In preparing for today's liturgy, it would be very helpful to glance through the section on Jesus' Presentation in Raymond Brown's classic book, The Birth of the Messiah. One will quickly notice the late Scripture scholar spends a lot of time separating the theology Luke is actually trying to convey by narrating the event from the many pious, but often false ways people have treated that incident through the centuries.
Like all serious students of Scripture, Brown first demonstrates how Luke has combined two different Jewish practices into one happening. First, Torah regulations demanded every first born male be offered to Yahweh, then bought back. Second, after each birth, Jewish women were expected to go through a period purification before they could once again return to the formal practice of their faith. Though almost always fulfilled separately, the evangelist has Joseph and Mary carry out both these obligations in one action.
From today's Hebrews passage it's clear that the unknown author of the letter would look at Jesus presentation and Mary's purification as a sign Jesus actually identified with those he was sent to save from death. "He had to become like his brothers and sisters in every way, that he might. . . expiate the sins of the people." In the writer's theology, if Jesus wasn't human, he couldn't save humans. And nothing is more human than having to observe human laws.
It's significant that Luke mentions nothing about Joseph redeeming Jesus with the usual five shekel offering. The omission seems to be a way of saying this is one case in which the child remains Yahweh's property, a point Luke will develop throughout his gospel.
I remember as a child often looking at the Immaculate Heart of Mary picture my grandma had hanging her bedroom. The sword through Mary's heart especially attracted my attention. Much later I learned this particular image originated in Simeon's words to her during her purification ritual. "Behold, this child destined for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be contradicted - and you yourself a sword will pierce - so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed."
Basing their insights on this heart-piercing sword, many old-time commentators and homilists developed the idea that Mary, like her son, was destined to suffer for the salvation of the world. Yet, as Brown insists, it doesn't seem to be the image Luke is trying to convey to his readers.
Luke seems more interested in employing the sword as a symbol of judgment than as a metaphor for pain or suffering. The evangelist is convinced Jesus' teachings and life-style will force people to make decisions. Do we follow him or reject him? Do we imitate his dying and rising or look elsewhere for fulfillment in our lives? Luke presumes this sword of discernment cuts through everyone's heart, and he wants to make certain readers are on the right side of the cut.
The concept of having to choose God's way or the highway is a frequent biblical concept. For instance, today's first reading the prophet Malachi presumes his unknown messenger of Yahweh is an agent of judgment. "He is like the refiner's fire, or like the fuller's lye. He will sit refining and purifying silver, and will purify the sons of Levi." The true faith is expected to rise to the surface.
In Luke's case, Jesus will demand that Israelites choose between his reform and their "old time religion," just as Mary will have to one day decide between remaining just a physical family relative of Jesus, or joining new family of faith.
Such sword heart-piercing is an essential part of being other Christs. And Jesus is the swordsman.