“Consecrate to me every firstborn male. The first offspring of every womb among the Israelites belongs to me, whether human or animal.”
Exodus 13, 2
And when the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every male that opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord”) and to offer a sacrifice according to what is said in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons.”
Luke 2, 22-24
By presenting the infant Jesus in the Temple, Mary was consecrating her ‘firstborn son’ (Hebrew בְּכוֹר bəḵōr) to God. The first male offspring of every womb among the Israelites belonged to God whether it was human or a domestic animal. The expression “to open the womb” is a Hebrew idiom meaning “the firstborn male of one’s mother” or “the firstborn son of the womb”. Within the context of the law, it was the firstborn male who was dedicated to God as His servant. He was also the principal heir of his father’s estate. Further, the Mosaic law applied only to those who were born strictly in accord with the laws of nature. It embraced the full spectrum of the natural process of human procreation, from the moment of conception to the time of birth.
Jesus, however, was not conceived by the seed of Joseph, but by the immediate agency of the Holy Spirit. Nor was the birth of Jesus a normal one, as it were for all the Jews by the seed of man, being descendants of Adam. His birth was as miraculous as his conception was. If our Lord had been born normally, that is by physically opening his mother’s womb and passing through the birth canal, he would then have been made entirely subject to the laws of nature along with the rest of sinful humanity and thereby in need of purification himself.
Since Jesus was a divine person in the flesh, and not a human creature, he was in no need of being made clean and redeemed by his circumcision prior to his dedication. And because of his divinity, our Lord chose not to proceed from his mother’s womb in a totally natural way that would have rendered him ritually impure. Since his conception and birth were miraculous, therefore, he was in no need of being purified and restored to God’s grace before entering the temple for his consecration. This ritual, which our Lord freely submitted himself to when he chose to come into the world, simply served as the sign that it was, of his being set apart from the rest of sinful humanity and consecrated to God in holiness as His servant. But unlike all other Jewish firstborn sons, Jesus was set apart from sinful humanity by his divine nature. There was no need for him to be set apart ritualistically and made holy and acceptable to God, unless he had experienced or been the effective cause of natural corruption by being born in a wholly natural way.
“You are to be holy to me because I, the LORD, am holy, and I have set you apart from the nations to be my own.”
Leviticus 20, 26
The meaning of sanctification (Qadosh) in the original Hebrew context of this ritual literally means “to leave behind and be separate from for a distinct purpose,” and being “set apart” by God to serve Him. This calls for the removal of the firstborn offspring from what is profane and his distancing from any uncleanliness, as to be acceptable to God as His chosen servant. Yet Jesus was sinless by nature; nor was he conceived and begotten in a profane way as are all human creatures since the Fall of Adam and Eve. There was nothing profane for him to ever leave behind or any uncleanliness to distance himself from, since our Lord was conceived and born through the activity of the Holy Spirit and not by the seed of man.
The Israelites were expected to be a holy people, since they were removed and set apart from all the other pagan nations by God, who is all-holy, to be His own people. Israel was set apart for bringing forth the Messiah into the world. It was for this reason that God sanctified the Hebrew people by establishing His covenant with them. Mary is the personification of Daughter Zion and as such is the Woman of Promise who is expected to bring forth the Messiah: “I will set upon your throne the fruit of your body” (Ps 132:11; Lk 1:42).
Hence, at the appointed time, she too had to be holy to God and separated from sinful humanity, but in a far more exceptional way than it was for her people, viz., her Immaculate Conception. God said to the serpent: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed” (Gen 3:15). Sin and, consequently, the corruption of death are offspring of the serpent together with sinful humanity. Even the birth process is tainted with corruption because of the fall of Adam and Eve through the serpent’s wile.
Mary was removed from her low estate when God sanctified and redeemed her soul at the first instant of her conception and thus set her apart to be the mother of our Lord. By this singular grace from God, which preserved her free from contracting the stain of original sin, she too was in no need of being ritually purified in accordance with the Mosaic Law. And being the mother of the divine Messiah, she had no need to be purified after conceiving and begetting Jesus in a supernatural way which preserved her virginal and bodily integrity.
Now, the sin offering of a pair of two turtle doves or two young pigeons in this case would be for the unintentional infraction of the ceremonial cleanliness law, viz., giving birth to a child. The sin wasn’t a moral fault, but rather being in the state of ritual uncleanliness. The offering, which was made after one had abstained from entering the temple area because of their impure state, reinstated them into participating in regular temple service. Further, the sin offering wasn’t so much for the person who had become defiled as it was for the sanctuary, which would become defiled by the person’s previous condition or state.
Thus, if Jesus had been born completely under the natural laws of nature, he would have rendered his mother and himself impure and thereby involuntarily sinful and in no condition to enter the temple precincts, for fear of defiling the sanctuary. This would not be fitting for the Son of Mary or his mother, given his divine identity. So, Mary wasn’t required to make the sin offering, having given birth to Jesus in a supernatural way. The sin offering, meanwhile, had nothing to do with any transgressions Mary might have committed against the moral law. It does not point her out to be a sinner.
When the time came for their purification, therefore, neither the Mother nor the Son were subject to the law, since neither of them were entirely subjected to the procreative laws of nature by Divine intervention. Jesus was conceived and born by the will of the Father and not by the will of man. He was the seed of the free promised woman whose womb hadn’t been opened by the seed of man. Nor did he open his mother’s womb and cause her to go into labour and experience the pangs of childbirth, since she was exempted from the law of sin by being preserved free from the stain of original sin. Unto the woman he said, “I will greatly multiply your sorrow and your conception; in sorrow, you shall bring forth children; and your desire shall be to your husband, and he shall rule (resuth) over you” (Gen 3:16). Standing in contradistinction to this verse is Luke 1:35: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power (resuth) of the Most High will overshadow you.” The Virgin Mary was in no need of purification for having conceived and given birth to Jesus, seeing that she was the spouse of the Holy Spirit with whom she begot a divine and holy child together.
“If a woman having received seed shall bear a man child, she shall be unclean seven days, according to the days of the separation of her flowers. And on the eighth day the infant shall be circumcised: But she shall remain three and thirty days in the blood of her purification.”
Leviticus 12, 2-4
A built-in component in the mother’s ritual impurity was the symbolic responsibility of bringing another sinner into the world. So, if Mary needed being purified after giving birth to Jesus, we can only infer that she gave birth to a potential sinner. However, it was Eve who gave birth to Cain and was subjected to the laws of nature because of her fall from grace. Mary, on the other hand, was chosen by God to bring forth the new Adam and divine Messiah who came to reconcile the world to God and regenerate mankind with His saving grace. For this reason, God put Mary at enmity with the serpent and exempted her from having to suffer the penalty for Eve’s transgression.
This divine truth is implicitly revealed in the words of her kinswoman Elizabeth: “Most blessed (eulogomene) are you among women, and blessed (eulogemenos) is the fruit of your womb” (Lk 1:42). Both the Mother and the Son were equally blessed by being set apart from sinful humanity and consecrated to God before the time came for their purification in the Temple. Elizabeth’s cause for this benediction can be traced back beyond the birth of Mary and Jesus to our Blessed Lady’s Immaculate Conception and her Son’s Divine eternal pre-existence. The past participle “blessed” which is derived from the verb eulogeo is used in the New Testament only to describe Jesus (masculine) and Mary (feminine), along with the kingdom of heaven in the feminine form (Mk 11:10). Both the woman and her offspring were free from the captivity of sin and the corruption of death in the fallen world where the serpent had gained dominion.
Moreover, ritual impurity (niddah) was essentially more of a spiritual and mental condition (tumah) than a physical one which prevented the mother from entering the temple court. So, Mary did not necessarily have to discharge blood during the birth of Jesus to be rendered ritually impure. We read in the Niddah 27b: “According to the order of all the uncleanness mentioned regarding the menstruating woman (נִדָּה), she becomes unclean because of giving birth. [This is true] even if the womb opens without [any issue of] blood.” The concept of the mother’s tumah must be taken into greater account.
Before she travailed, she brought forth; before her pain came, she was delivered of a man child.
Isaiah 66, 7
In any event, a ritual bath was also part of the woman’s purification preparation to re-enter the sanctuary. The Jewish Mishnah records that full immersion for both men and women in the Temple mikvah (pool for ritual purification) was necessary before entering the courtyard to offer sacrifices (Mishnah: Yoma, 3.3). Mary was expected to ritually bathe in the mikvah before presenting her purification sacrifices. What she was purified of, according to Hebrew thought, was what the issuance of blood involved, that is not having full volition to submit to the will of God and being unable to commune with Him while under the trauma of naturally giving birth. The burnt offering (olah) was an expression of desiring to commune with God. The Hebrew word implies ascending from the profane to the sacred. Procreation itself was viewed as holy, but it was also recognized as being tainted by the natural birth process which was profane. The physical corruption involved in the natural birth process was evocative of death and decay which was viewed as a penalty for sin.
Yet Mary did not conceive and bear Jesus by the will of man. It was by the will of the Father and through the power of the Holy Spirit that the divine Word became man and was born into this world. Mary couldn’t have experienced tumah and needed being purified by giving birth to her divine Son while in close communion with God and by His will. Nor would God allow her to be distant from Him during the act of giving birth to His Son. By giving birth to Jesus, Mary drew even closer to God. The holy Child she bore did in fact increase her sanctification in her womb, while he himself had experienced none of the tumah (a spiritual and mental distance from God) and the physical corruption involved in a completely natural birth. The birth of Jesus was miraculous and virginal. The Psalmist foretells this with respect to our Lord’s birth and death under the law of nature: “Neither will you allow your holy one to see corruption” (Ps 16:10).
Hence, if Jesus had been conceived and born naturally, as much as all the Jewish firstborn sons, he also would have been rendered ritually impure and in the state of tumah along with his mother Mary until his circumcision, which prepared the way for his presentation to God. We read in the Gospel of Luke that it was time for “their” purification, not only hers. The rites of purification and circumcision were intended as monuments testifying to the taint of human spiritual imperfection and sin inherited by every child descended from Adam by the seed of man.
These rites did not, however, necessarily apply to Jesus and Mary, but as a religiously devout Jewish mother who was obligated to observe the law, Mary humbly and devotedly submitted herself and her Son to these legal requirements under which they were born in obedience to God who instituted the Mosaic law. Mary submitted to the ritual of purification after childbirth, because as a Jewish mother she was expected to formally consecrate her Son to God. Jesus submitted to circumcision (a purification ritual symbolizing being made spiritually clean) before the angel Gabriel even appeared to Mary for the same reason (Deut 10:16, 30:6; Jer 4:4). The Son should not serve the Father in his humanity without first having consecrated himself to Him in humble human obedience to His will, albeit his natural holiness. Recall, that Jesus wasn’t even in need of baptism, but he instructed a reluctant John to baptize him to “fulfill all righteousness” (Mt 3:14-15). This was the Son’s fiat to the Father.
Therefore, the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel: God with us.
Isaiah 7, 14
Included with Mary’s virginal conception of Jesus is her virginal act of giving birth to him. Isaiah says that a virgin shall “bring forth a son.” The Greek word τέξεται (“bring forth” or “cause to be born”) is translated from וֹי ל דת (u·ildth: literally “one giving birth”), which is the intended meaning of the verb “to bear” (yalad) in the Hebrew Old Testament. Hence, this verse must do with two events: the conception and birth of Jesus. The conception of Jesus was virginal, since Mary’s womb hadn’t been opened by the seed of man. The act of Mary giving birth was virginal, since Christ hadn’t opened his mother’s womb when he was born. Mary was a virgin at the time of Christ’s birth as well as at his conception (cf. Isa 66:7).
Both Jesus and Mary would have needed purification if in fact she had conceived and given birth to him by Joseph’s seed, for then the law would have applied to them. Again, we see in Leviticus 12:2 of the Hebrew OT: ‘Speak to the children of Israel, saying: If a woman conceives (כִּי תַזְרִיע ) or “receives seed” and gives birth to a male (לֵאמֹר אִשָּׁה, ) she shall be unclean for seven days; as [in] the days of her menstrual flow, she shall be unclean.’ The verb “conceives” can be paraphrased “having received seed”. In this case, the verb phrase Taz ri a תַזְרִ֔יע (“having received seed”) is derived from the 3-consonant root word zera (seed) which can mean either “offspring” or “virile semen”, the latter being the intended definition in Leviticus.
The law, therefore, applied to offspring of human paternal origin. Jesus was the seed or “offspring” of his mother (Gen. 3:15), the free woman of promise and the “trigger sign” of the restoration of the Davidic kingdom foretold by the prophets (Rev 12:1). So the law could not actually be applied to him; whereas his mother did not beget him by having received the seed (virile semen) of her husband. Joseph did not open Mary’s womb with his tainted seed. So, there should be no need for the mother of our Lord to be cleansed either. The Virgin Mary conceived and gave birth to Jesus by the will of the Father through the immediate agency of the Holy Spirit. Her womb remained closed when she conceived and gave birth to Jesus. When the time came for their purification, there was no need for it according to the law.
“The Word will become flesh, and the Son of God the son of man—the Pure One opening purely that pure womb, which generates men unto God.”
St. Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 4, 33, 12
I will declare the decree: the LORD hath said unto me, Thou art my Son; this day have I begotten thee.
Psalm 2, 7