celebrated on the same day – forty days after the birth of Christ, February 2nd, sometimes known as Candlemas.  Luke’s account does rather confuse the issue, so let’s try and separate them.

  The purification ceremony was for women who had given birth to a male child. A sacrifice was necessary; a year-old lamb and a turtledove. For poor families, two doves would be acceptable. This is all made clear in Leviticus:

A woman who becomes pregnant and gives birth to a son will be ceremonially unclean for seven days, just as she is unclean during her monthly period. On the eighth day the boy is to be circumcised. Then the woman must wait thirty-three days to be purified from her bleeding. She must not touch anything sacred or go to the sanctuary until the days of her purification are over. When the days of her purification for a son or daughter are over, she is to bring to the priest at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting a year-old lamb for a burnt offering and a young pigeon or a dove for a sin offering.
    If she cannot afford a lamb, she is to bring two doves or two young pigeons, one for a burnt offering and the other for a sin offering. In this way the priest will make atonement for her, and she will be clean. (Leviticus 12:2-6, 8)

  A key point  is that the purification ceremony should take place outside the temple, unlike the Presentation. Centuries later, the Christian ceremony of 'Churching of Women' often took place at the church door. 


 Note:   More recent versions of Luke 2 22 have ‘When the days of their purification’ which doesn’t fit with Leviticus and provides much useful material for theologians to argue over. Which is the better match to the original Greek, I have no idea.  
The Presentation: According to Jewish tradition, firstborn male children ‘belonged’ to God, and their lives should be dedicated to the service of the Temple:

Sanctify unto me all the firstborn, whatsoever openeth the womb among the children of Israel, both of man and of beast: it is mine. (Exodus 13:1)

 This demand is repeated in Numbers 3:11-13. However, firstborns could be redeemed by payment of five shekels. Presumably this could take place in the Temple (but after the purification, if the mother was to be present.)
  In Luke’s gospel the characters of Simeon and Anna are introduced, and they regularly appear in art. They have, however, nothing to do with the Purification of the Virgin or the circumcision. Many paintings – and indeed the gospel of Luke – confusingly conflate these events.

A Case in point: The Circumcision by Marco Marziale. 

Museo Correr, Venice

   It's all happening here! The priest is beginning his circumcision at the centre of the painting. To the left, Joseph has brought along the two turtledoves for Mary's Purification, while at the back Anna and Simeon have turned up rather too early for Christ's Presentation. 
  So is this a case of a rather dim-witted artist?
   Not really. The church authorities probably knew what they were doing and, like versions of the nativity, separate events were often combined, as we'll see on the page devoted to the Circumcision. The object, after all, was to offer a devotional work, not a history lesson in ancient Jewish ritual. 
The Circumcision Purification and Presentation

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