This Is How Brave We Have To Be
Today we celebrate the Feast of the Presentation of Our Lord in the Temple, a feast that only happens on a Sunday once every decade, so it’s worth paying attention to.
There are four feasts relating to the birth of Jesus. The first, of course, is Christmas. Then there is the Feast of the Holy Name on January 1, eight days after Christmas, when Jesus was named by his parents and circumcised according to Jewish tradition. On January 6 we have Epiphany, when the wise men arrived to worship Jesus.
Then we have today, the Presentation, also known as Candlemas because on this day priests used to bless candles for people to burn in their homes throughout the year.
If anyone wants me to bless your iPhone flashlight, just let me know.
The Presentation is always celebrated on February 2, exactly forty days after Christmas, because this is when Mary and Joseph were prescribed by the law of Moses to present their firstborn child in the temple and offer a sacrifice. This was also Mary’s opportunity to be purified after childbirth.
It’s worth noting that of the sacrifices Mary and Joseph could have offered in the temple, they offer a pair of turtledoves and two young pigeons. That’s specifically the sacrifice that’s written in the law of Moses for poor people to offer.
It’s the only concrete evidence we have of Jesus’ economic status as a child, and it’s a powerful characterization of Mary and Joseph.
It tells us that they only had the money to offer the most humble form of sacrifice, but that even given how poor they were, they prioritized making the journey to the Jerusalem temple because it mattered that much to them to observe the rites of their religion.
We call this the Feast of the Presentation, and we use our white vestments and white paraments.
We usually think of feasts as joyful times.
But as one of the members of my sermon group pointed out this week, this story is full of beautiful sadness.
It’s a complex mix of endings and beginnings and love and sacrifice.
And one thing we see above all else is that the experience of the presence of God is to be so cherished and relished because it can feel so very brief.
Consider Simeon first.
Here is a man who has literally waited his entire life for this moment.
What has gotten him up every day to perform his duties in the temple?
What has motivated him to keep pushing on as his body got older and harder to move around?
He believed in the promise of the Holy Spirit, that he would see the Messiah before he died.
Anna’s story was similar.
If she was like most girls in Israel, she would have married no later than fifteen years old.
The gospel says she was widowed after seven years with her husband, which would put her at age twenty-two.
She lived in the temple, fasting and praying, for the next sixty-two years, waiting for how God would be revealed to her.
Can you imagine literally living at church for sixty-two years?
The patience and devotion of Anna and Simeon knock me out.
It actually goes way beyond patience and becomes dogged determination to see the face of God.
Anna and Simeon are like Jacob wrestling with the angel—they will not let go until they have obtained a blessing.
And it all pays off.
Today is the day Mary and Joseph walk into the Temple with baby Jesus, and they instantly know this is the Messiah and break forth with joy.
Consider what kind of spiritual depth and sensitivity it would take to recognize that yes, this is moment I have been waiting for for fifty, sixty, seventy years.
If I have to wait for something longer than six months I either a. lose patience and forget about it, b. get distracted and move on to something else, or c. keep praying but privately doubt it will ever happen.
Anna and Simeon do not fall prey to these temptations.
Their longing for the coming of the Messiah is as fresh as when it first welled up when they were very young.
But their spirits are so awake and ready that they have no hesitation or trouble recognizing that of all the babies born that winter and brought to present in the Temple according to the law, this is the one who will be the consolation of Israel.
I long to have a soul that is that full of depth and patience and yet that alert to the changing winds of the Holy Spirit.
That is the type of soul that greets salvation with joy.
But what happens to Anna and Simeon the day after Jesus is presented and Mary and Joseph go home to Nazareth?
My first thought was that if I had waited my entire life to find someone and then suddenly it happened, I would never let that person out of my sight again.
Why didn’t Anna and Simeon follow Mary and Joseph home?
Why didn’t they chase after Jesus?
After that one perfect moment of praise and revelation, how could they bear to let him go?
They bore it because they were people of rare spiritual maturity.
We can learn a lot from their example.
Interestingly, they handled it in different ways.
Simeon knew that holding baby Jesus in his arms was the absolute pinnacle of his entire life. He had kept the faith for so many years and devotedly worked in the Temple, and so he sings out his praise to God with a great deal of finality.
He is ready to die after this moment.
He gives thanks to God for letting him, God’s servant, depart this earthly life in peace.
Simeon is a witness to what it means to know that a task is finished, to celebrate the ending of an era, to die well.
Simeon relishes the moment of finding the Messiah, but does not cling on to it and try to follow him home.
He celebrates it and then lets go to begin the next phase of his journey, the journey of life after death.
Anna, however, has not finished her task.
When she experienced the Messiah, her energy was immediately renewed and she was compelled to share the news with everyone she met. Even at the age of eighty-four, she was proclaiming the gospel with the enthusiasm and joy of someone who had experienced it to her core.
Like Simeon, although she might have been tempted, I know I would have been, she did not follow Mary and Joseph back to Nazareth.
She took that moment of revelation and joy and used it to stay in the temple and invite others into the story.
It is such an unselfish act, and I hope to learn that type of spiritual generosity myself someday.
It is so easy to clutch the presence of Jesus to ourselves, to hoard grace, to stockpile signs of the Holy Spirit.
But we see from Anna and Simeon that that is not the right path.
We have to hold our experiences of the holy lightly, ready to give them away to others whose need is not yet fed.
Anna is a shining example of the spirituality of absence.
She spent most of her life praying for an experience of the holy, living in a place of spiritual wilderness.
She had no consolation, no confirmation that her hopes would one day come true. She simply persevered in prayer until the great day came.
But something about that life in the spiritual wilderness must have formed a trust and an ability to risk that was rooted deeply in her, because she let go of the mountaintop experience as easily as she accepted it.
Her mission of spreading the gospel was enabled precisely because she was willing to courageously re-enter the spiritual loneliness and hunger she had borne for so long.
The wilderness was a fruitful place for Anna, and in the end she returned to it out of a spirit of love, that others might hear the Good News of Jesus Christ.
So when we find ourselves wondering where God is, why we can’t feel God’s presence, we might consider whether we, like Anna, are in exactly the right place to be empowered for the work God has called us to do.
The only people braver in this story than Anna and Simeon are Mary and Joseph.
Consider the risk they were taking by even bringing Jesus to the Temple.
The shepherds and the wise men knew about him, but they were just visitors and not power brokers within Israel.
Mary and Joseph have essentially had Jesus to themselves for forty days. Now, at only five weeks old, they bring him to the Temple.
What will happen?
What if no one recognizes Jesus as the Messiah, but instead the whole family is stoned and executed for blasphemy for proclaiming him the Anointed?
What if Jesus is recognized as the Messiah, but a couple of poor nobodies like Mary and Joseph are not deemed worthy to care for him?
What if the religious authorities take Jesus away from Mary and Joseph to be raised in the Temple?
Every time I think Mary and Joseph can’t show any more courage than they already have, they do something like risk losing everything by walking into a potential lion’s den with a five week old baby.
Like Anna and Simeon, they are not selfish with Jesus’ presence.
They have had these precious five weeks with him, and from now on, each event that happens will take him a little further away from them.
He is their baby boy, but they know in their hearts he does not belong only to them.
He belongs to Israel, to all of humanity, and they must face each letting go, each moment Jesus is in more danger from the powerful, each moment Jesus wrestles with the great power that lies within him, with the same courage they have had to call up since the first visit from Gabriel.
They are even promised a road of grief and tragedy by Simeon himself. “This child is destined for the falling and the 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.”
What kind of courage does it take to look down the road and see the cost of letting Jesus be who he is meant to be and do what he is meant to do?
What kind of bravery and strength does it take to know that there will be unendurable grief and loss that is the price of the wonder and love that come with being in relationship with Jesus?
The same courage that we must summon within ourselves to walk the fullness of the spiritual path.
The road to resurrection does not go anywhere but straight through the cross.
Today is the Feast of the Presentation, a day whose story is marked with a beautiful sadness and the witness of four people whose steadfast faith over years of waiting for God leaves us in awe, surpassed only by their selfless courage in letting go of the grace given to them so it might be shared with others.
As Jesus’ parents offered and presented their child to God today, let us, with the same courage, offer and present our hearts to God, with a prayer that we too might be brave enough to give Jesus away to a world in need.