|Hans Memling, The Presentation in the Temple (1463)|
Do the Virgin Mary’s actions at the Feast of the Presentation prove or disprove her sinlessness? Here’s the passage in question (Luke 2:22-24):
And when the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they [Joseph and Mary] brought him [Jesus] up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every male that opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord”) and to offer a sacrifice according to what is said in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons.”
Roman Catholics teach that Mary never sinned. But, if that is the case, why did she need to offer an atonement according to Old Testament Law (Lev. 12:1-8) after giving birth to Jesus? According to the Old Testament, it was only the mother who needed purifying after a birth because of the issue of blood. She was ritually unclean. If she had a male child, the days of her period of uncleanness was seven days, then the child was circumcised, then she remained unclean for 33 days (v. 4), for a total of 40 days. If she bore a female child, her period of uncleanness would be 14 days plus 66 days for a total of 80 days. Notice in Leviticus 12:2 it says if she bears a male child she shall be unclean for seven days. If Mary was sinless how could she also be unclean?
One answer would simply be that ritual impurity isn’t the same as sin. Everything from touching a dead body to menstruating led to ritual impurity, but those things aren’t sins. Christ Himself sat to eat without ritually washing (Luke 11:37-38), and He was pretty explicit in denouncing obsessing over ritual impurity, and conflating it with sin (see, e.g., Matthew 15:1-3, 10-20; Luke 11:37-41).
But I think that Luke 2 is a smoking gun… but for the Catholic side. Let me show what I mean.
There’s no question that Luke 2 needs to be read alongside Leviticus 12, since Luke quotes the chapter directly to explain why this sacrifice is being offered. Protestants are right to see the two passages are connected. So let’s start with that passage, Leviticus 12:2-8:
“Say to the people of Israel, If a woman conceives, and bears a male child, then she shall be unclean seven days; as at the time of her menstruation, she shall be unclean. And on the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised. Then she shall continue for thirty-three days in the blood of her purifying; she shall not touch any hallowed thing, nor come into the sanctuary, until the days of her purifying are completed. But if she bears a female child, then she shall be unclean two weeks, as in her menstruation; and she shall continue in the blood of her purifying for sixty-six days.“And when the days of her purifying are completed, whether for a son or for a daughter, she shall bring to the priest at the door of the tent of meeting a lamb a year old for a burnt offering, and a young pigeon or a turtledove for a sin offering, and he shall offer it before the Lord, and make atonement for her; then she shall be clean from the flow of her blood. This is the law for her who bears a child, either male or female. And if she cannot afford a lamb, then she shall take two turtledoves or two young pigeons, one for a burnt offering and the other for a sin offering; and the priest shall make atonement for her, and she shall be clean.”
So far, it sounds like the Protestant side is right. But here’s where it gets fascinating. Leviticus 12:2 is being translated very loosely here, as it is in many other English-language Bibles, in saying that the sin offering applies whenever “a woman conceives, and bears a male child.” It doesn’t say that. The Hebrew literally says that it applies if “a woman receives seed, and bears a male child.” The Hebrew is clear here:
- In prophesies about the Virgin Birth, like Isaiah 7:14, the word used is hareh, which means “pregnant.”
- In Leviticus 12:2, that’s not the verb used. Rather, it’s zara’, which means “to sow,” or “to receive seed.” For example, this is the verb used for sowing in Genesis 47:23 and Exodus 23:10. In both Hebrew and English,
In other words, Leviticus 12 only applies to a woman if she’s inseminated. The KJV gets this right, but most translations use the more polite “conceives.” Normally, that’s no big deal. Here, it’s huge, because Mary conceives Jesus, but she was never inseminated.
|John Opie, The Presentation in the Temple|
This means that regardless of your views on Mary’s perpetual sinlessness, Leviticus 12 clearly doesn’t apply to Mary, simply due to the Virgin Birth. This is huge. It means that Mary was free of this legal burden by right, but we still see her freely submitting to it. St. Bede the Venerable (672-735 A.D.) mentioned this in a homily:
Mary, God’s blessed mother and a perpetual virgin, was, along with the Son she bore, most free from all subjection to the law. The law says that a woman who “had received seed” [Lev 12:2] and given birth was to be judged unclean and that after a long period she, along with the offspring she had borne, were to be cleansed by victims offered to God. So it is evident that the law does not describe as unclean that woman who, without receiving man’s seed, gave birth as a virgin. Nor does it teach that she had to be cleansed by saving sacrificial offerings. But as our Lord and Savior, who in His divinity was the one who gave the law, when He appeared as a human being, willed to be under the law…. So too His blessed mother, who by a singular privilege was above the law, nevertheless did not shun being made subject to the principles of the law for the sake of showing us an example of humility.
If this is right, and the Scriptures seem pretty clear, it’s huge. It means that Mary voluntarily submits to the Law along with her Divine Son, playing a singular role in salvation. Once you understand this simple fact about Mary: that she plays a unique role in salvation, which is why she freely submitting to a Law she was free from, you can understand how she was able to die prior to the Assumption, despite being free from original sin.
Simeon, the prophet that they’re visiting in the Presentation, refers to Mary’s unique role in salvation, saying to her (Luke 2:34-35):
Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is spoken against (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), that thoughts out of many hearts may be revealed.
This is somewhat cryptic language, admittedly, but it points to Mary’s singular role in accompanying her Son in His Passion. St. Ephraim the Syrian says that the sword that passes her soul is the flaming sword held by the cherubim barring the way to Eden and to the tree of life (Genesis 2:24). That certainly seems fitting: that the New Eve, by her obedience, re-opening the door that the old Eve barred by her disobedience.