“Light Whose Brilliance is Eternal”
The Presentation of Our Lord
Childbirth is more admirable than conquest,more amazing than self-defense, and as courageous as either one.Gloria Steinem, early feminist leader, now 87 years old, who, actually, never experienced childbirth, yet knows this.
Mary gave admirable and amazing birth to Jesus.
And, 40 days later, she and her husband, Joseph, journey to Jerusalem,
to the Temple, as we read, “to present him to the Lord”
and “to do for him what was customary under the law.”
Well, what was customary under the law?
The law in question is found in the book of Leviticus, chapter 12.
The Book of Leviticus, third book of the Old Testament,
named such because it deals largely with concerns of Levite priests,
developed over a long period of time, until its present form, early 300s BC,
mainly treats of legal, moral and ritual practices—lots of them!
Regarding childbirth, we read (bear with me: complex!):
If a woman conceives and bears a male child,
she shall be ceremonially unclean for seven days.
On the eighth day, the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised.
Her time of blood purification shall be thirty-three days;
she shall not touch any holy thing, or come into the sanctuary…
When the days of her purification are completed…
she shall bring to the priest at the entrance of the tent of meeting a lamb.
If she cannot afford a lamb, she shall take two turtle-doves or two pigeons, one for a burnt-offering and the other for a sin-offering;
and the priest shall make atonement on her behalf, and she shall be clean.
8 + 33 days, i.e., 40 days, have passed:
circumcision, Mary’s purification,
the offering of the poor who cannot afford a lamb.
More deeply than mere observance of tradition, however,
Mary and Joseph are coming to the Temple
because their hearts are exploding with gratitude and joy
and they want to share the gift with their community.
Saint Bernard (not the breed of dog, but the 12th-century French mystic),
in a homily preached on this feast, speaking to Mary, says:
“Present to the Lord the blessed fruit of your womb.
Give for the reconciliation of us all
the holy Offering which is pleasing to God”.
And who is there, first in line, to receive the gift?
Two people, older adults:
Simeon, the “righteous and devout man”
and “a prophetess, Anna, the daughter of Phanuel,
of the tribe of Asher”, 84-years-old.
We know little about either of them (only mentioned in this Scripture).
Simeon “came into the temple”. Anna “never left the temple”.
Simeon was “looking forward to the consolation of Israel.”
Anna was “looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.”
They were watchers. They kept vigil. They had their eyes and hearts peeled.
We are like them regarding the Second Coming of Jesus.
As we proclaim in Eucharistic Prayer II, we are
“looking forward to His coming again with power and great glory”.
Saint Peter (2 Peter 3:13) says, “according to God’s promise,
we are looking for new heavens and a new earth.”
They watched, but it is unclear
how much they knew exactly for what they were watching.
“Consolation” and “Redemption” are big categories.
Whatever the case may be, the salvation history with which they were familiar culminates in a baby, a baby who melts hearts, and upends expectations,
Lutheran minister Nadia Bolz-Weber, whom I have previously quoted, says
Babies give us a blessing of innocence, of what is possible,
of a moment when we are blessedly free of cynicism.
Babies remind us that there is hope, babies minister to us
in a way that words and even actions never can, like pre-verbal love, like primordial priests wrapped in cotton blankets.
This epiphany is God declaring “this is how I want to be experienced,
that you not fear, vulnerable that you may finally be vulnerable with me”.
Which perhaps leads to the question, for us,
“Where do I look for redemption?”
With the psalmist (psalm 121:1), we ask “from where does my help come?”
Truth be told, Jesus can fade from my horizon
and I sometimes look in other places: my good deeds,
significant relationship(s), political activity, the approval of others,
healthy habits, good planning and tight processes, my self-awareness...
And yet I know that none of these are sources of redemption.
How small we sometimes think—even in the Church.
At one end of the spectrum,
redemption that is purely personal and somewhat detached from the world.
At the other end of the spectrum,
redemption that is synonymous with a political “justice” agenda,
societal and having little to do with conversion of the heart.
You will notice here, with Simeon and Anna,
that redemption, salvation is personal and communal.
This baby, ultimately as adult to give his life and rise from the dead,
saves me from my innermost darkness and,
through each of us and together, saves the community from its darkness.
Simeon and Anna break out in song
because God in Christ touches and renews everything.
Their praises echo in our midst.
Let us ask them to help us prepare ourselves to receive the gift of Jesus,
vulnerable like a child, in the Eucharist.
Let us, as Saint Sophronius, Patriarch of Jerusalem in the early 600s,
preached on this feast:
be shining ourselves as we go together to meet
and to receive, with the aged Simeon,
the light whose brilliance is eternal.