On the First Sunday after Christmas, the Revised Common Lectionary offers us the text known as “The Presentation of Jesus.” It’s Luke 2:22-40 and comes in four distinct scenes.
The scene is set for the Presentation with references to the Holy Family and the law of God.
We tend to picture just three people: Mary, Jesus, and Joseph. Tradition has Joseph older, a widower, with children from his first marriage who will, in the Gospels, be called Jesus’ siblings.
The number is not so important. The text emphasizes their Jewish faithfulness. With no fewer than three references to the requirements of the law, they are shown coming to the temple, ready to observe the rites of purification.
It is easy to forget their Jewishness somehow. But this Jesus is the Jewish Messiah, born to a Jewish family in a Jewish land, practicing the Jewish religion. That’s our savior.
The Song of Simeon
To me the heart of the Presentation is the Song of Simeon:
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.
Luke 2:29-32, NRSV
I really love this text. I’ve said or sung it so many times in Episcopal Evening Prayer or Compline services, on retreat at Roman Catholic Benedictine monasteries, and at Wednesday and Saturday Orthodox Vespers services.
And I love the story around it:
Old Simeon, promised by the Spirit (he was sure it was the Spirit… it couldn’t have been his imagination, just a longing heart’s pious wish…) that he would live to see the promised Messiah.
But he was so very old. He felt like it was time to go, to leave this world for — well, for whatever it was that God had in store for those who loved and served him. He was tired, so very tired. He was weak, and he was ill. Would the promise be fulfilled?
Then one day, a day like any other, really, into the Temple walks a family: young mother, older man, babe in arms. Maybe some older kids.
Somehow he knew this was The One. (It had to be… he could just tell… there was that nudge inside, that whisper again…) This baby was the Messiah he had waited so long to see.
So he approached them. He reached out to the woman, wordlessly asking to hold her baby. She didn’t turn away — maybe she knew that this stranger was alright, someone who would be safe with the child. She let him take the boy in his arms.
The look on his face seemed to communicate a blessing. He turned his eyes to heaven and — he sang.
He sang about the end of his life; that he had fulfilled his purpose somehow, having seen and held this child. It sounded as if God were giving him permission to die. But what had he seen?
“My eyes have seen your salvation” he sang. Jesus, as an infant in swaddling cloths, is salvation. Not just Simeon’s personal salvation. God’s gift of salvation, coming to all the world, as the song goes on to say.
Again in this song we have the theme of all Luke’s songs: salvation is not something that will start 33 years in the future, when Jesus is grown, has taught and healed and called disciples, when he finally is crucified. In the very fact of Jesus being born, salvation has come.
In this little child, God is with us. The holy God, the very Image of the Father, has taken up human flesh, become truly human in the womb of Mary. Now human flesh, all humanity, begins the process of being restored to the image of God, renewed in the very likeness of God.
- The process is not complete in any of us.
- But it has begun for all of us.
- And it cannot be stopped, or assumed to be nullified, in even one of us.
I pray for the continued effect of this salvation in me, in my family, in the Church, and throughout the world. I pray for the ability to see and know what Simeon saw and knew and sang of so long ago.
In contemplation I gaze at this child, at the scene with this old man, and at the God who answers my prayer.
But the Presentation doesn’t end with the Song of Simeon. He pauses to give Mary a bit of prophetic insight.
Jesus, this tiny baby, will be like a big old rock in the path — a rock of ages, perhaps, Some will step up higher by standing on him, and others will trip and fall over him.
And Mary herself gets a bit of a warning. She had just let the excitement of new motherhood take root, displacing the fear and trembling of being pregnant via the Holy Spirit. Now this strange man in the temple tells her a sword will pierce her soul because of her baby boy.
She probably wondered whether it was a mistake to let the old guy hold Jesus a minute or two before.
The Prophet Anna
The last part of the Presentation is so very lovely that it’s a shame it doesn’t get more attention.
It turns out Simeon is not the only elderly person hanging out in the Temple. Anna, an 87 year old prophet, is basically living there.
She worships. She fasts. She prays. She never leaves.
I’d say she embodies those lines in the Psalms, where it says that
Even the sparrow finds a home,
and the swallow a nest for herself,
where she may lay her young,
at your altars, O Lord of hosts,
my King and my God.
Psalm 84:3 NRSV
For a day in your courts
is better than a thousand elsewhere.
I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God
than live in the tents of wickedness.
Psalm 84:10 NRSV
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
my whole life long.
Psalm 23:6 NRSV
I’m a little peeved that Luke didn’t record any of her actual words. All he says is that she
…began to praise God
and to speak about the child
to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.
Luke 2:38 NRSV
I bet she sang.
I mean everybody here sang. Luke 1-2 is basically a musical to which the tunes have been lost.
- Gabriel sang.
- Mary sang.
- Zechariah sang.
- When Elizabeth spoke to Mary it really sounds a bit like a song too.
- Old Simeon sang up a storm.
But Anna? No song.
She just heads out from the temple to do the work of a prophet at 87.
Personally? That makes me want to sing.
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