Column: Jesus turns system of exclusion upside down

by Father Mike Stubbs

Catholics of an older generation most likely remember the Communion rail. It has disappeared from most churches, although it still survives in a few.

To receive Communion, one knelt at the Communion rail. The Communion rail also served as a barrier, cutting off the sanctuary from the rest of the church. For the most part, only the clergy and the altar servers could gain access to the sanctuary. That restriction especially held true for women, who could ordinarily
enter the sanctuary only for two purposes: to clean it or to be married on their wedding day.

The Temple of Jerusalem, which figures significantly in Sunday’s Gospel reading, Lk 2: 22-40, had a similar system of increasing levels of access. Joseph and Mary have taken the Infant Jesus to the Temple to present him as required by the Law of Moses. While there, they encounter two members of the older generation, Simeon and Anna.

Simeon predicts great things for Jesus. Anna is also described by the Gospel text as a prophetess, although it does not report any specifics — only that “she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were awaiting the redemption of Jerusalem.”

All this takes place at the Temple. But where exactly? To answer that question, we should first examine the layout of the Temple of Jerusalem. It was not a single structure, but rather was a large complex, made up of several courtyards, leading up to the Temple building. Each courtyard was bordered by colonnades, reminiscent of St. Peter’s Square in Rome.

The first courtyard was the court of the Gentiles, which was accessible to anyone. Beyond that lay the courtyard of the women, where only Jews could enter, including Jewish women. Next was the courtyard of the men, where only Jewish men could enter. Then was the courtyard of the priests, restricted to priests. Eventually, one reached the Temple building itself, where only priests on duty could go. Finally, within the Temple building, was the holy of holies, entered only by the high priest on one day during the year.

According to this system of graduated access, Simeon and Anna would have encountered Jesus, Mary and Joseph either in the courtyard of the Gentiles or the courtyard of the women. It is there that they recognize the arrival of God’s salvation, in the form of this newly born baby.

The system of graduated access in the Jerusalem Temple suggested that the closer one approached God, the more difficult it became. It emphasized God’s holiness and identified it with inaccessibility. God was thought of as distant and far removed.

It is significant, then, that Jesus appears as the Messiah, not in the heart of the temple, but on its periphery. In his ministry, Jesus will identify with those living on the margins of society. It is appropriate that at the beginning of his life we also find him there.

Instead of approaching God through a system which becomes more and more exclusive, with Jesus it is the opposite. Jesus turns the Temple system upside down, just as eventually he will return to the Temple as an adult and overturn the tables of the money-changers.

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