The Presentation at the Temple
The timing of our different festivals in late December and early January has always confused me slightly. After celebrating the birth of Christ on 25 December, we celebrate the coming of the magi roughly 2 weeks later, when it is possible that Jesus was 2 – 3 years old, before celebrating his baptism – which we know happened when he was about 30 years old a week later. Today we revert to counting back to his possible date of birth and moving on 40 days, which takes us to 2 February, when we celebrate his presentation at the temple. After this, things settle down a bit, however, and in just over 2 weeks’ time from now we shall again return to his adult life and start on the 40 days of Lent leading us up to Easter.
In thinking of today’s festival, it is interesting to speculate on what the attitude of Joseph and Mary must have been towards their infant son. Although they received, and most certainly believed and obeyed the messages brought to them by the angel, I can’t help feeling that that they perhaps put the message to the backs of their minds and cared for Jesus as a normal child. They do appear to be fulfilling the requirements of the law just as they would for a normal baby, and, as any new mother will tell you a normal baby gives you quite enough to think about and do without considering how God’s son should be raised. I think this is likely, and relevant to our thoughts today, since it is more than likely that when Simeon first saw Jesus and recognised who he really was, in all likelihood what he saw was a crying baby. I have never been too happy with the line in the Christmas carol that tells us that ‘Little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes’. We know that Jesus felt hunger and thirst, fatigue and most certainly pain, and a baby has no way of making known how he feels other than by crying, although I am told that babies start to smile and make different sounds at around 5 weeks old, and at 6 weeks are beginning to be able to lift their heads a little. Their eyesight is also improving, so that they begin to take more notice in what is going on around them, so it is possible that Simeon met a baby who was as interested in him as he was in the baby.
In a homily on this subject a couple of years ago, Pope Francis pointed out that we see the major characters in our gospel reading in two different attitudes. The first attitude for each of them is one of movement. They had all made a conscious effort to come to the temple on that particular day. Mary and Joseph had come to offer the required sacrifice to ‘redeem’ their first-born son, as the law required, as since the Passover, all firstborns had belonged to God, and needed to be ‘bought’ back. Mary also was required to undergo purification after childbirth, which was specified to be carried out 40 days after the birth. So it was that Mary and Joseph had made the journey to Jerusalem – probably from Bethlehem, which was about 6 miles from Jerusalem, as we know that they were still there when the magi arrived – some time later. Simeon, we are told was moved by the Holy Spirit to come to the temple on that day, and as he believed that he would not die before seeing God’s Messiah, and we think that he was by then old, he must have come with some expectation of an encounter. We are told less about Anna, but we do know that she was a prophet, of a great age and that she seldom left the temple, spending her time in prayer and worship. She had already come to the right building, but also managed to come to the right people within that large and crowded place.
All four of these had moved in obedience to God, and the lesson for us is that we too should be prepared to move. We cannot always expect people to come to us inside the building that we love so much – perhaps we should be more motivated to take what we believe out into the places where the people are, and where they feel comfortable. Our faith needs dynamism – and we must be ready to be moved – as Simeon was – by the Spirit to take our faith where God wants us to go. If Simeon had decided to stay at home on that day, he would have missed the encounter. Fear of missing out – FOMO – is a 21st century phrase but has always been relevant. We must be prepared to go to where God is at work, or we may miss out.
The second attitude in which we find our characters today is one of wonder. To Mary and Joseph, this must have been a simple requirement of their faith that they attend at the temple in Jerusalem to make the required sacrifices. To Simeon, the day may have already been one of anticipation, as he knew that God was moving him to go to the temple for a purpose and believing that one day he would see God’s promised one, must have made almost every day one of excited anticipation. For Anna, the place where she found the greatest joy was where she already was – worshipping God in the temple as she did daily.
The temple that is mentioned in our reading is the one known as the second temple, or Herod’s temple. It was originally rebuilt during and after the time of exile, and the account of this can be found in the book of Ezra. King Herod extended and embellished this temple to such an extent that it appears not to have been completely finished by the time of his death in 4AD, and so it is possible that the outer court – or court of the gentiles – which was the largest part, was not only a busy marketplace, but also possibly still something of a building site. God can be found in the noisy busy places, as well as in stillness, and so it happened on the day in question.
Whichever part of the temple this meeting took place in, it would have been full of people busy about their business, and yet in the midst of it all, Simeon and Anna found Mary and Joseph and their baby, and recognised the significance. They were moved initially to praise and wonder, after which Simeon went on to deliver disturbing words of prophecy to Mary, while Anna was moved to worship, and to sharing the good news of what she had seen with everyone she met, just as the shepherds had done on that first Christmas night. We are not told much about the reaction of Mary and Joseph, but just as in the encounter with the shepherds, surely they were inspired to the same sense of wonder by these encounters, and again, as with the visit of the shepherds stored all these things in their hearts, and pondered them.
The attitude of wonder again should strike us, as it struck these four, very different people. Just as we must allow ourselves to be moved by the Spirit as they were, so we must also take with us the sense of wonder that they surely felt. Anna could barely control herself – we are told that she told everyone about the child. Have we perhaps grown a little complacent in our faith? Do we have the excitement that Anna had? Excitement is not exclusively reserved for the young as she shows, and there is nothing more infectious than sharing someone’s enthusiasm. Does our enthusiasm shine out when we leave this place and talk with our friends? How different would the effect be on others, if everyone who was in church on Sundays burst out with renewed enthusiasm and excitement about meeting with God. Something to ponder in our hearts perhaps?