Presentation of Our Lord: Mary, Simeon, and Anna--Three Windows onto the Life of Faith
A Sermon Preached at the Cathedral Church of St. Mark.
Feast of the Presentation
The Reverend Tyler B. Doherty, Priest-in-Charge
Today, we celebrate the Feast of the Presentation of Our Lord, also known as Candlemas. Like all the Feast of the Epiphany season, it’s a celebration of light—the light of God’s divine love that bursts forth in the person of his only son Jesus Christ—God’s unique disclosure to God’s people in human form.
I want to tease out some dimensions of this story from three different perspectives—Mary and Child, Simeon, and the Prophetess Anna the one whom we hear never leaves the Temple. Candlemas is Feast that speaks to a reality that’s going on right here and right now in this very place. The challenge is to see and live from the reality to which Candlemas points, and to resist the temptation to treat it as something akin to those opening lines of Star Wars: “Long ago in a galaxy far, far away….” God spoke, and God is still speaking to us through the Holy Scriptures and it’s our job as a listening people be “all ears,” to hear the good news that’s being proclaimed through the unlikely vehicle of a teenage Palestinian girl from the boonies, her carpenter husband, a wizened old man and an ancient old woman whom at first glance seems to need to get out a little more.
According to the Torah, the presentation is a day when in accordance with Jewish tradition a new mother brings her child to be presented to God in the Temple forty days after the birth. It’s a ritual that enacts the purification of the mother and the dedication of the child to the Temple—that mother and child might put God first in their lives. So that’s the first dimension to notice—that the Presentation of Our Lord gestures at what we put first in our life, what’s of true significance, what, as Paul Tillich says, is our “matter of ultimate concern.” For Tillich, the great besetting sin of humanity is the tendency to make Ultimate what is secondary or tertiary. The Scriptural word for that is idolatry, “You shall have no other Gods before me.”
Time and again, however, human beings mistake the creature for the creator. They fashion Golden Calves in a moment of panic when Moses ascends into the cloud on Sinai and doesn’t immediately return. The Israelites want something tangible, known, controllable, possessable, instead of peering up into the dark cloud where Moses is communing with God. It’s significant that they fashion for themselves a golden calf to worship out their own jewelry. They literally make God out of their own possessions. The otherness, the transcendence, the strange in-breaking reality of God gets domesticated and turned into a pocket charm.
So the Presentation of Our Lord asks us that powerful, idol-smashing question—“What, as individuals, as a Church family, as a city and nation do we put first? What is our matter of Ultimate Concern?” Will we present ourselves at the Temple and allow the purifying fire of God’s love for us melt away all that is not love in us? Will we allow the fuller’s soap of God’s indiscriminate hospitality and radical welcome of us cleanse of everything that prevents us from being that indiscriminate hospitality and radical welcome for others?
In his Sermon on the First Epistle of John 4:4-12 Augustine writes, “Love and do what you will. Whether you hold your peace, through love hold your peace. Whether you cry out, through love cry out. Whether you correct, through love correct. Whether you spare, through love must you spare. Let the root of love be within. For of this root nothing can come except that which is good.” That’s the first piece of the Presentation—to make love—knowing ourselves to be loved and being that love for others—our matter of Ultimate Concern. “Let the root of love be within,” exhorts Augustine. Water that root of love—in worship, in daily prayer, in dwelling on the scriptures, in serving others—then more and more everything will spring from that fertile ground.
Now we come to wizened old Simeon. He, too, sheds a little light on the meaning of Candlemas for us. Simeon is figure who first and foremost proclaims freedom. Freedom from political oppression under the Romans, but also the freedom that we hear proclaimed in the Letter to the Hebrews, the freedom from the “slavery by the fear of death.” In the Orthodox tradition, Simeon is known as the “God-receiver” and icons depict him as gazing into the eyes of the child Jesus who is cradled lovingly in his arms. Simeon, then is a figure for us of cradling Jesus, of tending to the root of love within. It’s like when Davison or Naomi or Justin are passed around in church or at coffee hour. The world stops for whoever is holding the baby and they have eyes only for them. Simeon is an icon for that kind of single-mindedness of focus, of a life devoted and centered on Jesus—that his life might become ours, that his love might flow through us, that the root of Him might branch and flower in us and for others. We learn, through Simeon, that the freedom he proclaims is the fruit of love. Love is what breeds the freedom of fearlessness—both in terms in slavery to the fear of death, but also as disciples to God where Jesus goes in his mission to the margins.
When the Montgomery Bus Boycott was starting, Dr. King was getting up to 40 calls a day telling him, “Call off the boycott or die.” On Friday, January 27, 1956 he got chilling call that shook him to the core, “Leave Montgomery immediately if you have no wish to die.” Coretta was asleep, and King hung up the receiver with shaking hands, walked to the kitchen, put on a pot of coffee and sat down at his kitchen table. He recounts the experience in Stride Toward Freedom,
I was ready to give up. With my cup of coffee sitting untouched before me, I tried to think of a way to move out of the picture without appearing a coward. In this state of exhaustion, when my courage had all but gone, I decided to take my problem to God. With my head in my hands, I bowed over the kitchen table and prayed aloud. The words I spoke to God that midnight are still vivid in my memory. "I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right. But now I am afraid. The people are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength and courage, they too will falter. I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left. I've come to the point where I can't face it alone. At that moment, I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never experienced God before. It seemed as though I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice saying: "Stand up for justice, stand up for truth; and God will be at your side forever." Almost at once my fears began to go. My uncertainty disappeared. I was ready to face anything.
Three days later a bomb exploded at his house and his family barely escaped death. But King’s response was remarkable, spirit-filled. “Strangely enough, he writes, “I accepted the word of the bombing calmly. My religious experience a few nights before had given me strength to face it.” That is the kind of freedom that Simeon proclaims. It’s not that life is going to be easy. Indeed, Simeon tells the new mother Mary that, “a sword will pierce your soul.” Hardly what you want to hear as you show your newborn around! But Simeon and King both show us that God will give us the strength through the Holy Spirit to face what we need to face confident that God is always at our side.
Finally, we come to the prophetess Anna who we hear, “never left the temple but worshipped there with fasting and prayer night and day.” What does this mean, “to never leave the temple?” I remember doing a 10-day silent retreat one time and the retreat leader said something powerful. “We’ll gather here for silent prayer together seven times a day, but when you walk out of the chapel make sure you don’t leave the chapel.” His point was clear. Whether we were napping in our rooms, cleaning toilets, painting a hallway, eating in the dining hall, going for a stroll around the lake, we were never to leave the temple. Anna is an icon for us for a life lived in the continuous presence of God. How can walking up a set of stairs to our office, going shopping at the grocery, driving a car, changing a diaper, testifying at the legislature, or fixing a meal be done in such a way that we never leave the temple? Anna reminds us that when we are rooted and grounded in love, we recognize Jesus even among the pots and pans, even packing boxes of food down at Hildegarde’s, or serving the families who will eat and sleep with us this week for Family Promise.
Just to recap the three emphases of the Presentation of Our Lord. First, Mary asks us to ponder what is our matter of Ultimate Concern. Second, Simeon reminds us that we too are God-receivers and that we become more like the light into whose yes we gaze that we might be that light for others. And, third, Anna is a sign for us that God’s presence is everywhere that even the most mundane of tasks can be sacramental if we have eyes to see and ears to hear. I’ll close a prayer from Guerric of Igny, an 12th century French Cistercian abbot who captures Candlemas and its call to us beautifully:
Behold then, the candle alight in Simeon's hands. You must light your own candles by enkindling them at his, 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.