The Feast of the Presentation is a paradox. It’s one of the oldest feasts in the Church yet one most Christians, and denominations, don’t really observe. It’s also a bit anachronistic in that the days are long gone when we think women need to be purified after giving birth; though there were shades of this in the Book of Common Prayer of the Church of England – compiled during the Reformation – where there was a service called The Churching of Women which sort of had the same idea as the Jewish notion of a new mother needing to be purified. So for many years, 40 days after Christmas, Candlemas was celebrated.
Only the first part of today’s reading deals with the purification aspect. Luke quotes the Old Testament about the First Born being dedicated to the Lord but doesn’t do much with the purification aspect. The presentation in the Temple is motivated by specific requirements of the law of Moses. §According to Leviticus 12, after a woman gives birth to a son, she is impure for forty days. At the end of that period, she is to bring an offering to the temple, which the priest offers as a sacrifice, effecting her purification. Other parts of the Old Testament imply that the first born is dedicated to the Lord. So Luke weaves the idea of Jesus, as first-born, being special to God with the old ritual idea of purification.
An interesting contrast with our own age is that now parents expect to receive gifts when a child is born, then, in gratitude for what had been given them, Mary and Joseph made an offering to God. Given their modest means the sacrifice of two turtle doves was entirely appropriate and probably costly for them. Then the passage gets more interesting with the characters of Simeon and Anna.
Simeon and Anna
We read about Simeon and Anna and forget that the story is actually about Jesus. Simeon was an old man who had been waiting for the Messiah; he had fervently hoped not to die before the Messiah came, in Jesus his hope is fulfilled. Like many men he is reduced to awe when holding the baby, but his insight and reflection is profound. When a child is born many people are bound up in their own hopes and dreams – Simeon is unusual in that he vocalises these hopes and dreams to the parents. In the face of new life we are awestruck. Simeon is brave, however, and tells Mary that her own heart will be pierced. We read this story knowing how it ends, we read those words and think of the Cross. It must have been very brave of Simeon to say all this to a new mother – who knows how she might have reacted. Mary must have been surprised by this encounter – maybe she came to realise later on that, for her as for us, more people are involved in our lives than we realise – the people we love, our neighbours, those with whom we interact, those whom we touch with our kindness. Sadly this realisation often only becomes apparent at funerals when so many threads of a life come together.
We don’t know much about Anna – Luke says she’d spent her life in the Temple serving the Lord; maybe now we’d see her as a saint, maybe we’d see her as a bit strange – maybe the saints were a bit strange. She confirms Simeon’s words and underlines the wider community that surrounded Jesus with love and care.
Drawing the Threads
So we have ideas of sacrificial giving, dreaming, telling the truth and a community that surrounds folk with love. All themes for our church life – all ways of letting light shine in the darkness.
First, giving. Since I’ve been here I’ve been amazed at the generosity of this congregation and how you manage to fund raise for the work of God here, in our Synod and, through our M&M contributions to the wider URC. [I’m told that in the not so distant past that money was tight and others have told me how we were all asked to give sacrificially to the work of God in this place. It’s a testament to your generosity and vision for the future that you rose to that challenge.] The generations before us gave enabling the Church to be here now; we continue to give to fund the work now and to ensure there is a future for those who come after us. Like Mary and Joseph we give what we can in order to give back to God something of what God has given us.
Simeon and Anna were dreamers and devoted servants of God. These dual aspects allowed them to recognise Jesus in their midst. What do we dream? What are our hopes for the future, for our children and grandchildren, for the generations that come after us? What do we dream of for this church? What are our hopes – as we allow our dreams to come, to be shared with other servants of God we start to get a sense of where God is leading us.
Simeon told the truth. It can’t have been easy for him – to tell a new mother that a sword would pierce her heart and that her child would be the cause of much division. Sometimes we know we have to tell the truth – and sometimes that can be hard. Whether it’s telling the truth to power, telling the truth to ourselves, telling the truth to others we need to pray to have Simeon’s wisdom and strength.
And, finally, there is this wider community that care for Jesus. Anna and Simeon were strangers, yet part of the community of faith and they felt able to come and speak to Mary and Joseph. In the Church we’re about building community – that doesn’t mean we like everyone but it does mean we are called to love everyone. Here all are welcomed, here all are called to be disciples, here all are loved and valued, here we may be told the truth in the hope it will change and challenge us and enable us to be lights in our dark world which point to Jesus, the one we celebrate this and every Sunday.