The Presentation in the Temple looks like a failure.
In memory of the slaying of the firstborn of the Egyptians—man and beast alike—the Israelites were commanded to sacrifice their own firstborn to the Lord. This in general seems to have required the death of the firstborn, with two exceptions. There’s an option to ransom a firstborn donkey by killing a sheep instead of the donkey. For a firstborn man, there is no choice: he must be ransomed by the sacrifice of a different animal.
The sacrifice for a firstborn son is supposed to redeem him, to prevent him from being sacrificed himself. Mary and Joseph, obedient to the law, offered this sacrifice for Jesus in the Temple, but it failed to prevent His death. Indeed, Jesus would die precisely as the firstborn Son offered to God on the Cross.
This ‘failure’ wasn’t Mary’s or Joseph’s fault. It wasn’t Simeon’s or Anna’s fault. Luke doesn’t suggest that whichever Temple priests were supposed to sacrifice the “pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons” messed up their job. If we persist in looking for someone to blame, we could end up in blasphemous territory, and we rightly stop short of blaming God.
In our own lives, all kinds of failures happen, and it’s often easy enough to assign blame (usually to ourselves, if we’re honest). But sometimes things just go wrong for no apparent reason. Everyone did what they’re supposed to—they went to the doctor regularly, were wearing their lifejackets, waited for a green light—and yet everything went wrong.
This is fundamentally a question for which we do not have an answer. God’s ways are not our ways, and He is under no obligation to explain them to us. In the case of the Presentation, however, He does reveal His plan to us, and perhaps this is meant to be a moment of comfort for us. The practice of redeeming the firstborn son really did bring Israel closer to the Lord, but this law was always a servant of God’s love, not a constraint placed upon Him. When it came to His own Son, He rejected the redemptive animal in favor of the glory of the Cross and Resurrection. Because He loves us. Among the mysteries of Christ’s life, the Presentation gives us a glimpse of how even events that seem like failures have their proper place within God’s loving plan.
God often doesn’t show us His plan for our own lives, so we’re left to trust in His goodness. In times of trouble, this can truly be difficult, and sometimes we should just tell God that we’re angry with Him. But we must stop short of blaming God for evil. Instead, we can try to see hints of the larger picture within which He has placed us and is guiding us. Failing that, we can at least know that He Who so loved His Son as to allow Him to die on the Cross loves us as well, even when the way He loves us just doesn’t make sense from our limited perspective.
Image: A dodo (CC BY 2.0 by a Wikimedia user)