The Presentation of Christ in the Temple (Episcopal Lectionary)
February 2, 2014
The Church of the Good Shepherd, Pawtucket, RI
The Rev. Gillian R. Barr (first Sunday as Priest in Charge)
I’d like to invite you to enter into the scene that we just heard described in this morning’s Gospel reading—let’s imagine we are anonymous worshipers in the Temple who just happen to be there at the right moment.
What do we see around us?
We see the complex of elaborate temple buildings, built for worship and religious activities.
We see two young people, a newly married couple, the mother carrying their 6-week old son. The baby is fussing after a long journey and from being overstimulated by all the sights and sounds and smells of the busy temple precinct, but he quiets somewhat when they enter the inner courts.
Mother and father step forward with a look of hesitation—they are poor (we known this because they have only brought two birds as an offering, which was what the poor were allowed to do if they couldn’t afford the lamb that was actually called for). Perhaps they are feeling a bit self-conscious because of the gossip that swirled about the baby’s parentage, but desperately wanting to get this child’s life off to the best possible start—wanting to do all that their religion calls for, to ensure he and they will be seen as good Jews. They are dedicating their son to God as part of a tradition that provides rituals and rites of passage. So they also come forward with a look of excitement and anticipation, and give their simple offering.
And not mentioned in the story, but surely there, is a temple priest—who will receive the offering the couple makes for Mary’s purification, and perform whatever rituals and say whatever prayers are called for as they dedicate their firstborn to God.
We see two older believers. Anna is a widow, in her eighties, who has devoted her life to prayer, is always at the Temple, and who is well-respected as a woman of insight and wisdom. And then there is Simeon, who had been walking slowly down a nearby street when he felt an inner nudge from the Spirit to go inside the temple. He is old and tired and achy, but God promised him that before he dies he will see the Messiah he and all the people have been waiting for for centuries. He stands near Anna.
We see two wise and devout elder believers, a priest, and an altar. with some simple offerings laid on it, and a faithful young couple now carrying their baby back the way they had come.
This is what our imaginary observer would see in the Temple over two thousand years ago.
What do Simeon and Anna see?
They see two young poor parents beaming proudly over their small child. But each of them sees something more. There is someone present we have not mentioned yet—that is the Holy Spirit. Not visible to the eye of an observer, but evident by what it reveals and what it sets in motion. And so because of their attentiveness to the Spirit the two wise elders see something more—they see that there is something about this child than meets their cloudy eyes.
Tired, patient Simeon sees the Messiah he has long awaited, the Messiah God promised him he would see before he died. He can’t help but reach out for the child and sing his praises. This is the Messiah!
And not just a Messiah for Israel—the Spirit shows Simeon this savior is sent for the Gentiles too. But as he blesses the child and his parents, Simeon, who has seen so much of life, its beauty and its pain— sees even more about this child he sees the agony and conflict that the child and those closest to him will suffer.
Anna also sees more than a small baby. She sees the child’s real identity and also begins praising God and telling those around her about him.
And so now our imaginary observer also sees something more—where before she had seen patient hopeful expectation on the faces of these two wise ones, she now sees the joy and wonder overtake the faces of Simeon and Anna, hears their excitement and exultation as they praise this small child and bless his parents.
Now, look around here, at this scene at Good Shepherd, Pawtucket, at all of us gathered here this morning. What, as observers here, do we see? On the surface this scene doesn’t have much in common with Jesus being presented in the Temple. But to my eyes, there are actually a lot of similarities.
We have younger families bringing their children to a place of worship, to give them the best foundation possible in their spiritual life. We celebrate rituals to mark highlights in peoples’ lives .
We have wise congregational elders who share their wisdom and insight with those parents and children, and welcome them. All of us understand the importance of passing our faith and traditions from generation to generation, whether through formal things such as Sunday School or simply in how we relate to one another.
Among the people of God gathered here, we have those who continue faithful in prayer and in service through years and decades. Those whose ministries are recognized by the larger church and lifted up to positions of leadership throughout the diocese. I saw some of you at an Episcopal Charities event Wednesday night. We have a worship space, and an altar. And we offer sacrifices here—not of birds or animals, but of our time, our prayers, our love, our food, our money, and our praise and thanksgivings.
But most important of all, like Simeon and Anna, we are gathered here in prayerful hope, with expectation, to see the Messiah. And we know that the Holy Spirit is here among us.
So we come here to encounter Jesus in bread and wine made holy, but also in one another. We come here to encounter a Messiah who does not stand far off, but who came into our world as a baby so that he could experience everything we experience, from birth through childhood and adolescence on to death.
And we come here to have our vision sharpened and our strength renewed by that Holy Spirit, so that we may more easily see him out in the world.
Just as Simeon knew that this Messiah wasn’t just for the devout Jews of the Temple, but would be a light for the whole world, we know that Christ isn’t just found here, or in our prayer corners at home.
Because we meet him here, we then can see him out there—in young fussy children born to single mothers. We can see him in those who come to the food pantry. See him in those who care for patients in hospitals and nursing centers. See him in those who serve food and offer welcome—whether at Church Beyond the Walls or at our favorite local cafe or around our own family tables. And just as Simeon and Anna offered their prayers and blessings and told others about the Messiah, we not only offer praise and thanksgiving here, but we also share God’s love with those around us.
Today we remember Christ’s Presentation in the Temple forty days after his birth. We mark this milestone in his life with white hangings, and call it a feast day. Today’s celebration actually has two traditional names (well, four if you count Groundhog Day and Super Bowl Sunday, but I’m speaking of the Church year here!). It is known as the Feast of the Presentation, but it is also known as Candlemas, or Candle Mass.
One ancient tradition for this feast is for everyone to bring their candles from home, enter the church with them lit, and have them blessed during the service. Why? It comes from the words Simeon says about the Christ Child—that He is to be a light to enlighten the nations.
If Christ is the light of the nations, and we are baptized into Christ, then we are to be little Christs, little lights to help enlighten the world around us. Just as families are often given a candle when their child is baptized, so we are all to be candles to bring light everywhere we go. And just as in the old Candle Mass tradition people brought their candles to church to have them blessed, so we come weekly here to be blessed—by word and sacrament and by the loving community—so that the light of our candles can continue to burn brightly and we can be a light to enlighten the world around us.
Over the coming months I will come to know the particulars of this congregation, to understand the stories and passions and habits that make Good Shepherd distinctly Good Shepherd. I will get to know the various gifts each of you brings to our life together, and what joys and sorrows fill your hearts.
But I already know enough about you, from what I have observed, and what I have heard from others around the diocese (this parish has an excellent reputation!), to know that your light shines brightly.
Together we will continue in faithful prayer and hopeful expectation, continuing to seek out the Christ. We will gather, sure of the presence of the Holy Spirit in our midst, young and old, families and single people, in this temple to be blessed and to bless. And then we will carry the light that we find here out into the world. And we will be able to sing praises, with Simeon,
These eyes of [ours] have seen the Savior, whom you have prepared for all the world to see: a Light to enlighten the nations, and the glory of your people Israel. Amen.