Feast of the Presentation

Three characters in different places in their spiritual journey and a startling prophecy made by one of them make the story of the Presentation a defining moment in the arc of the Gospel narrative.

Of the four Gospels, Luke’s is the only one that tells the story of the Presentation. Mary and Joseph bring Jesus to the Temple forty days after his birth, to dedicate him to the Lord.

It was the custom, in those days, for those who followed the laws of Moses, to bring their first-born son to the Temple for this purpose. The first son, it was thought, opened the mother’s womb, and so this was a special moment of arrival—and departure—for Mary.

The reason we celebrate the Feast of the Presentation every year on February 2 every year is that it is forty days after Christmas. This year February 2 falls on a Sunday, and so we replace the assigned readings for Sunday with those assigned for the Presentation. The forty days between Christmas and the Presentation symbolize a time of purification for the new mother, a time in which she could rest and suckle her child, and let her body heal.

So it wasn’t only the child that went through a rite of passage when he was presented at the Temple. The mother did too.

I imagine Mary, dazed and expectant, as she and Joseph approach the Temple. Now, in the presence of God, she would be affirmed and strengthened as a new mother.

It’s helpful to remember at this point that Mary has only begun to live into her call to be the mother of Jesus. It is less than a year since the angel Gabriel appeared to her and told her she would conceive and bear a son who would be the Messiah. Mary could not have discerned the full meaning of that call just by watching her pregnant body change.

Luke tells the story of Mary’s developing sense of call, and its deepening over time, by pairing her with other characters in his Gospel narrative—older characters who sense the magnificence of Mary’s call and help her grow into it just by being present to her, and letting the Spirit guide their words.

One of those characters was her cousin Elizabeth, whose pregnancy at an advanced age Gabriel had revealed to Mary. When Mary went to see Elizabeth, Elizabeth’s baby stirred inside her and she was filled with the Spirit. Elizabeth was the first person to ever say, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” Elizabeth’s greeting provoked the young Mary to acknowledge God’s singular blessing on her. “From now on, all generations will call me blessed, for the Almighty has done great things for me.”

In our story today, Mary does not speak. Luke has paired her with two older characters, Anna and Simeon. Luke does not record what Anna said when she sees Mary and the infant Jesus. He only says that Anna starts telling everyone who still hopes for God to come and save them that the Savior, the Messiah, has come at last, and that he is with them, in the Temple, this very moment.

The other character paired with Mary is Simeon, whose words Luke does record, words that have become such a part of Christian worship that many of us know them by heart. “Lord you now have set your servant free to go in peace as you have promised. For these eyes of mine have seen the Savior whom you have prepared all the world to see. A light to enlighten the nations and the glory of your people Israel.”

It’s easy for us moderns to miss what going on in Simeon’s prayer. The Holy Spirit has already revealed to him that he would see the salvation of God before he dies. When he takes Jesus into his arms he realizes salvation has come in the child he is holding, the child whose name (Jesus/Joshua) literally means….God saves. Simeon is not talking about an abstract concept or theory of salvation. He is talking about Jesus. The Spirit moving inside of him is revealing not only to Simeon, but to Mary and Joseph and everyone who can hear him, the truth of who Jesus is.

In Eugene Peterson’s translation of Luke’s Gospel, we read that “Jesus’ father and mother were speechless with surprise at these words.” Simeon—and the Holy Spirit working through him—has given Mary and Joseph a revelation even more powerful than the story the shepherds brought with them to the stable, about how they heard the whole company of angels singing “Glory to God,” and how they were told to go down to Bethlehem and see for themselves “this thing that has happened.” Simeon’s revelation was a sign that everything Mary and Joseph had been told that night was true—and it was a sign of things to come.

It is perhaps significant that after he blesses Jesus’ parents, Simeon turns to Mary and tells her that her child will be the rising and the falling of many—that he will be misunderstood and rejected. The pain Mary will endure as a result will feel like a sword’s thrust right into her heart.

I sometimes think that Michelangelo’s Pieta, which I saw at the Basilica of St. Peter’s when I visited the Vatican, is meant to capture the trajectory of Simeon’s prophecy to Mary. When you look at the sculpture, the first thing you see is the crucified body of Jesus lying in Mary’s arms. As your eyes move to Mary’s face you see her looking down toward Jesus’ body. But then when you look more closely, you see that this Mary is young; she is not old enough to be the mother of a 33-year old. And then you see that Mary is not looking at her grown son’s face. She is looking at her arm, where the baby Jesus had once been, her gaze still fixed on the beautiful sweet face that Simeon had told her was the fulfillment of God’s promise of salvation.

To me Michelangelo’s Pieta captures the essence of Simeon’s prophecy and where I imagine Mary’s faith ultimately led her. I want to think that in that terrible moment after Jesus had been brought down from the cross, Mary did see God’s plan of salvation being worked out, even though she couldn’t have known then what that would look like come Easter morning.

Simeon has one more thing to say to Mary about what will become of her son. This is how Eugene Peterson translates it in The Message: “But the rejection will force honesty, as God reveals who they really are.”

The truth of who we really are, revealed by the love of Christ, who gave himself over to suffering and the cross, for our sake.

The truth of who Jesus is forces us to see ourselves for who and what we are. When we are in the light, as the Quakers tell us, we see the light of Christ in us and we live in that light. All our actions, in the light. All our thoughts, in the light. Where there is shadow, we seek more light. Living in the light is how we stay clear about who we are, and whose we are. It’s how we stay honest with ourselves and others. When we live in the light, the truth of who Jesus is, is revealed in us, and through us to the world.

So we should not be surprised if we experience rejection when we are striving to live out the call God has for us. I was told, when I was in the ordination process, that if people were offended by my decision to face into my call, not to be hurt by it, but to see it as a possible confirmation that God was indeed calling me to be a priest.

This is what God wants, and what our scriptures are telling us today—that we are all called by God for a purpose that only we can fulfill. If we don’t live out that purpose, the world will be poorer for it. Each of us needs an Elizabeth, an Anna, and a Simeon, to help us see and trust the Christ that is within us, the Christ that is our true light and the light of the world.

Thank you, God, for all those who have lit our path with their presence: for their care and their hope and their honesty. Give us grace in the days ahead to be attentive to those you have sent to light our way, including those who do not see us the way we see ourselves, and those who make us think hard about who we really are, and why we are here. And help us recognize when someone needs us to be an Elizabeth, an Anna, or a Simeon for them.

All this we ask in the name of Jesus.