Mary, Unclean

Purification of Mary; Presentation of Jesus, February 2, 2020 (Luke 2:22-32)

For seven days after the birth of a child, a Jewish mother was “unclean”.  Then for 33 more days she was in effect yet unclean as she could touch no hallowed thing (e.g. eat of a sacred meal) nor could she come into the sanctuary.  This mother then (with her husband who would provide the necessities) had to bring a burnt offering and a sin offering (See Lev. 12:1ff).  The poor could bring one pigeon (or turtledove) for the burnt offering and one for the sin offering.

Why was a sin offering needed for uncleanness?  This seems strange, for what is wrong with having a baby, and this baby is the Christ!

Several theologians have noted that it was normal or even noble activities that made a person unclean.   Certainly motherhood and childbearing are most noble, yet uncleanness was associated with this. What is nobler than to minister to the dying and to properly care for the body of a deceased relative, yet such actions would have made a person unclean.  Certain things that related to sexual intercourse, both normal activity and abnormal conditions, established uncleanness.  People became lepers by no fault of their own, so why should a leper be singled out as unclean?  And probably the strangest pronouncement of uncleanness occurred in relation to certain official worship activities— activities commanded by God!

Yet, on the other hand, uncleanness illustrated a very important reality: The world is fallen. The first mother Eve was cursed in relation to childbearing, and babies are born sinners, thus it made sense that that which was associated with reproduction rendered one unclean.  The dead and the lepers were unclean because Adam received the curse of death, and consequently also the curse of disease. Leprosy—a kind of representative disease—is an obvious result of the corruption of this world.  Additionally, the sacrificial system, which would not have been in existence had the world not fallen into sin, at times brought uncleanness via certain God-ordained rituals, because such rituals were to purify man’s putrid condition.    All such uncleanness was associated with sin, and thus sin offerings were often prescribed to “reverse” a person’s uncleanness. What is God teaching by all of this?  W. Washburn summarizes nicely:

The law of ‘uncleanness,’ then, could not fail to call to the mind of the reflective worshiper the woeful event of the Fall, and the entailment of sin upon Adam and all his posterity… In its sad isolation and exclusion it told the mournful tale of man’s unavoidable, innate unfitness to approach a holy God.  It was the pathetic and impressive declaration of the doctrine of man’s natural depravity; it was the Mosaic form of the dogma of original sin.[1]

Simultaneous with our text’s reminder of original sin is the presentation of the Savior—the only one without original sin. Here, in Mary’s arms, is the truly “clean” child.  Yes here is the One who lets us depart in peace, and here is the One that Anna would boast about to all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem.  Indeed here in the arms of the blessed virgin—herself in need of purification—rested He who would redeem all from original sin as well as from every actual sin. He is the final, ultimate sin offering.  All in Him may now touch the holy things and enter the sanctuary.


[1]W. W. Washburn, The Import of Sacrifice in the Ancient Jewish Service, (New York: Phillips & Hunt, 1883), 85.