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February 2011

The 40 Days of Christmas

How time flies when you are enjoying yourself! Did you realise that Wednesday 2nd February was the 40th Day of Christmas? So what, you may ask. We kept our tree up until the 12th Day and now it is back in the attic. And we have forgotten about Christmas until next year. [Note the Houston's have a "green" tree which has helped them celebrate Christmas every year since 1969! It grows not old as we humans grow old, as many Christmas photographs bear testimony to.]

We should not ignore the 40th Day after the Nativity because that was a highly significant day for Mary and for Jesus, as indeed was the 40th day after birth for all Jewish mothers and their first born sons. The Torah [Leviticus 12: 2-8] decrees that after giving birth to a son, a woman is ceremonially unclean for seven days but then must wait until the 40th day "to be purified from her bleeding". This meant that she was able to rest up and was not expected to engage publically for this time. [An early example of maternity leave? By the way it was 80 days for a daughter!] Then she was to offer a sacrifice before the priest in the "Tent of Meeting" in Wilderness days, or, while there was one, in the Temple. And so, Mary and Joseph, with Jesus, headed off to the Temple in Jerusalem to offer the sacrifice and to be "purified".

But more than that, the Torah [Exodus 13: 2, 12, 13] decrees that the first born son must be consecrated (or "given") to God. Every first born animal or human belongs to God because in Egypt, the first born of the Hebrew families and herds were spared on the night that God struck down all the first born of the Egyptians. The night of the "Pass-over"! The firstborn son is "presented" but then redeemed by an animal sacrifice. Thus on the same occasion of the 40th day after his birth, Jesus was Presented in the Temple, and bought back through a sacrifice. This emphasises more than anything that Jesus was Jew, born into a Jewish family who kept the old Jewish traditions. [Read about this in Luke 2: 22-40.] The Church celebrates these events annually on 2nd February - the feast day of The Presentation of Christ in the Temple. This day marks the end of the Christmas-Epiphany seasons and then we start the countdown through "ordinary time" until Ash Wednesday and the beginning of the Season of Lent, when we start to look forward to Good Friday and Easter. [See my Message for June 2009.]

While the Holy Family were in the Temple that day, another significant thing happened. There was a "righteous and devout" man in the temple called Simeon. We traditionally think of him as an old man. He was waiting for "the consolation of Israel", that is the Servant of the Lord who would bring great comfort to his people [Isaiah 40: 1]. God had revealed to him that he would not die until he had seen this Messiah, and he sees that Jesus is this promised one. He sings the Song of Simeon, also called the Nunc Dimittis, sung in churches in the evening Office for centuries. Here he speaks of Jesus as bringing salvation to all the Nations, not just comfort to the Jews. But he also speaks of the controversy that Jesus will stir up, and that he will die as a consequence, causing Mary the great pain of the bereavement of her son. This is part of the "Dark Side" of the Christmas story that we like to ignore. [See my message for Christmas 2010.]

We are now on the countdown to the fulfilment of Simeon's prophesy that "Jesus was born to die for our salvation". It is a bit longer than usual  this year as Easter is quite late. Spend this time wisely!


4 February 2011

 NOTE - Previous "Monthly Messages" are archived at