The Presentation of our Lord
The Rev. Mark Wilkinson, Rector
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church
The Tuesday morning bible study class was wondering why we went off the standard lectionary readings. Today we have something that doesn’t happen very often. A feast day that falls on a Sunday. Normally this is Epiphany 4 which is almost always the Beatitudes. However today is the Feast of the Presentation of our Lord. The feast where we celebrate Jesus being brought to the temple to complete the rites of a first-born male child in the Jewish faith.
Today’s passage also brings to an end to the infancy narrative in Luke and the only place in the gospel this story appears. Most of what we know about the birth of Jesus comes exclusively from Luke. Matthew has the Magi and Herod, but it is only in Luke that we get the complete story from the Angel Gabriel announcing the birth of John the Baptist to the final scene in the temple with Simeone and Anna identifying Jesus as the Messiah and making their prophesies.
It is worth noting that what Mary and Joseph are doing is nothing unusual for a Jewish family. We hear the reference to doing what is required by the law of the Lord five different times. Luke mentions “according to the law of the Lord” 9 times in his gospel and 5 of those are in this passage. 40 days after the birth of a male child the mother would come to the temple if possible, for the right of purification. Since they had to travel a good distance, probably at least three days on foot, from Nazareth to Jerusalem, the family combined this with presenting Jesus at the temple and offering the appropriate sacrifice for a first-born son. All first born male children were to be dedicated to God and the offering of a pair of turtle doves or two young pigeons was a symbolic way to make that offering to God
Jesus along with God and the Holy Spirit often would do something or take something very ordinary and it would become extraordinary. This happens in this little snapshot of his life. Remember Luke begins his gospel saying that he is writing an orderly account for his patron Theophilus, so that he might be informed about those things about which he is being taught. Luke is also writing for an audience that has many Gentiles who would not know Jewish customs.
Mary, Joseph and Jesus do not know this but waiting for them at the temple are two older people, Simeone and Anna. Luke’s story begins with two older people, Zachariah and Elizabeth, the parents of John the Baptist and the infancy narrative ends with two elderly people, Simeone and Anna. Luke is a consummate storyteller and uses these types of literary techniques throughout his gospel and the book of Acts.
Bringing him to the temple has parallels with the birth of the prophet Samuel, whose mother Hannah brings him to Eli the old priest. Now Hannah gives Samuel to the priest to raise at the temple. The idea of the first-born son being dedicated to God has changed in a world where the eldest son inherits almost everything. Now the parents bring the child to the temple, but make an offering to God through the priest. This redeeming or buying the child back from God had become the practice by the time of Jesus. People with some money would be expected to offer a lamb or goat for this redemption. The offering of a pair of turtle doves or two pigeons is what is expected of a poor person. Once again Luke has his emphasis on the poor of the world and Jesus’ place living with them. This is a theme he firmly establishes in the infancy narrative and will continue throughout his gospel. Luke is a gospel of those the world has forgotten, including the women of the time.
I want to turn to Simeon for a few moments for there is much to consider in what Luke tells us about him. First of all, I think it is important with both Simeon and Anna to look at how they knew and what motivated them in this search for the Messiah. A central theme especially with Simeon is the use of the Holy Spirit. When I was memorizing the passage this really jumped out at me, just as much as the repetition of the fulfillment of the law. He is described as righteous and devout, looking for the consolation (or redemption depending on the translation) of Israel. Then Luke says, “the Holy Spirit rested on him.” I cannot think of anyone else in the bible where this specific comment is made. Yes, the apostles have Pentecost, but that is different language. Then it says, “Guided by the Holy Spirit Simeon came to the temple.” Led by the Holy Spirit he is waiting at the temple for Jesus and his parents (notice Mary and Joseph are not named in this passage) and takes Jesus in his arms. I imagine this scene of Mary and Joseph walking into the outer court and there is this old man who greets them and takes Jesus into his arms. Think back to how I did that as I told the story.
Wendy and I have a way of saying, “It’s a Spirit thing.” Or “It’s a God thing.” I am willing to bet most of you can think of a time where that has happened in your life. I will be honest I think my standing in front of you is a Spirit thing. Without a conversation at General Convention between Bishop Fisher and Wendy we would not have contacted Francine about open positions in this diocese in the fall of 2018. Without following the Spirit’s lead to walk the Camino De Santiago in the summer of 2017 I would have been open enough to the Spirit to follow this call.
This is about prayers being answered and not just for Simeon. I think that Simeon in Jesus is a prayer answered. Look at what Simeon says:
“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.”
This is both a prophesy and a prayer of gratitude. For Simeone this is almost a “now I’m finished, my work is done” statement. Not that he is going to die, but more of an end of my service. In the Navy at a change of command ceremony the words to the effect of you are relieved of duty are said as the commanding officer leaves the ship for the last time.
Part of the thought behind focusing on the Holy Spirit is this is not something tangible or logical. The Holy Spirit is not something we can prove with evidence. The work of the Spirit can only be experienced. Richard Rohr this week has been writing about the big blind spot in modern religion and all religions by the way is that we have focused ever since the Enlightenment of hard provable facts when God simply does not work that way.
His final words are a foreshadowing of what is to come. Simeon is saying that Jesus will be rejected by many but will serve as a light to a people that are rejected by any number of groups. In particular Luke is referring to Gentiles. Remember Luke is writing this long after the events have taken place.
We live in a world where there is little room for mystery. I believe this is why there seems to be such a conflict in some people’s minds between religion and science and that does not need to be. I have a brother in law who is a devout member of St. David’s in Austin but is also a paleontologist and dean of the science department at Austin Community College. What he learned is what Richard Rohr has been writing about this week. We need reason balanced with acceptance of mystery, that which cannot be explained by our logical mind. We need to open our minds to the incredible possibilities of what God and the Holy Spirit can do. We need to not limit God to what our small minds can logically understand.
The key is to always look for the holy in all of what we do and see. We need to be willing to accept that God works in ways we cannot grasp and be willing like Simeon and Anna to follow where the Spirit leads us. Is this sometimes hard to do? Absolutely! Is this worth the risk. Absolutely! As we move forward as a parish into an exciting future, we will be asked to take some risks, to really stretch as we follow the calling of the Spirit. Is that a little scary? You bet, but I for one am ready to hold on for the ride. I hope you are too.