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It is significant to note that throughout the recorded life of our Lord we find Him and His Holy Family carefully observing the prescriptions of the Jewish religion. Today, they bring Him to be circumcised. On February 2nd we will see them present Him in the temple and carry out the sacrifices of Mary's purification. In a few weeks we will hear about Him changing water into wine -- water that had been "placed there after the Jewish manner of purification."2 There will be a number of references to the Passover in the Gospels, especially those of the Last Supper. No doubt He observed the day of atonement. Many passages locate our Lord in the Temple at Jerusalem. And even at His death, we will read about the women anointing His body for burial according to Jewish custom.
Some of these things will seem strange to us, particularly if we understand the Jewish customs: Circumcision incorporated a man and his family into the people of God, certainly something unnecessary for the Son of God Himself; the presentation in the Temple was primarily a rite of purification for the mother, and certainly the sinless Mother of God required no purification from anything; surely, He had nothing to atone for; and there was really no reason why He would ever have to offer a sacrifice for sin (at least not for Himself).
It would be correct to say that our Lord and His Holy Family conformed to these Jewish laws to afford us an example of obedience. We all tend to be a bit self-willed, and it does not hurt us to recognize the example of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph following the disciplines of the Old Testament even when they had every right to exempt themselves.
But it would also be correct to say that the Holy Family observed all of these things to recall for us that they were ordinances of the Old Covenant that were about to be replaced with corresponding rites under the New Covenant. They were rituals which symbolized things that would become realities with the inauguration of the New Law, not many years hence.
Circumcision, of course, would be replaced by Baptism; and not just for men, but for all of God's people. Women would be received in church after childbirth -- not with the sacrifice of animals -- but with a blessing. The forgiveness of sins would take place whenever they were Confessed, and not just on one annual day of atonement. The multitude of animal sacrifices at the Temple in Jerusalem would be replaced with the single Sacrifice of the Son of God on the Cross; a sacrifice that God's people could witness daily at every point on the globe. God would be present not only in the holy of holies in Jerusalem, but in the tabernacles on the altars of His churches throughout Christendom.
What we are seeing in these various feasts of the Christmas season is nothing less than the fulfillment of the promise made by God to the fathers of the Old Testament; men like Noe, and Abraham, and Moses. The word "fulfillment" is important. Our Lord tells us elsewhere that He "came not to destroy but to fulfill."3 There is no longer a Temple; there is no longer a sacrifice of cattle, and lambs, and doves -- these things have been replaced with the realities which they could only signify -- they are no longer of any value and have been done away with and put aside -- they have been fulfilled.
Today we stand at the first day of the two thousand and third year of our Lord. Keep this idea of His fulfillment in your minds as we go through this year together. When you listen to the Gospels each Sunday be alert to recall that all of these things were done in fulfillment of God's promise to our forebears of centuries ago. Throughout this coming year, please be ever mindful that Jesus Christ did all of these things "that He might redeem us from all iniquity, and cleanse for Himself an acceptable people pursuing good works."4