Gospel Text: Luke 2:22-40
When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”), and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”
Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the Temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying, “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.”
The child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed–and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”
There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the Temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.
When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.
I don’t know about you, but for me this has been kind of a week.
As many of you know, I work as a chaplain in a rehab hospital. Sometimes that comes across sounding very holy, but actually means that I spend a lot of my time going into people’s hospital rooms while they’re watching television. And so actually a lot of my week has been focused around television.
If you have a television or a radio or an internet connection, perhaps you heard that there was something going on this week in the Senate? Maybe you heard of other grave and serious things. I thought about giving you the litany just to show that I was watching, but we don’t want to start there.
Still, all this has been in my peripheral vision as I’ve been talking with my patients. Sometimes it moves from being the literal background noise to being the center of the conversation. And people say to me things like, “I’m scared of what this world is coming to.” And, “It seems like things are just going downhill.” These fears are really real.
In my philosophy as a chaplain and a preacher, our holy times are not when we ignore these fears, but when we intentionally gather together to remind ourself that these fears are all part of a much bigger story. And so the Feast of the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple is a particularly blessed day on which to do so.
On the front of your bulletin, if you have it in hand, you can see one illustration of the Gospel story that you just heard: the mother Mary carrying her six-week-old son Jesus into the Temple while her husband Joseph carries two birds to offer for sacrifice. They are greeted by two overjoyed elders, Anna and Simeon, who immediately recognize that this child, this infant child, is the salvation that they have been looking for.
Like us, Anna and Simeon were living in complex and worrying and yet hopeful times, with reasons to be fearful and faithful that are very contemporary. As Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber summarizes it, “both of these old folks were looking for salvation, trusting that even in the midst of being occupied by the Roman empire and all the tyranny of Caesar, that God was still faithful to God’s promises.” They were living in the kingdom of Caesar, seeing its impacts and its excesses and the suffering around them, and yet they remained deeply faithful to what we would now call the kindom of God. Simeon had heard messages from the Holy Spirit and Anna was given to prophetic speech as well as fasting and almost ceaseless prayer.
And they kept their eyes open, trusting that God would transform the world and bring about the justice that was so deeply needed.
It’s that sort of faithfulness that brings us here together, and it’s that faithfulness that led Simeon and Anna to be in the Temple at the very same time that Joseph, Mary, and Jesus walk in. Simeon is actually drawn there in the moment by the prompting of the Holy Spirit so he’s there at just the right time. It’s Simeon who recognizes the child first and breaks into a prayer of thanksgiving that Christian churches repeat to this day: “Master, now you’re dismissing your servant in peace according to your word, for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” Hearing and seeing this, Anna comes over and she too praises God out loud and tells everyone who will listen that this child is meant for the redemption of Jerusalem.
What gets me about this story, and there’s so much here, but really what gets me is the fact that it unfolds within the Temple. Every other story about Jesus’ nativity is set elsewhere — and by now we’ve heard a lot of them. We’ve heard about the birth and young life of Jesus, through the 12 Days of Christmas, and the Feast of the Holy Name and Epiphany and Epiphanytide. So while I don’t want to understate the importance of Jesus as a light to the world — which is why this feast day is known as Candlemas in many parts — I want to focus today on what it means if we look at it as the Presentation in the Temple, and what it means to have Jesus’ light recognized and proclaimed specifically in the Temple, in Jerusalem, within the religious space and the religious community.
In the first place, if we look that way, we get a reminder that everyone in the story is devoutly Jewish. Because our Christian tradition is woven through with strands of antisemitism and supersessionism, I feel like we can never say this enough. Everyone on the scene is Jewish. And they understand and celebrate their experience in light of the words of Torah and their experiences as the people of God. The whole reason that Mary and Joseph have come to the Temple is to honor the law around ritual purity after childbirth and the dedication of a first-born son, which Jesus is. So Mary and Joseph’s faithfulness to the Jewish law in the Temple is what structures the whole encounter. That’s the historical and religious context.
What does this say about our contemporary Christian contexts? What does it say to us two-thousand-and-twenty-ish years later about what it means to be in a religious community tied together by our presence in one same sanctuary?
The fact that this story unfolds in the Temple lets us ask what kinds of things can happen in this holy space that don’t happen in the same way elsewhere. As our parish community gathers together to speak honestly about our own way forward, we need to hear what the scriptures tell us about the possibilities that unfold specifically in religious spaces.
Here’s what I heard as I read and prayed through this reading.
For one, the Church and the Temple are a place where young and old people gathered together. These spaces are so rare! Rev’d. Isaac and I were talking about it this morning, how rare it is to have truly intergenerational spaces — ones like this, where Margaret and Riley are sitting right next to one another.
We also see that the Temple is a place where we bring our gifts and offer what we have to offer. If you look back at the specific laws around what to bring as a sacrifice, you’ll find that Mary and Joseph and anyone in their situation had two options. If they had money, they were supposed to bring a lamb. And if they didn’t have enough money to have a lamb, that’s when they had the option for the turtledoves or the pigeons. And so we see this as a space that’s making room for both our generosity and our abundance, but also our simpler offerings and our participation with whatever we can bring.
We see the Temple as a place where religious people mark the transitions in life, as Mary comes back 40 days after her childbirth. And this Feast Day, the Feast of the Presentation, happens every year on February 2nd because it’s exactly 40 days after Christmas.
One of the most important pieces to me is that this Temple story shows that our gathering places, our religious places are the ones where the Holy is seen and recognized and where that recognition leads to prophetic speech. It’s not always comfortable speech. Did you hear the part where Simeon says that Mary’s soul will be wounded as part of the unfolding of the story? So it’s a place where we tell each other uncomfortable truth driven by the Holy Spirit and by relationship with one another.
Finally, I see it as a place where no one has all of the answers, but they all have some of the answers. What I mean is that Anna and Simeon and Mary and Joseph on that day, 40 days after the nativity, nobody woke up that morning and knew exactly what was going to unfold. Anna and Simeon were waiting for the Messiah. They didn’t know that today was going to be the day. They in all likelihood didn’t even have reason to suspect that God would be on Earth as an infant child.
Mary and Joseph, on the other hand, had different pieces of the story. They’d heard the angelic revelations that this would be God’s son. They acted faithfully and welcomed the child into the world, and yet there was still something different about hearing that truth declared by other human voices…the fact that this was the Messiah, this was the salvation. And they were amazed at what they heard. This gives us humility: if even the Mother of God needed a religious community to help her understand her child’s destiny, it makes sense that we too, even more so, should be looking for God and the promptings of the Holy Spirit in community… that our revelations are only partial. Only when they are told in community do these pieces of truth provide the full wisdom and clarity that we need.
Finally, it’s important to me to think about what it means to to have this festival in the Temple, in the religious space, because this Sunday — man, I’m going to cry.
This Sunday is the fourth anniversary of my arrival here at the Parish of St. Paul, the same Sunday when I very first walked through these doors. And so the image of Jesus first being brought through the doors of his Holy space reminds me of what it was like to walk through these doors for the first time. And I still remember what the scripture was that day and the sermon that I heard.
I heard Gretchen speaking about Jesus’ transfiguration: when Jesus is up on the mountain, and the presence of God, the radiance, is revealed so clearly. And I remember Rev’d. Gretchen looking out into the community and saying you know, “I see the presence of God, the gleam of God shining through you, Ian, when you sit here and sing along, when you come up to sit among the choir…” And, “I see the presence of God in you, Susan, when you dedicate time that you really have to make space for.” On and on.
I remember all of these little bits of love that she gave, and the way that she called out what is holy and named that within each of us.
And that to me is what we really do when we gather here in church: We tell stories that we are part of that are much larger than us. We remember what is good and holy. And in the times that are difficult that surround us both in this church and within our larger world, that is one of the most important things that we can do — to remember God’s blessing and God’s presence in each one of us.
Thank you so much for welcoming me into this “us” that we will journey forward as together. I love you. Amen.
Opening image by Kelly Latimore, La presentación de Cristo en el templo, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=57113 [retrieved February 13, 2020]. Original source: https://kellylatimoreicons.com/contact/.