It was early February when I stood in the Zócalo, the large main plaza in Mexico City. My family had come on vacation during mid-winter break. My sons, ages 6 and 7, were running around the square getting some wiggles out after a morning museum trip when my oldest ran up to me and whispered, “Mom, all those grown-up ladies are holding dolls.”
Lined up to enter the enormous baroque Cathedral Metropolitana were several dozen families. The mothers, grandmothers, and young girls of these families were proudly, tenderly holding statues of the baby Jesus. These statues looked more like dolls, with real hair, long eyelashes and beautifully ornate handmade clothing. These statues were from their home to be blessed by the priest for the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord, celebrated February 2.
This feast day celebrates when Mary and Joseph brought the infant Jesus to the temple in Jerusalem. Jewish Law stated that after a mother completes 40 days of purification after childbirth, the family was to offer a sacrifice for their first-born son at the temple. The Gospel of Luke makes it clear that Mary and Joseph were poor, as they offered “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons,” as opposed to a lamb for those with more money.
In Mexico, Día de la Candelaria or Candlemas (as it is the day the candles for the year are blessed) is a family celebration. I loved watching the younger girls holding the Christ Child. Perhaps it was the first year they were allowed to carry him into the Cathedral to be blessed. A sort of rite of passage. I watched the girls smooth the baby Jesus’ clothes and hair and admonish their little sisters and brothers to be careful around him. I thought how this ritual put each of these women, old and young, in the place of Mary.
What must it have been like to carry the Christ child into the Temple? The journey from Bethlehem to Jerusalem is about six miles. Did they walk that morning? Or ride a beast into the city? Had Christ been fussy? Had Mary’s milk flowed that morning? I imagine the joy and pride of carrying her first-born son into the temple. The one who had been spoken of by the Prophets. All of humanity moving toward this moment.
Simeon and Anna had been waiting for the Messiah at the temple. They were both devout, advanced in years, and prayed night and day. When Simeon held Christ in his arms, he thanked God for letting him see this day;
“my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you prepared in sight of all the peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and glory for your people Israel.”
Mary and Joseph were amazed when they heard this. Not only was Jesus the Messiah for the Jews, but he would redeem the Gentiles as well.
I thought of this as I watched a young Mexican girl holding their Christ child to be blessed, 2000 years later. Her hair had been ornately braided with interwoven ribbons for the occasion. Christ’s presentation in the temple was for her and for me, Gentiles. His light was for us too, that we could have a relationship with our God.
I scooped up my own firstborn son in my arms. Not a baby anymore, his long legs, settled on my waist. I prayed that his relationship with God would grow. That my little one and I would grow to know our God in an intimate way—our story intersecting with Mary and Joseph and Simeon and Anna and the families lined up at the Cathedral doors. “Let’s go to Mass and be blessed,” I said to him, kissing his squishy cheek, and carried him into the church.