The Presentation of Our Lord Jesus Christ in the Temple: A sermon

Presentation of Jesus at the Temple (detail), Andrea Mantegna, c. 1455

Today is the Feast of the Presentation of our Lord Jesus Christ in the Temple. It’s a major feast in our calendar but one we observe at Grace only when it falls on a Sunday. It commemorates the events recorded by Luke in today’s gospel reading. Jesus’ parents Mary and Joseph brought him to the temple forty days after his birth to conform to Jewish ritual obligations—the presentation of the first-born to God; and the purification of a woman after giving birth.

It’s a bit disorienting to read this gospel today, to commemorate the Feast of the Presentation, because it draws our attention backwards, to Christmas. In a very real sense, it is the final observance of the Christmas season, which explains why in many traditional Christian churches, the Christmas decorations, especially the creche remain until this day. Our attention is drawn back to Christmas, to the birth of Christ, and to his family. And even as our lives have moved on, and the world is not paying attention, the church allows us one last glimpse of the joy of Christmas.

It is a story full of joy—the joy of parents who are faithfully fulfilling the practices of their faith—and especially the joy of two elderly people who see the identity of the baby and testify to his world-historical significance.

Luke is keen to show Jesus’ parents obeying Jewish law, mentioning it no fewer than five times in this brief passage. He is also concerned to show them as observant Jews. He will do the same when he depicts Jesus. In addition, the temple is a focal point. Joseph and Mary bring Jesus here twice, now forty days after his birth. They will bring him again when he is twelve years old, an incident related only by Luke in the very next verses. Jesus will remain behind at the temple after his parents leave; when they discover he is not with the group returning to Nazareth, they return to the temple and find him in conversation with religious leaders about scripture.

Jesus will return to the temple when he comes to Jerusalem just before his crucifixion and the temple will continue to be a focal point for his disciples after his ascension. In fact, Luke’s description of them at the end of the gospel, calls to mind his description of Anna, “They returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and they were continually in the temple blessing God.” (24:53)

In addition to the prominent role of the temple throughout Luke and Acts, this story emphasizes other themes central to Luke’s telling. The presence of Simeon and Anna, two aged people who testify to the baby’s identity link this story to models in Hebrew scripture and also appeal to the prophetic tradition. Anna is explicitly identified as a prophetess while Simeon offers prophecy as well as song when he encounters Jesus.

Simeon’s is not the first song Luke records in the gospel. The nativity story is accompanied by hymns: that of Zechariah, “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he hath visited and redeemed his people.” He sang it when his voice returned after the birth of his son John the Baptist. There’s Mary’s song, the Magnificat, “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord.” There’s the song the angels sang, “Glory to God in the highest and peace to his people on earth.” And there is this one, “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace.” These are the church’s songs, sung for nearly two thousand years and sung or chanted during the daily office.

While emphasizing tradition, the law and the prophets, and these two elderly witnesses, Luke also emphasizes the role of the Holy Spirit, mentioning her movement three times in describing Simeon. Simeon was righteous and devout and looking forward to the consolation of Israel. His song is one of benediction and leave-taking. But Simeon has more to say and turns to ominous prophecy: “this child is destined for the rising and the falling of many in Israel … and a sword will pierce your own soul, too.” Unfortunately, Luke doesn’t tell us what Anna said instead only leaves us with the image of an elderly woman who spent all of her time in the temple speaking about Jesus to everyone in the temple “who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.”

On the surface this episode that brings to an end Luke’s infancy narrative is little more than confirmation of what has gone before—the birth of the Son of God in keeping with scripture and witnessed by people who were able to testify to its importance. But when you step back a moment to reflect, it opens up great depths of meaning.

Think again about the temple’s significance. It plays an important role in this episode as it does throughout Luke and Acts. Yet by the time Luke was writing, the temple lay in ruins. In fact, it may have been destroyed two generations before he wrote. So, Luke’s readers could not have imagined the scene. They had no reference points for it.

And think about those two elderly people who express their joy, of Simeon who sings “my eyes have seen my salvation.” But the sort of hopes expressed in this text, the consolation of Israel, the redemption of Jerusalem had not been accomplished and may have seemed further away than ever before. Would Simeon and Anna been able to hold on to their hope if they knew what the future held?

And even in this story of faith, hope, and joy, there is an ominous note. In his blessing, Simeon speaks of the falling and rising of many in Israel, of opposition and division, and most of all, of a sword that will pierce Mary’s soul. Even here in the joy of incarnation, the shadow of the cross looms. Perhaps that’s why Mantegna, in the painting reproduced on the service bulletin’s cover, seems to have Jesus wrapped, not in swaddling clothes but in what looks like burial wrappings.

We hear this story today, forty days after Christmas, when the joy of that season has long since left us, cooled by endless gray days, by the relentless cycle of news that wears us down and grinds our hope into despair. We hear this story when our attention is fleeting perhaps diverted momentarily by national spectacle like the Super Bowl or the silly rituals of Groundhog Day.

Can we appreciate the power of the story that Luke has crafted, a story of long waits, expectation and hope in the midst of disappointment? Can we see ourselves in the aged Simeon and Anna, whose faith did not falter through years of struggle and disappointment?

This is the Feast of the Presentation. Mary and Joseph brought Jesus to the temple. Our cover image shows Mary doing just that. But it also shows Simeon’s outstretched hands. While our translations says that Simeon “took” the baby, a better translation would be that “he received him. Indeed, Simeon didn’t just see Christ, as my friend Chris Bryan has written,

he touches him, holds him, embraces him؛†and given that Jesus comes to Simeon in the weakness of babyhood, for this moment Simeon actually carries him, as the stronger carries the weaker. Simeon has waited faithfully upon God, and the reward of his faithfulness is that for just a moment he becomes the hearer of Christ.

Mary and Joseph presented Christ in the temple; they presented him to Simeon and Anna. Yet Simeon’s and Anna’s confessions make clear who Jesus is: our salvation, our redemption, the Son of God. The collect for the day reminds us that Christ presents us to God, and in a real sense that is what was happening here; Jesus was presenting his parents to God, to Simeon and Anna.

We make Christ present on this altar, recalling his life, death, and resurrection. But the fact of the matter is that in a deeper sense, Christ is presenting us. We approach his table hand in hand with him, carried by him.

May we, like Simeon and Anna, proclaim our faith in Christ, may we see him here, on the altar, in our lives and in the world around us. May we sing with Simeon:

For mine eyes have seen thy salvation, which thou hast prepared before the face of all people,

To be a light to lighten the Gentiles, and to be the glory of thy people Israel.

Amen.

 

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