feast of the presentation

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Luke 2:22-40

When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, the parents of Jesus brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”), and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”

Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying,

“Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word;
for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.”

And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “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.”

There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.

When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.

 

A Sermon Preached

The Rev. Kristin Uffelman White

The Presentation of Christ – February 2, 2014

St. Augustine’s Episcopal Church Wilmette, Illinois

 James Jacques Tissot painted the watercolor depicting today’s gospel story sometime after 1885, after his own conversion of heart during the French Revival.  He had some kind of a mystical vision in that time, one that prompted his return to the faith of his childhood.

In Tissot’s painting, the parents stand in the Temple. Joseph holds a cage that contains their modest offering – two doves, given in thanks for the birth of their son.  They stand on the steps, facing the prophet Simeon, who holds their child, exalting, his arms up.  I can look at that image, almost too lifelike to believe it could be watercolor…I look it, and can imagine Simeon’s words in the form of a song:

Lord, let us now depart in peace, according to your word;

For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared before the face of all people;

To be a light, to lighten the Gentiles,

and to be the glory of your people, Israel.

Lord, it is enough.  I have seen him.  I can go.

There is more, though.  As with any good master painter, there is more to see.  Because Simeon is not the only prophet in the Temple when Christ is presented, 40 days after his birth.  The prophet Anna is there too.  By Tissot’s imagination, Anna stands at the base of the stairs, looking up at Simeon, looking up at Jesus.  The scripture tells us that she is the daughter of Phanuel, from the tribe of Asher…that she’s elderly, now 84 years old…that she lives in the Temple, where she worships and fasts and prays, day and night.  The scripture passage tells us that at the moment when Simeon sings his song, Anna begins to praise God, to proclaim Jesus to those who are looking for redemption.  Tissot sums all this up in the gesture he attributes to that prophet, Anna: her arms are up, and out: the posture of celebration, the posture of crucifixion, the posture of salvation.

One of the great heresies of the Church is known as Gnosticism.  Really a collection of variously-formed beliefs rather than a singular set code, Gnosticism encourages the idea that we should shun the physical, material world, in favor of embracing that which is spiritual, pure.  Broadly speaking, it teaches that those two realms are distinct and must be separated.  The mind is believed holy, the body, corrupt.  God is sacred…creation, profane.

That posed some difficulties in the life of Jesus, with the belief of God taking human form. People created explanations that took God out of the body of Christ, protected the Divine from corruption found in the physical form.  And gnostic practice took on some interesting expressions at times, as people tried to punish their physical bodies with the hope of enlightening their spiritual beings.

Our own patron saint, Augustine, conformed to a style of gnostic faith. For nearly a decade, Augustine was a Manicheist before his conversion to Christianity.  Manicheism was a gnostic religion from Persia, which conveyed a “struggle between a good, spiritual world of light, and an evil, material world of darkness.”[1]  In his Confessions, Augustine writes: “I preferred to excuse myself and blame this unknown thing which was in me but not part of me.  The truth, of course, was that it was all my own self, and my own impiety had divided me against myself.”[2]

Gnostics taught that the holiest, the purest among them would receive secret knowledge which would lead to salvation for those holiest and purest and most enlightened souls.  And lest we think this is all safely contained in distant history, consider some of the most popular books sold in the past decade: The DaVinci CodeThe Secret.  Heresies remain popular because they’re tempting – sometimes scandalously, deliciously so.

So what does all or any of this have to do with two parents presenting their child in the Temple, 40 days after his birth?  Well, this: as the Book of Genesis teaches us, God created the heavens and the earth, and everything that is in them; and then God called it all good – called it all very good, in fact.  God created the material stuff and creatures of this world, created people in the divine image who would go on creating…named the earth and named us as God’s own…and called all creation good.

The rite of presentation comes from two sources in the Old Testament – these are the texts Jesus would have known as sacred.  The Levitical Code called for purification of women after giving birth.  And the Book of Exodus calls parents to consecrate their first born son as holy unto God.  So the fact of this feast pays homage to those pieces of the Torah, the Law sacred to the Jews – Joseph and Mary and Jesus, among them.  Those parents offer and bless the physical, flesh-and-blood child God has given into their care.  And it’s probably not in the Levitical Code (chapter 12, verses 3-8) in this particular way (at least not in words I could find), but I pray they went also to bless Mary, the flesh-and-blood mother who bore Jesus.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu says: “This baby’s parents obeyed the law and brought the baby to be redeemed as the firstborn male who belonged therefore to God…(he says) The Epistle of St. Peter speaks daringly of us as partakers of the divine nature.  (The Archbishop writes – Later) in this Eucharist, we will mix water and wine in the chalice and…(pray) a remarkable prayer: ‘Oh God, who didst wonderfully create and wonderfully renew (our) nature, grant that by the mystery of this water and wine, we may be partakers of his divinity, who shared our humanity.”[3]

There is something profound and true to be discovered in divinity which cannot be untangled from humanity, in Christ…and, dare I say it?…in us.  It’s all mixed up together, the sacred and the profane, the material and the spiritual, the water and the wine and the bread, the prophet Simeon and the prophet Anna, the fasting and the worship, the darkness and the light, the death and the birth, the spirit and the flesh.  Like Augustine says, finally, we are not made to be divided against ourselves.

As with any great master painter, there is always something more to see.  And in the moment Tissot renders of this passage in his watercolor, there is more to see.  There is more to see than a new father holding his modest, sacred offering.  There is more to see than the posture of one prophet, exulting as he lifts his arms, raises the child, sings his thanksgivings.  There is more to see than the posture of a second prophet, raising her own flesh-and-blood-and-bone arms.  There’s more given to us in the faith of this painter, perhaps himself turned prophet.  Because, you see, the infant being raised echoes the posture of the prophets who exalt him – because, you see, his own arms of flesh-and-blood-and-bone raise, too: a posture of celebration…a posture of crucifixion…a posture of salvation.

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