Epiphany 4 The Presentation February 2, 2020
This Sunday is called the Presentation of our Lord in the Temple. We find the Holy Family in today's Gospel passage, moving through the crowds of Jerusalem with an infant in tow, headed to the Temple to fulfill a ritual obligation.
Then, as they enter the temple, a man steps into their path. A stranger, but there must have been something about him because Mary places her precious child into his arms. Joseph stands there, holding the turtledoves for the offering as the crowds in the temple courtyard rush past.
The old man is thrilled, he is praising God, saying something to himself about light and promises and the Gentiles. Mary can tell from his expression: he knows something. He knows who her son truly is.
Then Anna comes by. She is a widow who worships in the Temple night and day. She sees the baby and begins to praise God. She knows that something special is going on.
but this is not the end of the encounter. Simeon looks at the hopeful face of Jesus' mother and utters the words she must hear, the words that she never wanted to hear: "This child is destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed--and a sword will pierce your own soul too."
So, it is a confusing time in our celebration of the Feast of the Presentation. Is it a joyful occasion? Or a somber one? Can we ever understand those two experiences in this Christian journey? Seeing the baby Jesus and knowing that He must die.
There is much gladness, to be sure, in Simeon's meeting with the Christ Child. But there is also pain, or a promise of pain: those haunting words, "a sword will pierce your own soul too." The child destined for glory is also destined for suffering. Is Mary aware of all this?
There is no escaping the fact: someday her baby will come back to Jerusalem for another purpose. And it will not have a happy ending. The temple priests who bless her son today will one day seek to crucify Him. And there is no turning back.
This meeting is 2000 years old. But this scene could still seem familiar to us, rushing as we do through the crowded marketplace of 21st century life. We know what it is like to go about our business, focusing on the task at hand, distracted by a toothache or a heartbreak or rumors of war. And just when we start to get lost in our own confusing life, a stranger bumps into us and tells us something we needed to hear.
It might be a kind word; it might be a sobering one. But it is something true, something that jolts us back into an understanding that our lives are not simply our own private drama to be enacted according to our preferences.
We are part of a larger story, one that contains all manner of joy and sorrow, and the world will draw us into that story whether we like it or not. A sword will pierce our own souls, too, and sometimes we must be reminded of that.
As followers of Jesus, in fact, we must pursue these hard and surprising encounters--we must follow the Christ Child into the temple and see who we might encounter there to tell us about ourselves. We do this in any number of ways--maybe by going out into the community to serve others, or by taking a stand on issues of justice.
We know that if we don't make ourselves available, the Simeons and the Annas of the world will never find us. We will never rejoice with them; we will never see what they see; we will never understand ourselves through the reflection of their piercing gaze.
And so, on this day, on a feast that contains both joy and sorrow, in a temple that contains both blessing and burden, we learn this: in this life there is much to be found. Some of it is wonderful, and some of it is disturbing. There are strangers around every corner, and every so often, one of them will stop us in our tracks and change our story forever.
We push our way through the crowded streets with the Holy Family making our way to the Temple. We hear some wonderful news from a stranger, then we hear some serious warnings. We decide to continue our spiritual journey, or we run and hide.
But it is time to listen to the stranger. He or she may know something that we need to hear.