The Feast of the Presentation – February 2, 2014
Preacher: Lucinda Mosher, Th.D.
For mine eyes have seen salvation.—Luke 2:30
Down with the rosemary and bays,
Down with the misletoe ;
Instead of holly, now up-raise
The greener box (for show).
The holly hitherto did sway;
Let box now domineer
Until the dancing Easter day,
Or Easter’s eve appear.
I love Robert Herrick’s Candlemas carol! Several more verses lilt us through the rest of the Christian year; eventually, the carol concludes:
Thus times do shift; thus times do shift;
each thing [its] turn does hold;
New things succeed, new things succeed,
as former things grow old.[i]
And times indeed are shifting. This being Candlemas, February 2nd, we have reached the 40th day after Christmas—and I am grateful to Mother Liz for this opportunity to share it with you! Candlemas signals the end of the Christmas season, the point in the Christian year by which all Christmas décor should have been taken down and put away. We have come to the midpoint between the Shortest Day and the Spring Equinox. We’re halfway to Lent!
Candlemas, the Feast of the Presentation, occurs during Epiphanytide—a season that is all about looking outward, all about celebrating and contemplating the many manifestations of God-In-Our-Midst. Thus on the First Sunday of Epiphany, we observed the Baptism of the adult Jesus. On the Sundays following, we learned afresh from events and teachings during his three years of public, itinerant ministry. But, in this rare year when February 2nd falls on Sunday, observance of the Feast of the Presentation causes the timeline of Jesus’ life to double back on itself—like a labyrinth or an arabesque. In today’s Gospel, Jesus is merely a few weeks old.
The Feast of the Presentation is called “Candlemas” because, traditionally, in an age when candles were the main source of illumination on dark winter nights, this was the Eucharist (the Mass) at which the family’s supply of candles would have been brought to church to be blessed—as you are invited to do here this evening at 6:00 PM. The faithful would carry the blessed candles home, having been reminded that blesséd Jesus is the Light of the World. In many parts of the world they might have joined (and may still join) in a night-time procession meant to provoke awe. Of such a procession, Sophronius, 7th-century Patriarch of Jerusalem, writes: “Our bright shining candles are a sign of divine splendor of the one who comes to expel the dark shadows of evil, and to make the whole universe radiant with the brilliance of his eternal light.”[ii]
This year, Candlemas falls exactly four weeks before Transfiguration Sunday—which for Episcopalians is the climax of Epiphanytide. In the Gospel for Transfiguration Sunday, Jesus is accompanied by Peter, James, and John as he ascends Mount Tabor. Once at the summit Jesus suddenly looks radiant! Literally, he glows!
On that holy mountain, the disciples accompanying Jesus see light. “Uncreated Light,” explains spiritual director Suzanne Guthrie. That is, what the disciples see on Mount Tabor is what Moses saw in the Bush which burned but was not consumed: “God’s Uncreated Energies” (what we mean when we say “God’s Glory”), “manifested as light.” In his account of the Presentation of the infant Jesus in the Temple, Luke does not say that Jesus radiated light as he would, many years later, on Mount Tabor. But something unusual must have been going on, such that Simeon saw God’s Glory and could declare, “Mine eyes have seen salvation.”[iii]
“Glory.” What does this word mean? It has “something to do with power,” explains popular essayist Mary Gordon, “and with the acknowledgement and naming of that power. [It has] to do with visibility, a combination of beauty, visibility, renown….Glory happens publicly,” she says, “…[with] an excess of visibility.”[iv]
At Jesus’ Presentation, there must indeed have been “an excess of visibility” for Simeon to declare that he had “seen salvation” in a swaddled infant—to see in the image of Jesus wrapped tightly in a baby-blanket a visual metaphor for God’s action on our behalf.
“For mine eyes have seen salvation….” In her book Amazing Grace, Kathleen Norris explains that “the Hebrew word ‘salvation’ means literally ‘to make wide,’ or ‘to make sufficient.’” Coming “from a military context, it refer[s] to victory over evil or rescue from danger in this life.” The Greek term carries the meaning “to make well”. For Christians, this “making wide” or “sufficient” or “well” happens through Jesus.[v]
Thus, seeing salvation in Christian terms will, inevitably, involve contemplation of the Cross—which is more than a reminder of how capital punishment was meted out to Jesus of Nazareth. Rather, it is an icon: a pointer to and summary of the Gospel, of the entirety of the Christian understanding of the divine-human relationship. Contemplation of Cross will provoke questions about what it means to declare that Jesus is Lord; it will encourage us to consider anew the implications of our worship of the Triune God, thus (as Frederick Buechner puts it) the fact that “trinity” is in itself an analogy for a mystery which of itself reminds us that “the mystery beyond us, the mystery among us, and the mystery within us are all the same mystery.”[vi]
And the mysterious makes itself known in Luke’s account of the Presentation. If the hospitality of the Bethlehem innkeeper to a young woman about to give birth was a sign of “the presence of the peace of God,” then, says one scholar, the visit of Mary and Joseph to the Jerusalem Temple is “another witness to [that] presence.”[vii] Clearly, they are welcome and comfortable therein.
Mary and Joseph are at the Temple because, says Luke, “when the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought [the infant Jesus] to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord”—paraphrasing Exodus 13:2 as evidence of the Torah’s expectation that one’s first born would be dedicated to God. The primary intent of Luke’s inclusion of this story is to underscore that Jesus’ life is in line with the Law of Moses. By showing us that they take Torah-observance seriously, Luke’s Presentation narrative implies that Mary and Joseph teach Jesus from birth to be Torah-observant as well. The adult Jesus might be at odds with some religious leaders about the tradition, but it was a tradition he’d known and kept from childhood.[viii]
The problem, say respected Jewish New Testament scholars, is that—whereas Leviticus 12 calls for a mother’s “purification” forty days after the birth of a son—no “purification” of a new father or a newborn is mandated by the law of Moses; no Jewish law prescribes presentation of a child at the Temple; this “is not a recognized [Jewish] custom.”[ix]
So, perhaps—while Hannah’s presentation of her son Samuel for temple service might seem to be a precedent—no formal presentation of a child at the Temple was expected when a child was “dedicated to the Lord.” Perhaps “dedication of one’s first-born to God” was accomplished in various ways. And, according to Numbers 18, a son so dedicated could be redeemed by his parents. Luke makes no mention, however, of any redemption of Jesus.[x] Rather, one lesson of the Presentation story and our celebration of Candlemas is that Jesus redeems us.
Recall, urges one commentator, what was said in today’s lesson from Hebrews: that Jesus “had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God.” And this is the mystery: the infant in swaddling cloths presented in the Temple is “the pioneer of [our] salvation (Heb. 2:10).” Indeed, notes another, Simeon’s testimony is that “to see Jesus is to see God’s salvation. They are inseparable. There is joy, even in the face of death, when one has seen the source of life.”[xi]
As you listened to today’s Gospel, could you sense the drama? Suzanne Guthrie suggests that Luke’s narrative could easily be reworked as the libretto for a sacred opera! Scene One: the busy courtyard. Ordinary folks singing about how they’re going about their business, while the new parents Mary and Joseph purchase two doves for their offering. As the couple ascend the temple staircase, the crowd chorus segues to Psalm 84—a pilgrimage psalm; a hymn of ascent: “How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord of hosts!…Happy are those who live in your house, ever singing your praise.” Scene Two: the low light of the temple interior. Two elderly temple servants—Simeon (a baritone) and Anna (a contralto)—from opposite sides—intone their love of God and their longing for the consolation of Israel. Mary (a soprano) and Joseph (a tenor) enter, their duet reflecting on “the mystery of their lives together.”[xii]
Simeon approaches [Suzanne imagines], tears streaming down his withered face. “May I hold him?” asks the ancient man. After a pause, both Mary and Joseph [nod] and Simeon takes the child in his arms and sings another aria: Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word….
Anna comes out of the shadows to join them. The four voices merge in praising God – [perhaps continuing Psalm 84: “Happy is everyone who trust in you” (Ps 84:12)]…. [Or] Maybe they sing from Isaiah…“Arise, shine, for your light has come…” You can imagine this yourself, [Suzanne says]. What texts [she asks] would you choose for the four of them to sing from the depth of human experience to Divine Love?
Now Simeon, overcome by the Spirit, prophesies: “Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is spoken against,…that thoughts out of many hearts may be revealed.” And he sings to Mary, “And a sword will pierce through your own soul also…that thoughts out of many hearts may be revealed.” [Thus Simeon warns that “Israel’s consolation would not be a time of uninterrupted joy.” Quips one commentator, “Good news always has its enemies.”[xiii]]
Anna joins the prophecy….Joseph [adds his voice], and [as the opera concludes,] Mary, standing apart from the others, [sings] the steady, pulsing, foundational note that pulls…the [other] voices together as she ponders all of this this in her heart.[xiv]
Such drama! Such music!
As does his Annunciation narrative, Luke’s account of the Presentation includes a canticle. Simeon’s Nunc dimittis—like Mary’s Magnificat—has long been a fixture in the Daily Office; Simeon’s Song, notes one NT scholar, “is a song frequently on the lips of the praying and worshipping community.” When we sing it, she says, “we take part in the ‘making holy’ narrated in this story of purification, inasmuch as we join in the prayers that the church prays together with Simeon, Anna, Mary, and Christ.”[xv]
Simeon’s Song, says Paul-Gordon Chandler, “is sung with the language of freedom. In the original Greek text, it has the connotation of releasing a slave. Simeon is describing his own experience as one of being released. In the song the word ‘now’ is of utmost importance, emphasizing that an experience of profound liberation happened to him at that moment in time upon seeing the Christ Child. Simeon’s song is his way of describing how he was finally ‘released’ truly to live.”[xvi]
“As [Simeon] cradle[d] Jesus in his arms,” says Suzanne Guthrie, “the Eternal Now [broke] forth into [his] consciousness.”[xvii] The Eternal Now perceived by Simeon in Jesus is that Eternal Now re-presented to us in the Eucharist. As hymnist Jaroslav Vajda puts it:
Now the silence
Now the peace…
Now the Spirit’s visitation
Now the Son’s epiphany
Now the Father’s blessing
But what about Anna?
Luke tells us that Anna is a widow (a member of a category of women to whom Luke refers more than do the other three gospel-authors). He stresses the great length of her widowhood. Indeed, Luke’s portrait of Anna may provide a trace of the important ministry of widows in the early church,” notes the Women’s Bible Commentary, “but it does not elaborate on the nature of that ministry.”[xix]
But Anna does have stature: Luke refers to her (not Simeon) as “prophet.” Anna reaches a wide audience, apparently. As one commentator notes, Anna “is said to have publicly ‘returned thanks’ to God and to have continually spread abroad the word about the child (or about God…) ‘to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem,’ a phrase that has a revolutionary ring.” But we do not hear Anna’s revolutionary words themselves.[xx] In Luke’s Gospel, women are two often silent.
Yet we know Anna spoke—perhaps even more eloquently than Simeon! Miriam Therese Winter, my Hartford Seminary colleague, describes Anna as
able to see
the silent, veiled
of God’s mysterious ways,
She was eighty-four years young
when she saw the Child
with his mother.
and from that day,
she preached the miracle
Whom her own eyes had seen.[xxi]
If MT Winter’s description has any merit, how could Anna have been anything other than eloquent?
How I wish someone had recorded Anna’s actual words. We are poorer without them. But if, as some scholars suggest, the Nunc dimittis is an early Christian hymn Luke chose to put in Simeon’s mouth, then we latter-day Christians have the option to do that for Anna. And this is exactly what MT Winter has done!
MT has crafted words Anna might have voiced, and having asserted that “Shaddai loves older women,” she offers us “Anna’s Psalm”:
This is the day which God has revealed.
I am filled to the brim with joy.
Into old age with its limitations,
my God has remembered me.
How long, O God, have I waited
for a sure sign of liberation,
waited with hope,
waited in faith
for the dawning of this day.
And now my heart has feasted upon the One
Who is my salvation.
I have looked into a human face
and have seen the face of God.
Here is the Child of promise.
Here is the Holy of Holies.
Here is the glory of God….[xxii]
For Anna’s eyes, like Simeon’s, had seen God’s Uncreated Energies Manifested as Light. She, like he, had seen salvation.
And so may we. Imagine, says the medieval Cistercian abbot Guerric d’Igny—imagine that the swaddled infant in the hands of an elderly temple servant is a candle bright with flame. “You must light your own candles by enkindling them at his,” he insists, “those lamps which the Lord commanded you to bear in your hands. So come to him and be enlightened that you do not so much bear lamps as become them, shining within yourself and radiating light to your neighbors. May there be a lamp in your heart, in your hand and in your mouth: let the lamp in your heart shine for yourself, the lamp in your hand and mouth shine for your neighbors. The lamp in your heart is a reverence for God inspired by faith; the lamp in your hand is the example of a good life; and the lamp in your mouth are the words of consolation you speak.”[xxiii]
The times do shift; the times do shift. Soon, you good people of St Michael’s will call and install a new rector. Soon, I must leave my life as a New Yorker behind. In the coming year, friends and family members may depart this life. In fact, eventually, we must all depart.
But the lesson of Candlemas, as Guerric puts it, is that “when the lamp of this mortal life is extinguished, there will appear for [us]…the light of unquenchable life, and it will shine for [us] at the evening of [our] life like the brightness of the noonday sun.”
“The times do shift; the times do shift; each thing its turn doth hold.” Indeed, it is our turn “to stand in the Temple and hold God’s Son and embrace him,” says Origen, a great theologian of the early Church; “and,” he says, “that we may deserve leave to withdraw and start on our way towards a better land, let us pray to God, the all-powerful, and to the little Jesus himself, whom we so much want to speak to and hold in our arms. His are glory and power now and always.”[xxiv]
In the Name of the One God:
the mystery beyond us
[i] Robert Herrick, Candlemas Eve.
[ii] Saint Sophronius of Jerusalem, Candlemas Sermon.
[iv] Mary Gordon, Reading Jesus: A Writer’s Encounter with the Gospels (Anchor, 2010), 41.
[v] Kathleen Norris, Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith (New York: Riverhead Books, 1999), 20.
[vi] Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC (New York: Harper & Row, 1973), 93.
[vii] Joy J. Moore, “Commentary on Luke 2:22-40” for Working Preacher, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1180.
[viii] Fred B. Craddock, et al. Preaching Through the Christian Year: Year C: A Comprehensive Commentary on the Lectionary (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 1994), 494.
[ix] Note to Luke 2:21–24 in Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler, editors, The Jewish Annotated New Testament (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 102.
[x] Craddock, 495.
[xi] IVP New Testament Commentaries: Luke 2:22-40: http://www.biblegateway.com/resources/commentaries/IVP-NT/Luke/Witness-Man-Woman-Temple.
[xii] Suzanne Guthrie, http://www.edgeofenclosure.org/christmas1bpresentation.html.
[xiii] Craddock, 495.
[xiv] Suzanne Guthrie, http://www.edgeofenclosure.org/christmas1bpresentation.html.
[xv] Holly Hearon, “Commentary on Luke 2:22-40” for Working Preacher, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=207
[xvi] Paul-Gordon Chandler, Songs in Waiting: Spiritual Reflections on Christ’s Birth: A Celebration of Middle Eastern Canticles (Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse, 2009).
[xvii] Suzanne Guthrie. http://www.edgeofenclosure.org/christmas1bpresentation.html
[xviii] Jaroslav Vajda, “Now”. #333 in Hymnal 1979.
[xix] Jane Schaberg, “Luke” in The Women’s Bible Commentary, Carol Ann Newsom and Sharon H. Ringe, editors (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1992), 283.
[xx] Women’s Bible Commentary, 283.
[xxi] “Anna” in Miriam, Therese Winter, WomanWord: A Feminist Lectionary and Psalter: Women of the New Testament, 40–41
[xxii] “Anna’s Psalm” in Miriam Therese Winter, WomanWord, 43.
[xxiii] Guerric of Igny c.1070-1157; quoted by Suzanne Guthrie. http://www.edgeofenclosure.org/christmas1bpresentation.html
[xxiv] From a prayer of Origen, quoted by Suzanne Guthrie, http://www.edgeofenclosure.org/christmas1bpresentation.html.