The expanse of the Temple of Jerusalem was crammed with vendors. Since very early in the morning, the sheep were bleating, the pigeons were fluttering about, and pilgrims, who came to the capital in droves to celebrate the feast of the Pentecost, were ascending the steps to offer their first harvest before the Lord…. I remember those days of waiting… Mary, Jesus’ mother, recounted to us the time when Joseph and she also went up to Temple, carrying their new-born child, in accordance with the custom of my compatriots of consecrating to God all first born babies….
Mary: Since a baby boy was born to us, I just had to comply with the law, offering him to God…. Anyway, on the fortieth day of my childbirth, I was travelling back to the south… How well I knew the road… even blindfolded…
Mary: After a three-day journey, we arrived in Jerusalem. Then it was not as modern as it is now, and there was not so much confusion… We had some rest in an inn run by Galileans, in Siloam, I think. Then we went up the Temple…
Vendor: Money changer, money changer! I change your Greek and Roman money!
Another Vendor: Sweets!… Some delicious sweets for you!
Vendor: Wanna have some blessed water, to cleanse your big and small wounds?
Vendor: Hey, friend, don’t go away… you don’t have to pay for looking!
Mary: Oh, Joseph, look at those beautiful scarves….
Vendor: They’re made of fine wool! Try this one, young lady and see how nice it is on you…
Mary: Hold the baby for a while, Joseph…
Vendor: See…. How well it fits you…
Mary: Do you like it, Joseph?
Joseph: Well, no, but if you do…. Let’s see… hawker, how much is this scarf?
Vendor: Cheap, cheap enough…. Touch it, my friend. That’s fine wool from Damascus!
Joseph: I was asking how much….
Vendor: One denarius and the lady has it on already.
Joseph: A what?… A denarius for this piece of old rag? What do you think of us, stupid? Come, Mary, take it off, and let’s go….
Mary: Oh, Joseph, this is so pretty…!
Vendor: Give it as a present to your loved one. King David won Bathsheba with a scarf….
Joseph: Well, I’ve won my loved one and I don’t need this… Leave that, and let’s go. Here, take the baby… Oh women…. anything that fancies them…!
Mary: According to the law of Moses, all first-born sons must be offered to the Lord. And usually the ransom price was a sheep or a calf, if the parents could afford it. If not, like for us, two pigeons would do….
Joseph: I need to buy a pair of pigeons.
Simeon: Here you have them, young man.
Mary: He was an old man, about a hundred years old. I remember, he had no teeth, his eyebrows gone, and he had plenty of wrinkles, like a fig leaf in autumn…. Beside a post was a pile of cages with pigeons inside them….
Joseph: Give me two… Yeah, the black one and the other one… That’s it… How much, old man?
Simeon: Four copper coins for two pigeons.
Joseph: Four what?
Simeon: Four copper for two pigeons.
Joseph: To hell with you hawkers! Just because we come from the north, do you think you can fleece us like this?
Mary: For God’s sake, Joseph, will you stop it!
Joseph: I didn’t start this, Mary. These are cheats who want to take advantage of a farmer like me….
Simeon: Look, young man, these are beautiful doves here…
Joseph: Beautiful doves! Ha! This one hasn’t any feathers, while the other one is infected with pip…. C’mon, old fox, give them to me for one copper coin and I’ll take them!…
Simeon: How’s that again? A copper coin? No way, man…. For two pigeons, pay me four copper coins.
Joseph: Blazes! But how…!
Mary: Joseph, please, don’t quarrel with him! Give him the money and let’s go. It’s getting late.
Joseph: But, are you crazy, Mary? How can I pay him four copper coins for these sickly pigeons! For as long as I’m called Joseph, I’m not paying more than a coin!
Simeon: For as long as my name is Simeon, I’m not going down from four!
Joseph: Well, then, goodbye, old thief, keep your pigeons in your ass!
Mary: Joseph, for God’s sake!
Joseph: …I said, to put your pigeons back into the cage. Goodbye!
Simeon: Wait a minute, compatriot, don’t go away…. Oh my, what temper have these Galileans got…!
Joseph: What do you want now?
Simeon: You shouldn’t behave that way, man… Look, since you’ve got a charming little lady here, you can take another pigeon for the same price…
Joseph: How’s that again?
Simeon: I’m giving you three pigeons for four copper coins…
Joseph: What a deal! And what the hell do I need three pigeons for? I need only two for offering in the Temple.
Simeon: Of the third, you can make a nice, warm soup for your baby. Am I right, young woman? Of course, this is what I do if I don’t sell them…
Joseph: Look, old fogey, there’s nothing more to talk about. Take these two coins of mine and give me the pigeons. Is that okay?
Simeon: No way. We leave it at three.
Joseph: Go to hell! I’m not paying more than two.
Simeon: Not lower than three!
Mary: Will you stop it, for God’s sake! The boy is getting scared with your screams!… C’mon, my baby, that’s nothing… it’s okay, sweetheart….
Joseph: Listen to me, stingy, old man, if I had a lot of money, I wouldn’t be here buying pigeons from you, do you understand?
Simeon: What a joke! If I had a lot of money, neither would I be here selling them!
Joseph: You’re a leech, feeding on somebody else’s blood!
Simeon: Me, a leech? How can that be when there’s not even a drop of blood left in my skin? Look at me, son… I’m almost dead, look…
Joseph: Well, you’ll be real dead the moment the Messiah comes and with his whip, scares all your pigeons away, while he gets on you and kicks you on the ass, do you hear?
Mary: Joseph, don’t forget your manners….
Simeon? Do you think the Messiah will do that to me?
Joseph: Yes, Methuselah, to you and to all the bandits making business out of God’s things!
Simeon: Not me, son, not me. I sell doves in the Temple like I’m selling eggplants in the square or anything, in order to survive. Look at me well… I’m a simple man…. I’m not scared of the Messiah, you know, because maybe he’s got lice in his head, just as I do. Probably he hasn’t taken any warm food for seven days, like I haven’t. And maybe he has no place to sleep, as I have none. So, don’t you think the Messiah and I will understand each other well?
Joseph: Well, I agree with you there, old man….
Simeon: You and I can also understand each other well, young man. Look, both of us do starve to death, is that right? So, what’s the use of quarreling with one another, tell me.
Mary: That’s what I’ve been wanting to say….
Simeon: Save that whip of yours, young man, for the leeches in the palace… They’re the ones who will battle with the Messiah when he comes…. Come over here…. Do you see those money-filled tables over there and all those cattle and livestock? All these belong to the family of Betho!… “Betho’s sons are too religious and too pious…” With their lips invoking God and their pockets full of what they steal from us…. Oh, son, if I could only tell you!… But the day of light will come, it will come!
Joseph: Very well said, grandpa, now you’re talking!
Mary: Hey, don’t create a scene, my goodness! There are so many people here you don’t know!
Simeon: I shout when I please and I don’t give a damn!! Look at this Temple, young man! For twenty years, this scoundrel, Herod, has been making it beautiful, installing marbles and coating it with gold. And what for, tell me? To make God more comfortable? No, God has no need for this. The Lord stayed with Moses in a tent when they were in the desert, and that was enough. All this comfort is for those who lift their hands to God, yet bow their heads before the golden calf!
Mary: How dare you wake up the baby with your noise!
Simeon: Poor thing…. You see, one gets excited running into enlightened young people like you…. Sad to say, during my time, things were different…. The youth spoke of the Messiah, then we would argue and quarrel just to see the children of the Maccabees…. Now, it’s different. All that the young people of today want is to enjoy themselves and have fun…. Once they see a new scarf, they fancy buying it…
Joseph: That goes for you, Mary…
Simeon: Some people come to me and say: “Forget it, old man, for this world is hopeless…. You’ll die, but everything will be the same.” I’d say this is what they want, for us to accept that things will never change. Of course they will! With young people like you, we can do something!
Joseph: With us and with the help of those who will push from behind, grandpa… Look at this Morenito… Know what name we’ve given him? Jesus, the courageous one. We shall raise him with the milk of a she-camel, that he may be as obstinate as Moses before the pharaoh, did you hear that, my son?…
Simeon: Jesus… a beautiful name… for a very good-looking boy… just like my children when they were small….
Mary: Do you have children, grandpa?
Simeon: I had two, young lady. One died very young… He caught a fever, and my poverty could not afford a doctor…. The other one was killed…. When he was your age, he joined these groups in Perea… Herod’s soldiers killed him, and… ahhh… brace yourself, young lady… if you bring up this kid to become a fighter, a sword will one day break your heart, just like mine….
Mary: Oh, God, grandpa, please don’t say that…
Joseph: Cheer up, old man…. with this heat, you can have sunstroke, you know!
Mary: Simeon, that old man selling doves, tearfully asked me to let him carry my baby….
Simeon: What a handsome boy you’ve got, young woman! May the God of Israel bless him from head to foot!
Mary: Oh yes, may God hear your prayer!
Simeon: I pray that you take good care of him, that you see him grow up and become a man….
Joseph: You too, will see him such, grandpa….
Simeon: Oh, my son, I have one foot buried in the ground already, and the other one is almost there…. These eyes of mine have witnessed a lot… so much violence committed under the sun… so much weeping of the innocent, waiting in vain to be consoled… so much sneering of the brazen fools with no one to stop them…. For one hundred years, I have been waiting for the liberation of my country…. But now, as I hear you speak, as if a spark has been lit in the middle of the night…. Now, I’m sure. God will not fail in His promise. Our people shall be free one day….
Mary: Then old Simeon kissed the boy and said….
Simeon: Take him, young woman. Now I can die in peace. In this boy, as well as in the rest to come, is the salvation of Israel… and the hope of all those who are suffering like us. Yes, yes, soon we shall be free, I can feel it in my heart! The Messiah is near, very near us!
Mary: Old man, for God’s sake, please don’t scream!… There’s a strange woman coming…. I think she’s been watching us for sometime….
Simeon: Who? That old woman?… No, my child, she’s one of us…. Anne, come over here!
Mary: My mother’s namesake. She’s a fat, old woman, all dressed in black; she has a chubby, smiling face….
Anne: What’s wrong, Simeon?
Simeon: Nothing, woman, I’m just having a chat with this couple from Galilee who have come to present their little son…
Anne: Lemme take a look…. Oh, what a cute, little darling…. Cucucu… Teach him how to pray, young woman…. mold him while he’s young….
Simeon: That’s the only thing you can do… pray and pray… as if by doing so, you could intimidate the Lord….
Anne: At least, I exercise my jawbones… you know… and I forget about my hunger….
Joseph: What do you pray to God, grandma?
Anne: What’ll I ask Him, son? For eighty-four years I’ve been asking Him the same thing. Since I became a widow, which was a long time ago, I have always told the Lord: “Listen to me, either you send me another husband or you send me the Messiah who will give me justice, I can’t stand it anymore…!” I swear, God will get annoyed with this same story of mine, but this won’t stop me!
Simeon: You know what, Anne?… I think God has heard your prayer… With young people like them on our side, we shall get by… We’re in the twilight of our lives, Anne… but the torch of Israel shall not die…! Hey, young man, take your two pigeons and offer them for this little boy!… And you better hurry, for they might close the gate on you!
Joseph: Wait a minute, grandpa…. Here, take the four copper coins you were asking from me….
Simeon: No, young man, it’s my present for you… it’s yours…
Joseph: No, grandpa…. you need to eat…. please take these four coins…
Simeon: No, it’s my gift to you, I said!
Mary: Good heavens, now it’s the other way around!
Mary: So we ascended the steps facing the atrium of the women in order to perform the rite of purification and to present our son before the altar of the Lord…. When we left the Temple, we didn’t see old Simeon anymore…. The other day, we looked for him, but Anne, the praying woman, told us he was very sick…. The following year, when we traveled to Jerusalem, we asked about him, but no one could tell us what had happened to the vendor of doves….
The laws of Israel pertinent to “purity” rendered the mother “impure” before God after childbirth. It was believed that childbirth, just like the woman’s monthly period or man’s seminal discharge, meant a loss of vitality, and in order to recover it, certain rites had to be performed for them to reestablish the union with God, who is the source of life. If a woman had given birth to a baby boy, she was impure for a period of forty days; and if she had a girl, she was impure for eighty days. After this time, she ought to present herself in the Temple to purify herself by offering a sacrificial lamb and a turtledove. If she was poor – such was the case of Mary – it was enough to offer two turtledoves or pigeons (Lev 12:1-8). The women were to be purified by the priest gathered in the Temple, at the gate of Nicanor. This gate was connected to the atrium where the women could enter the men’s atrium. Here, were purified lepers who were cured. Likewise, women who were suspected of having committed adultery were tried here.
Jerusalem was the most important commercial center of the country. Products coming from all regions as well as abroad were sent to the capital. There were several markets: for cereals, fruits, legumes, livestock, lumber…. There was also a place for exhibiting and selling slaves – who were always foreigners. Everything was announced by shouting in order to excite the customers. One had to be specially careful at the time of purchase, because here they used a weight measurement different from that of the rest of the country. They also used their own currency. Everything was more expensive, especially food, wine and livestock. If in Jerusalem one could buy three or four pieces of fig for a copper coin, in the farm, one could have as many as ten to twenty pieces for the same price. Side by side with the big businessmen were the small businessmen or retailers and a number of ambulant vendors. The stalls for the animals being sold for the offering of sacrifices – lambs, kids (young goats), calves, doves – were positioned in the esplanade of the Temple. In this atrium, everyone was allowed entry: men, women and foreigners. It has often been said that the old Simeon was an official priest of the Temple, although the evangelical text does not give a reason for such a tradition. In this episode, he appears as one of the small businessmen who earned his living by selling animals for sacrifice in the Temple.
From his vantage point as vendor, Simeon would be a perennial witness to the daily activities of the Temple. He knew all those who were in the service of the grand priests – businessmen and main beneficiaries of whatever was being sold in the Temple. He also knew the religious sentiments of the people gathered in that august building, dazzled by its enormity and wealth. This was the daily ambience of old Simeon. In his midst, he knew how to keep the flame of his faith in God burning, his hopes for a change, his longing for justice, his desire that with the coming of the Messiah, that God “imprisoned” in the Temple, would certainly become close to the poor. Under this atmosphere, old Simeon must have also become “disillusioned,” a skeptic. His old age had given him wisdom, had taken away his enthusiasm for things not relevant and certainly had opened his eyes. He was like Qohelet (chapters 1-6 of the book of Ecclesiastes), who left in the Scriptures a wisdom that was profoundly human, fruit of his observation of life and his desire for God’s justice. Old Simeon and the old woman, Anne, remained hopeful of the coming of the Messiah. And in that poor and young couple with a new-born infant in their arms, they knew how to nurture that hope that life in its beginning always brings.