Although St. Luke writes in his gospel account that the time was fulfilled for “their” purification, he really was referring only to the Blessed Virgin Mary. We have always known and honored her as Immaculate Mary, sinless from the moment of her conception by the gracious act of her Son and Lord. Given that, how could she possibly be in need of purification?
This isn’t the time or the place for a lecture on ritual impurity laws, but suffice it to say that it had nothing necessarily to do with sinfulness. For example, it wasn’t sinful to bury the dead; that was and still is an act of mercy. However, even standing in the shadow of a coffin was terribly defiling for an ancient Jew. Similarly, it wasn’t sinful to give birth; one was fulfilling the command of God to be fruitful and multiply. However, because it put a woman in danger of death – and many women did die in those days due to the complications of giving birth – it put her in a state of ritual impurity.
The book of Leviticus chapter 12 says that 40 days after a woman has given birth to a son, she is to be purified. So, the first thing that Mary needed to do was to come to the Temple.
Jewish historical tradition holds that the Temple was built on Mount Moriah, the mountain where, by the command of God, Abraham was to sacrifice his son, Isaac. Carrying up the mountain the wood for the burnt offering, Isaac asked his father where they would find the sheep for the sacrifice. Abraham’s answer was mysterious, yet prophetic: God would provide the sheep.
With this in mind, consider that the second thing a woman seeking purification needed to do was to bring a lamb to the Temple for a burnt offering. Only after the lamb had been sacrificed was she made clean. If she could not afford a lamb, then two turtledoves or pigeons could be substituted, and St. Luke does note that these were what the Holy Family did bring.
Yet for her purification the Blessed Virgin Mary has in reality brought the greatest gift that both the Temple and the world have ever known. God himself is the deliverance; He has fulfilled Abraham’s prophecy and answered Isaac’s question by sending his only Son as the lamb for the sacrifice.
On the one hand, this is a moment of great rejoicing, and we hear how Simeon does rejoice. These people had waited centuries for deliverance and, by a singular grace of the Holy Spirit, Simeon had been allowed to see and hold in person the long-awaited deliverance and glory of his people, Israel.
On the other hand and by the same grace, he sees the bitterness that lies ahead. As certainly the shadow of the cross stretches from the dawn of human history to the twilight of the Second Coming, so Simeon sees its shadow across the face of infant and mother. Just as this little baby would one day grow up to speak words that cut as sharply as a two-edged sword, even so would the God-man’s side feel the wound of a different blade on a different mount in Jerusalem. As for the mother, while Abraham was spared the grief of losing his son, the Blessed Mother would be asked to endure his loss twice: first from the family and then from earthly life itself.
Thus in the purification of Mary we learn that God keeps his promises, not on our terms or in our time, but on his terms and in his time; not for our understanding, but for our benefit; not in the warm light of earthly glory, but in the cold shadow of a cross; and not to spare us the pains of separation in and from this life, but to lavish upon us the joy of eternal union with Him in the life to come.