The Presentation of Our Lord

I talked several times recently about the Sunday readings shifting to Matthew’s Gospel – we’re now in year A – but today Luke pops up again in our readings. There is a good reason for that. Today, we are 40 days after Christmas, and we celebrate a double event: The Presentation of the Lord and the Purification of the Virgin Mary, and of this double event, we only have an account recorded in Luke’s – who is the author who dwells the longest on Jesus’s childhood.

I am just going to make a few quick remarks since this feast and the Jewish rites they acknowledge aren’t typically well known to Christians, or well understood. The Presentation of the Lord is not to be confounded with the circumcision – that always took place 8 days after the birth of the child. The Presentation is this rite when the first born had to be brought, “presented”, to the Temple as a reminder that every first born (not only human, but cattle and crops) were considered by the Hebrews to belong more specifically to the Lord. A sacrifice had to be offered to “redeem” them, to give something for them in exchange, “a sacrifice”, so you have the right, if you will, to “keep them”. It may seems odd, but not that much if you think about it as an act of Thanksgiving, reminding us that nothing really belongs to us, not even our children, that, in this life, everything and everyone is to be out in the hands of God. It’s also an acknowledgment of the autonomy and freedom of each being: Nobody belongs to anyone, not even their families. Then today, we also talk about Purification. The purification of a young mother is another rite that is part of a set of wider rules in Judaism around the shedding of blood. Blood equal life in the Bible (and we can easily understand why). So if you have lost blood, by disease, menstruation or by giving birth, you have to perform a rite to be purified, to be made whole again once you stop bleeding. You do this rite to re-claim your life as your own.

What I think is worth noticing, in this double rite, is that, as the child is acknowledged to be first God’s possession, and as the mother is made whole again, there is a sense of separation between parents and children. Although a family, each one is called to be his or her own person in front of the Lord. Each one in front of their own destiny.

And to me, among other things, this is what the Gospel is about today: Destiny, fate, facing your own future, your own pain and your own death. They certainly didn’t expect that, correct? Jesus, Mary and Joseph came to worship the Lord, but now they end up with a reading. Simeon shows up and prophetize about the child and his mother and, as if it was not enough, he is followed by Anna, another prophetess, to confirm what he’s just said (In Moses’ law, you needed to have two witnesses to make a story believable). And of course, it’s not just the story of Jesus and Mary, but it’s also about the fate of Simeon himself and of all the people, the Israelites, but also the Gentiles – which meant, at the time, basically: the whole universe.

So what do you think about that? Simeon and Anna’s prophecies? Do you think that what happens in life, from our little dramas to the History of nations, do you think it is all random, it has no reason or no ultimate meaning? You probably wouldn’t be at church if you thought so, right? So what then? Do you think this all written in advance, that God knows exactly what is in store for you, and your life is just the unfolding of a script that has been written in advance? Then, do you also think that all that happen in the world is “part of a plan”? Life, death, sufferings, Mary’s broken heart at the foot of the cross? Mothers losing their children, wars and hate, innocent people being thrown to jail?

Well, as we think about these things, we may want to listen closely to our elders, Simeon and Anna. I think this is great we have them in our readings this week. Because it may be a cliché but yes, even if older people aren’t always prophets, they know something about life that others don’t. They have, as we say, “wisdom”, and it’s very sad to realize that old age is not as much valuated today in our Temples as it was at Jesus’s time. I thought about that recently as a few of us commented on social medias about a church pushing away their older members as they were undergoing renovations to be more “relevant”, to attract younger people and families. Somebody commented: “Is it even a church?”- Because of course, you don’t do that, when you’re a church, you don’t push people away. But it is not only because we should be compassionate to the most vulnerable, it is really because seniors have something unique to offer that actually young families and children need to hear – as it is the case in our Gospel today! And so we need the elders’ “wisdom”…but what does it mean?

What is it that older people really have to offer, have to say about life, death and suffering that the youngest generations need so much to hear? What is this wisdom all about? Is it piety, prophecy, the ability to read the future, or is it something much more simple? Well, I had a glimpse of an answer last Sunday, as I was listening to the Presiding Bishop Michael Curry who preached at the revival in Washington DC.

Bishop Curry was telling this story that, after the royal wedding where he preached his famous sermon about the power of love, he was interviewed by a journalist from TMC – and this is what the journalist said to him: “Our audience is mostly Young Adults, they haven’t lived as long as you did, but they heard about what you said about love, about Jesus and they want to believe it is true, that there is really powerful living in love, they want to believe that love can guide you in life, that love can strengthen you for life, they want to believe that when you are pulled down by reality, like the old folks used to say, “Love can lift you up”. But they don’t have lived as long as you have, and they don’t know if it can really work! Preacher, you preached a good sermon but will it work?”. Bishop Curry said that, when he heard that, he had to stop for a while, and then he responded: I have been around long enough to know and believe that love is the only thing that has ever workedAnd he added: “People who made a difference in your life are the ones who cared”.

I have been around long enough to know and believe that love is the only thing that has ever worked”. People who make a difference aren’t those who are brilliant, rich, beautiful or perfect, people who make a difference are the ones who care.

This is to me, what wisdom is about. It’s not so much piety, prophecy, the ability to read the future. It is to have lived a life where you have witnessed love at work, where you have worked for love, and now you can be a witness that love works, that love is the only thing that really works, for our own lives, for our nations and for the whole world. In the words of the Gospel, in the mouth of old Simeon and old Anna: Love has power to redeem and love has the power to save, because love is God, and God showed us how God’s love works in the life of Jesus – in spite of sufferings, heart breaks and even death – love has the last word.

I think this is what Simeon is telling Mary today. It could seem very cruel to say that to a young woman, to a young mother, that “a sword will pierce her own soul”. Why didn’t Simeon stick with the first part about Jesus, that is really amazing? That Jesus is the salvation, the light and the glory? Why does Simeon add the part about Jesus being the cause for the falling of many, a sign of opposition, and that Jesus will eventually break his mother’s heart?

Well, Simeon says about himself that he is at peace. Because Simeon knows about life, sufferings and death and he knows that it is all part of the plan and he wants Mary to know so she won’t fall into despair when Jesus is rejected, hated and crucified. It is part of the plan.

But what does it mean? “It is all part of the plan” is one of the Christian sayings that is the less understood. We often understand it as “God wanted it”, “It had to happen”. And so we make it sound like horrific things needed to happen, that it was even God’s will that there would be suffering and death and even sin, and hate, wars and disasters. But maybe this is not what Simeon means. It is not what Redemption is about. On the other way around, Redemption means that all those terrible things will be assumed and integrated into something bigger, that love will work everything out for the best, even if it is as cruel as to have your own child tortured and executed in front of you. Life is probably not a script written in advance, but in the light of love, everything can and will make sense, even the cross.

Simeon is at peace in front of life, and so he can be at peace in front of death too. The Letter to the Hebrews we have just read tells us that in Christ the power of death has been destroyed, assumed and overcome, and it is also something we need to be reminded today. When most people think about death as the ultimate failure, Simeon welcomes death with a sense of completion, of accomplishment. And it is not so much about what he has been able to do with his life, it is much more about what he knows what God can do. Or maybe because he knows that there is not a single thing that God cannot do, or, in Bishop Curry’s words, that love is the only thing that has ever worked. So let us live in love. Amen.

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