When Jesus was 40 days old his mother was clean and could accompany her new son into the temple at Jerusalem. The oldest Church holiday not based on Old Testament tradition remembers Mary’s 40 days of cleansing and helps confirm when this happened.
Luke gives several other details regarding the birth of Jesus.
22And when the days for their purification were fulfilled, according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to master,
23as it is written in the law of master, Every male that opens the womb will be called holy to master,
24and to offer a sacrifice, as it is commanded in the law of master, A pair of turtledoves or 2 young pigeons.
The Law also prescribed he be presented in the Temple on (or after) the 40th day. They presented him "at the temple" as the Law of Moses had prescribed. What does the Law prescribe? That the child is to be presented on or after the 40th day from the son’s birth. Why 40 days? Because that is how long the mother is unclean after giving birth and she cannot accompany the son until the end of these 40 days. When daughters are born the Law prescribes a period of 80 days uncleanness.
The following report shows day 40, when February 17 is the start day.
|Report on Jesus’ 40th day|
|Jesus’ birth date|
|Fri||10989/8/29 AA||16 Feb 1 NS||17 Feb 754 AUC||AAN: 4008629|
|1489/8/29 FE||18 Feb 0 OS||17 Feb 1 AD||JDN: 1721472|
|Jesus’ 40th day|
|Tue||⇉10989/10/8 AA||27 Mar 1 NS||28 Mar 754 AUC||AAN: 4008668|
|1489/10/8 FE||29 Mar 1 OS||28 Mar 1 AD||JDN: 1721511|
Not obvious in this report is the Biblical date for this event. The very same date 30 years later is the day Jesus will be crucified and die. We explore this 30 year interval in Life Length.
This 40th day is very close to the same date when the Passover would be held in Jerusalem. Jesus is probably presented at or very near to the Passover in 754 AUC. The Jewish calendar of the period was constructed by observation, not by computation as used in the modern Jewish calendar so it is not possible to know exactly when Passover fell in this ancient year. That this date is late March and this is when Passover was generally held is as close as we can get.
Large crowds would be assembling in in Jerusalem for Passover. There are two clues that Jesus was indeed presented in the temple at or near Passover. The first clue springs right from the following text. Two people are recorded in Luke as having given prophetic words over the baby Jesus. The first, Simeon, reported the following:
25Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; and this man was pious and righteous, waiting for the consolation of Israel; and the holy spirit was on him.
26And it was said to him by the holy spirit, that he would not see death, until he saw to anoint master.
27This man was led by the spirit to the temple; and when the parents brought in the boy Jesus, to do for him according to what is commanded in the law,
28he received him in his arms, and blessed god, and said,
29Now, my master, dismiss your servant in peace, according to your word;
30for look, my eyes have already seen your mercies,
31which you have prepared before the face of all peoples,
32a light for a revelation to the Gentiles, and a glory to your people Israel.
33And Joseph and Jesus' mother marveled about these things which were spoken concerning him.
34And Simeon blessed them, and said to Mary, his mother, Look, this one is appointed for the fall and for the rise of many in Israel, and for a sign of dispute;
35and a sword will pierce through your own soul, so that the thoughts of the hearts of many may be revealed.
The sense here is Simeon is in Jerusalem for a special occation, likely the Passover of that year.
Anna also spoke over Jesus. The following is the account.
36And Anna the prophetess, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher, was of a great age; and she had lived 7 years with her husband from the days of her virginity.
37Then she became a widow for about 84 years, and she never left the temple, and with fasting and prayer, she worshiped day and night.
38She also stood up at that hour and gave thanks to master, and spoke concerning him to every man who was looking forward to the salvation of Jerusalem.
Anna, was very old and never left the temple. She stayed there worshiping and praying every day. Simeon, we are told, was just "in the city", without the same stress as Anna who lived there.
What would have brought Simeon to the city? How about Passover? He was one of those in the crowd, and as the Holy Spirit led him, he entered the courts and found the baby Jesus and gave his word of prophecy over the child.
This 40 day period before Passover is unusual in that it does not follow any holiday pattern from the Old Testament. More interesting still the very early Christian church established a holiday which did align with the 40 days before Easter, the Christian name for Passover.
That season? Lent.
The other clue that this really was 40 days before Passover, or at least before the Passover crowds is the ancient church holiday of Lent. This is a time of purification and preparation and is celebrated each year in the 40 days before Easter.
Easter is the church holiday where Jesus’ resurrection is celebrated, and is aligned generally with the Jewish Passover. Unlike the Easter celebration, which aligns with Passover from the Mosaic Law, nothing about Lent aligns with the religious calendar of the Old Testament.
The season of Lent is also very old, having been practiced by the Church from its very inception. Other holidays would be added later, like Christmas, without regard to the calendar of events surrounding Jesus’ birth. Lent, though, goes all the way back to the start and lands where it does, the 40 days before Passover, because of something that happened in the narratives.
Lent aligns well with the 40 day cleansing time of a woman who has just given birth to a son. This holiday is most likely the collective church memory of the 40 days between the time Jesus was born and the time he was presented in the temple on his 40th day.
The Lent dates suggest that the first century church understood that Jesus was born 40 days before Passover and that his mother went through 40 days of cleansing before he could be presented in the temple. Mary would still be accompanying Jesus in his public ministry and was the likely source of the material recorded for us surrounding the birth of Jesus. Perhaps she kept this season throughout her life and passed the practice on to the other disciples?
Who does the Bible say are Jesus’ true mother and brothers? Those who hear God’s word and put it into practice.1 Who is that? Believers in Jesus himself. How did the ancient church calendar reflect the believer’s need to be cleansed? By instituting a holiday, no, more a season, when we each are to go through similar cleansing.
1 Luke 8:21