This weekend, because of the way the feast of Easter is calculated, we celebrate the feast of the Presentation or the Encounter of the Lord with Simeon and Anna and also begin our preparation for the Great Fast. This feast was, in the past, also known as the Purification.
Jewish tradition required mothers to observe 40 days of purification (hence the old name for this feast) after giving birth. During this time they were not allowed to go to the Temple. On the fortieth day, however, they were ritually reintroduced into the Temple and, if their child was a firstborn male, a special ritual (Pidyon Ha’ben – Redemption of First Born) was also performed. Originally, God intended for the first-born of each Jewish family to be a Kohen – i.e. family’s representative to the Holy Temple. But then came the incident of the Golden Calf. When Moses came down from Mount Sinai and smashed the tablets, he issued everyone an ultimatum: “Make your choice – either God or the idol”. Only the tribe of Levi came to the side of God. At that point, God decreed that each family’s first-born would forfeit their Kohen status – and henceforth all the Kohanim would come from the tribe of Levi. Which brings us to the mitzvah of Pidyon Ha’Ben. Since the first-born child is technically a Kohen whose potential cannot be actualized, he has to be replaced by a Kohen from the tribe of Levi. This is accomplished by the father of the baby offering the Kohen a redemptive value of five silver coins for the boy. An even deeper reason why the Jewish people perform this mitzvah is to remind them of the Exodus from Egypt, when God killed the Egyptian first born, yet spared the Jewish first born. This practice acknowledges that everything we own belongs to God and the firstborn is the prime person who inherits the family name and fortune.
Our preparation for the Fast consists of a five-week sequence of Gospel stories that present the various dimensions of metanoia or repentance, the focus of our spiritual efforts during the 40 days before Easter. The first of these stories is about Zacchaeus, the small man who climbed a tree in his desire to see Jesus. Desire to change and spiritually grow is absolutely essential if we are to benefit from the Great Fast. Desire only comes when we realize that we, like all others, need to grow. It is the fool who thinks he does not have to change and grow.