“It represented the effects of the blood of the lamb with which the doorposts of the Israelites were marked.”
The Thirty Years
Our Lord’s Infancy & Hidden Life
Fr Henry James Coleridge
Burns and Oates, London, 1915
Image: Wiki Commons Public Domain. Some line breaks added below, with some headings taken from the original Table of Contents.
The Redemption of the Firstborn
The law relating to the redemption of the first-born rested on a different foundation [to that of the purification after childbirth]. It was enacted before the Israelites left Egypt, and it was based on the destruction of all the first-born among the Egyptians as a last plague, to force the hard heart of Pharaoh to obedience to the will of God in letting the Israelites depart. Then, before the people had crossed the Red Sea, and before the final destruction of Pharaoh and his army in its waves, Moses had been commanded to instruct the people on this point.
“When the Lord shall have brought thee into the land of the Chanaanite, as He swore to thee and to thy fathers, and shall give it to thee, thou shalt set apart all that openeth the womb for the Lord, and all that is first brought forth of thy cattle, whatsoever thou shalt have of the male sex, thou shalt consecrate to the Lord. And every first-born of men thou shalt redeem with a price.
“And when thy son shall ask thee to-morrow, ‘What is this?’ thou shalt answer him, ‘With a strong hand did the Lord bring us forth out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage; for when Pharaoh was hardened, and would not let us go, the Lord slew every first-born in the land of Egypt, from the first-born of man to the first-born of beasts, therefore I sacrifice to the Lord all that openeth the womb of the male sex, and all the first-born of my sons I redeem.’”
The Sacred Text goes on to set forth the purpose for which this enactment was made by God.
“It shall be as a sign in thy hand, and as a thing hung between thine eyes, for a remembrance, because the Lord hath brought us forth out of Egypt with a strong hand.”
If the ceremony of the redemption of the first-born had always been accompanied with a lively and grateful recollection of the singular benefits which God had conferred upon His chosen people, it would have been a continual spur to the devotion and faithfulness of the Israelites to His Law. More than that, it would have reminded them, not only of the deliverance from Egypt, but of the significant circumstances of that deliverance. It would have brought to mind the slaying of the paschal lamb, and the sprinkling of its blood upon the doorposts of the houses in which the Israelites dwelt, that the exterminating angel might pass on, and spare the children within.
Thus the redemption of mankind by the Blood of the Immaculate Lamb of God would have been kept perpetually before the minds of the people, there would have been in every family one at least who might be said to represent the principle of redemption, and when our Lord came to die on the Cross, that feature of God’s rule in dealing with mankind which consisted in the requirement of so ineffable a Sacrifice would have been a sign of the faithfulness of God instead of a stumbling-block to the people.
Such being the ground of these two precepts of the Law, it is clear that there could be no reason, beyond the simple letter, even if any in that, for the submission to these prescriptions of our Blessed Lady and her Divine Child. Hers was a child-bearing altogether heavenly and immaculate, and He, as her First-born, needed no redemption to set Him free from the obligation of belonging entirely to God, for He came into the world for the one express purpose of serving God most perfectly from the first moment of His Life to the last, and of setting all the world free from the more than Egyptian bondage of sin.
He was the Redeemer, not the redeemed, He was Himself the Lamb without spot or blemish, by virtue of Whose Blood all were to be saved who were to have any part in salvation.
The first-born of the tribe of Levi were not redeemed by their parents, because they were to be all their lives addicted to the service of God in the Temple and elsewhere. Though our Lord did not belong to the tribe of Levi, still He was the Great High Priest, Himself the Priest and the Sacrifice of the New and Eternal Law. Whatever spiritual blessings and efficacy might be connected with the ministrations of the Levites and priests at the altar, were all derived from Him, and imparted on condition of faith in Him.
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“It represented the effects of the blood of the lamb with which the doorposts of the Israelites were marked.”
But the Providence of God had ruled that Mary should be purified like other mothers, and that her Son should be redeemed like other first-born, for many Divine reasons. For our Lord always reverenced the laws which His Father had made, even though they were not for Him. He had a special love for the virtue of obedience, by means of which He was to redeem the world, and cancel all the effects of the disobedience of Adam.
It rejoiced His Heart, moreover, to renew in His own Person the grateful acknowledgment of the mercies which had been shown by God to the chosen people, to which He Himself belonged after the flesh. And much more was He continually rejoicing over and thanking God for the spiritual redemption and deliverance of which that old history was a figure, and which He was Himself to accomplish.
Our Blessed Lady, moreover, could rejoice to be as other women in respect of her Purification, in which something of the healing power of the Precious Blood was applied in the sacrifice offered, and in which great homage and a humble acknowledgment of perfect dependence and subjection were offered to God. As our Lord in His Circumcision took on Himself the position and character of one born in original sin, so it would be a delight to His Mother to wear the same character in her Purification.
Her presence there was thus at once an act of obedience and of humility. She obeyed a law by which she was not bound, and she made profession of a state of legal impurity which did not belong to her. It was such a profession to take her stand at the portal of the Temple, to be admitted only after the sacred rite had been performed, and the like. She showed her love for the sacred precincts, and for the privileges of the chosen people, in presenting herself, while there was also a further profession of poverty and of love of purity in her offering.
Thus every action in this sacred mystery had its holy character. The redemption of our Lord by His Mother was very significant also, because it represented, as we have seen, the effects of the blood of the lamb with which the doorposts of the Israelites were marked in order to save the children from the sword of the exterminating angel. All that efficacy, was derived from the representation, by means of that blood, of the ransom which was to be paid for our sins on the Cross.
“They are the patterns of the devout class of Christian souls”
It must also have been a great joy to our Lord to present Himself for the first time, in the Temple, to His Eternal Father, to acknowledge His absolute dependence on Him, and to offer Himself there for the great work for which He came into the world. And if this was so with Him, so also would it be a joy and solemn delight to our Blessed Lady to do her part in this solemn Presentation. “I rejoiced,” says one of the Gradual Psalms, “at the things that were said to me, We shall go into the house of the Lord!” and the thoughts which follow in that beautiful canticle must have been in her heart while they were on their way to Jerusalem.
It was the first time they had gone to the Holy City since the ineffable blessing of the Birth of our Lord. He had to offer Himself to His Father, she had to give thanks for the accomplishment of the promises made to her, and St. Joseph also had to pour out his grateful heart to God Who had chosen him for so high an office, and enabled him hitherto to discharge it with faithfulness and success.
And in all this we see, not only what any bystander might have seen, the careful fulfilment of and obedience to all the prescriptions of the Law, but also that “fulfilling” of the Law in another and a higher sense, of which our Lord seems to have spoken to St. John, at the time of His own Baptism. For it was by our Lord’s Baptism that water was consecrated for the sacrament of regeneration. It was by our Lord’s Circumcision that efficacy was connected with that rite for the cancelling of original sin. So it was by the fulfilment on the part of our Lord, and His Blessed Mother, of these prescriptions of the Law, that they had allied to them the blessings which had been imparted, in a long series of generations, to those who had faithfully observed them.
Thus in itself to our Lord and to the two holy souls by His side, Mary and Joseph, the occasion of the Purification was one of intense joy. They are the patterns of the devout class of Christian souls who do not ask whether a holy rite, such as the hearing of Mass, is of obligation on them or not, but whether it is possible for them to avail themselves of the opportunities afforded them for such a service to God and so much benefit to their own souls, without any interference with other duties of their station. It was enough that they had the opportunity.
The rule of the Law of God was a privilege to them, as the religious duties of Catholics are privileges to the devout. To breathe the air of the house of God, to be present where He was praised and worshipped according to His own institution, to unite themselves with the crowds of other worshippers, and so to enjoy the blessings of the great people of God, were things from which they needed rather something to restrain them when it was necessary, than anything to drive them when it was possible to enjoy them.
“His eyes are too pure to behold evil.”
But at the same time there were the Divine reasons already mentioned why these solemn mysteries should have their place in the life of our Lord and of His Blessed Mother, not merely for the example of obedience and piety which they contain, but also on account of their relation to the counsels and institutions of God.
To the outward eye, there was no pomp or ceremony about this great mystery of the Purification. St. Joseph took our Lady and the Blessed Child, as any other poor man might have taken them, along the few miles of road between Bethlehem and Jerusalem, and made his way, unobserved amid the crowd of worshippers, to that part of the Temple which the women might enter for purposes like that of Mary. It was easy to procure the simple offering prescribed for the poor, a pair of turtle doves or two young pigeons. The ceremony would not create excitement or arouse more attention than the “churching” of a young mother in one of our own chapels. Mary may have been but one of many mothers who came for the same purpose. The offering was soon made, the prayers were soon said, the money for the redemption tax was soon paid.
Yet that was by far the most glorious moment in the history of that Temple, a moment, indeed, which raised its glories to a higher level than those even of the first Temple of Solomon.
“Yet a little while,” God had said by the Prophet Aggeus, “and I will move the heavens and the earth, and the sea and the dry land. And I will move all nations, and the Desired of all nations shall come, and I will fill this house with glory, saith the Lord of hosts… Great, shall be the glory of this House, more than of the first, saith the Lord of hosts, and in this place I will give peace, saith the Lord of hosts.”
It is remarkable that the prophetic descriptions of this coming of our Lord to His Temple should be so full of words which express His majesty and power, rather than His humility and meekness, the lowliness of His appearance, and the simple poverty of those in whose charge He came. Yet so it was in truth, and so His coming is described in the other great prophetical passage which is referred to by the Church in this connexion. Malachias, the last of the prophets, mingles up, as has already been remarked, the two advents of our Lord in His prophecy. Thus it is natural that he should add many words which signify rather the terrors of the last coming than the humility and gentleness of the first.
“And presently the Lord Whom you seek, and the Angel of the Testament Whom you desire, shall come to His Temple. Behold He cometh l saith the Lord of Hosts. And who shall be able to think of the day of His coming, and who shall stand to see Him? for He is like a refining fire and like the fuller’s herb.”
But the Holy Ghost may mean us to discern the truth, that in all the advents and visitations of our Lord, whether He comes in majesty or in meekness, in power or in humility, there is this character of searching justice and severe purity, before which everything that is in any way unworthy of His presence withers up and is scorched to dust as before a purifying fire.
Thus He is as terrible in the arms of Mary, as on the throne of judgment, for “His eyes,” as the prophet says, “are too pure to behold evil, and He cannot look on sin.”
From Fr Henry James Coleridge, The Thirty Years, Our Lord’s Infancy & Hidden Life, published 1885, this edition Burns and Oates, London, 1915, 112-120.
Fr Henry James Coleridge SJ
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The Church in the Last Days – Part II: How will we know her?
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Our Lady, the Rosary and the Holy Souls
The Cleansing of the Temple – How Our Lord will come and purge our souls
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Our Lord’s expectation of his Nativity – Part I
Our Lord’s expectation of his Nativity – Part II
The Presentation of Christ – Candlemas, Passover and the buying-back of the firstborn
Persecution – What are its effects?
St Joseph – do the Gospels tell us more about him than we realise?
The Old Testament Rosary
Have you seen our “Old Testament Rosary,” which matches a prophecy from the Old Testament with each Hail Mary?
Aside from perhaps being helpful for prayer, it also shows how wonderfully Our Lord fulfilled all things in himself. Here is the Fourth Joyful Mystery:
4. The Presentation of Our Lord in the Temple
Thou shalt offer thy son for an holocaust. Gn 22.2. (Our Father.)
- Every firstborn is mine, since I struck the firstborn of Egypt. Nm 3.13 (Hail Mary.)
- Sanctify to me the firstborn that opens the womb. Ex 13.12
- Then the woman shall enter the sanctuary after her purification. Lv 12.4
- And bringing a holocaust, shall she be cleansed. Lv 12.8
- But thou art all fair, my love, without a spot in thee. Cn 4.7
- The Lord whom you seek shall suddenly come to his temple. Ml 3.1
- The Desired of All Nations shall fill this house with glory. Ag 2.8
- Then a voice in Rama, Rachel bewailing her children. Jr 31.15
- So the Lord will ascend and enter into Egypt. Is 19.1
- ’Til out of Egypt have I called my son. Os 11.1
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 Exodus xiii. 11-15
 Psalm cxxi. I.
 Aggeus ii. 6-9
 Malach. Iii. I, 2.
 Habacuc i. 13.