Presentation of Our Lord
Mal 3:1-4; Ps 84
Heb 2:14-18; Luke 2:22-40
“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.” (Luke 2:27)
Don’t you just love this story? To me, it’s one of the most moving stories in Scripture: the young parents, coming to the Temple to dedicate their son, so poor that they could afford only the most paltry of the stipulated offerings: a pair of turtledoves. The old man, waiting in hope, his face transformed by love and joy. The old woman, buttonholing everyone she could find to tell them the wonderful news: salvation is here! It’s a scene of shadows and light: the rays of light catching on the incense in the graceful room; the brighter beams streaming from the face of the Infant and those he has filled with hope.
Let’s take a minute to imagine the life of Simeon, an old man, “righteous and devout,” who bore the secret of God within his heart. St. Luke writes that he came to the Temple, guided by the Spirit, but I find it hard to imagine this was the first time the Spirit had led him there. More likely he came there daily, watching by the door. He’d greet each family bearing a young child — and every firstborn boy in Israel had to be presented, so there would have been a lot of them. He’d take each child into his arms, hold him up to the light, peer into the soft, infant eyes, asking, “Are you the one sent by God?” Can you think of a more beautiful way to live?
I met Simeon once, by another name. There was in my parish in DC an old man named Adrian, righteous and devout. Many years before I knew him, he had become distressed that the church was not doing enough for teenagers, so he and his wife Sandra had started a weekly movie club which lasted for some years. The movie club became a youth group; the youth group included real instruction in the faith; other adults were drawn in as teachers and mentors; and the youth knew that this was a church where people loved them. Adrian and Sandra stepped back after a decade, passing on the work to other volunteers, but Adrian never stopped mentoring the children. He sat by the church door nearly every Sunday for more than thirty years, waiting to greet them. There were about a hundred kids who came most weeks, and he knew them all by name. He knew which ones liked baseball and which preferred Shakespeare; who loved fast cars, and who could paint. As the children grew into teenagers, they would come and sit by him and pour out their hearts, even when they could not bring themselves to talk to their parents, knowing that this was a wise man whose advice they could trust. It was all very appropriate: Adrian would only see them in the church foyer, with lots of other people around. And he and Sandra quietly shaped a church in which children knew they had a family: a real one, which was there for them. He taught the other adults how to be a healthy presence in the lives of the young, and when, each year, a high school senior would preach the sermon, each of them would mention Adrian with great love, when they explained why that church was their true home.
Watching Adrian interact with the children, I learned something true about Simeon. If he had looked into each tiny face and asked, “Are you the Messiah?” Jesus would be the only one he caught up in his arms and danced around the floor. But if he asked, instead, “Are you the one sent by God?”, the answer was always yes. YES, each child is sent by God. Each person, each creature, is offered to us as a gift. C.S. Lewis wrote, “There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal.” 1. How, then, ought we to tend one another?
You see, those few lines about Simeon give us a microcosm of the Christian life. It is the awesome task of those who follow Jesus to tend the light of Christ in one another’s souls, and in the souls of all around us. How do we tend the light? First, we seek it. We seek it in the life of every human being. That’s where the sweetness of this story meets the gritty reality of our world. It would have been easy for Simeon to seek the Messiah among the children of the rich, and I am sure he did. But he also sought him in the children of the poor, those who had little to offer except their own hearts — and it was there that he found him. So often, when we speak of justice, we speak of groups of people and categories of people and kinds of need. Simeon reminds us that there are no “groups of people”; there are only individual human beings, each one of them infinitely precious, each one of them a window into the mind of God. And each of those people whose needs we seek to address, each of those people whose needs are as real as our own, each of those people is, first and foremost, a gift: an individual whose insights and talents, properly cultivated, will enrich the lives of those around him.
Second, we need to remember why Jesus was being presented in the Temple. The custom of presenting infants goes all the way back to the Exodus, when the Lord inflicted ten plagues on the people of Egypt, the last and most fearsome of which was the slaying the firstborn. On that terrible night, God instructed the Hebrews to put blood on their doors as protection, while the angel of death passed by and killed every firstborn male in all that land: people and sheep and oxen and all creatures. And when it was over and the Hebrews were free, the Lord laid claim to every firstborn male in Israel — all those whose lives he had spared. But God established a way to buy back those lives: for each animal, an animal of slightly lesser value; for each son, a sacrifice offered to God. And so, in ancient Jewish tradition, the first action of a parent with a son was to circumcise him, to set him apart for God. With a firstborn son, the parents also had to buy him back from death.
In those two actions, we can see our work: to set one another apart for God, and to do whatever is necessary to guard one another from death — not only the death of the body, but also the death of mind, of soul, of spirit. For the last year, during this pandemic, we have taken extraordinary measures to safeguard one another’s lives. What would it look like if we were to pour that much energy into safeguarding the rest of one another’s humanity? It would mean ensuring that every school could develop the full potential of the children in its care. It would require us to keep our air and water clean, our examples pure. We’d need to ensure that the content of our arts and media was appropriate for the health of souls, by which I don’t mean that it would have to be religious but that it would have to be true. We would have to weed out pornography, prostitution, and all the other ways that the gift of sex is used to degrade and objectify those it is meant to grace. It would mean we’d have to invest in one another’s lives — not just the casual friendliness of passers-by, but with the willingness to be there for one another which characterizes a true friend. We’d have to wait at the door and be willing to hear what each person truly has to say.
I am speaking, of course, of the nature of lay ministry, the way that each person called to follow Jesus lives that call at home and work and church alike. A few years ago, I read a book which reminded me that a healthy spiritual life has three orientations: up (toward God); in (toward wholeness of self); and out (toward others). That outward direction needs to help both those within the church community and those beyond it. Most churches struggle to balance the two. Here at the Cathedral, we spend a lot of energy talking and learning about Big Issues, but the internal ministries which sustain our life as a worshiping community lack adequate volunteer support, with a small number of people volunteering many hours, while crucial needs still go unmet. That is something we will need to address when we are able to gather, once again, in person. The other challenge we face is that good intentions are not enough: our ministries must be effective as well as well-intentioned. It’s one thing to learn about childhood hunger, and another thing entirely to feed a child or alter policies to reduce that hunger. And yet, all of us would agree that the latter are necessary.
When Simeon takes up the child Christ, he does not only cry in joy. He also utters a prophecy for Mary: “a sword will pierce your own soul, too.” That sword is the price of love; it is the reality that to love someone makes us vulnerable, every time. But what we are learning, now in the early 21st century, is that choosing not to love also makes us vulnerable. Choosing not to love the earth exposes us to the ravages of a climate out of balance. Choosing not to love the poor exposes us to the rage and bitterness of those who feel permanently left out. Choosing not to love those of other cultures or traditions deprives us of richness which could grace our own lives. Choosing not to love one another leaves us alone. In each of these choices, we finally learn that it is in loving one another that we truly learn to love our selves, and where we see, at last, the face of God.
1. C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory