This is our first Sunday together when we are no longer part of the European Union. Will the severance of our ties with the Union bring the UK the many benefits its advocates have promised, or will the fears of its opponents be realised?
Whether you were ecstatic or mournful at 11pm on Friday night, I think we can agree that after the divisive and bitter campaigning of the past three years, our country now needs healing and a united sense of purpose. As we take our next steps as a nation together, we pray in Mass today that God will help us and our fellow citizens to grow in respect for each other; and that our elected representatives will be inspired with the new insights they need for solving the problems of our time.
A growing problem now reaching our shores is the spread of the coronavirus. (An isolation unit in Newcastle is treating some of its victims.) Cities in China are in lock-down, travel to and from that country is severely restricted, even cancelled altogether by some countries. As there is currently no vaccine to prevent the infection, we are advised that the best way to prevent infection is to avoid being exposed to virus. Hence, people infected and those coming into contact with them are being isolated and held in quarantine.
We feature the mother of Jesus in Mass today after she emerged from a 40 day period of quarantine to go to the Temple in Jerusalem with her husband and new-born baby. In this feast we are commemorating in one celebration two significant events that occurred after Jesus was born. The first is rooted in the Jewish practices of the purification of a mother (after a period of isolation following childbirth) and the second is offering to God by the father of their firstborn son.
The purification of a mother following childbirth has its roots in the Old Testament’s Book of Leviticus (chapter 12) which Orthodox and conservative Jews still adhere to today. As pious and law-abiding Jews, Mary and Joseph adhered to the Law that having given birth to a baby made a mother ritually – not morally – ‘unclean’ or ‘impure’ for 40 days. This meant that for the first seven days after giving birth, Mary avoided any contact with people and for an additional 33 days she was restricted from taking part in community worship.
Why this isolation? In the days before antibiotics, good hygiene and natal care as we know it today, infant mortality was high and death in childbirth common. For instance the infant mortality rate in Rome at that time was around 28 per cent … that is, 28 per cent of all live-born babies died within the first year of life. I suspect it may have even been higher in rural Palestine where Mary lived. (In 2017 in England the rate was four per cent.) So for sound practical reasons both a mother and her new-born child would undergo a period of absence from the community and then had to be integrated safely by means of certain rituals. So when her quarantine was over, Mary could safely resume contact with other people and take part in the ritual by which her child could be ‘presented’ in the Temple, i.e. be formally inducted into Judaism by Joseph, the baby’s legal father.
In the Temple Mary and Joseph meet two old people, Simeon and Anna. Simeon lived in the expectation that he would see the Messiah before his death and now, taking the baby Jesus into his arms, he declares that he can die happy because he has seen the Christ. He predicts that while Jesus is to be a Messiah for both Jews and non-Jews – ‘a light to the Gentiles and the glory of your people Israel’ – he would be rejected by many.
And then Simeon ended with a warning for Mary: – ‘a sword shall pierce your own soul too’. As events unfolded, how right he was …
Holy Name, Jesmond
2 February 2020