The Feast of the Presentation in the Temple
Readings: Luke 2: 22-40.
Part of the discipline of the Church is that we take scripture very seriously and we read it, ponder it, argue with it and are shaped by it. There is a pattern to our reading, it is systematic and it is comprehensive – we are not free to pick and choose, to be selective over what we will read and what we will conveniently ignore. This inevitably has a consequence for the preacher – one has to deal with texts that are either difficult or even downright disagreeable and try to make some sense of them. Something similar may be said of Feast of The Presentation in the Temple – that it seems a little obscure to us and wonder how it speaks to us.
The story of the Presentation in the Temple has been observed by the church in Jerusalem since at least the 4th Century. It was not called the Presentation then but simply the 40th day after Epiphany with a procession and a homily on the same gospel that we read today. The term Candlemas came much later and (as the name suggests) is associated with the blessing of candles at this time.
It is I suggest most truly understood as a Feast of Epiphany because it recalls the patient waiting and hoping of two figures associated with the Jerusalem temple, Simeon and Anna; and the moment when they met the infant Lord Jesus and recognised in him the promised one of God. In a word, this is a moment of revelation and insight.
In Luke the story begins with Mary observing the ritual of purification stipulated in Jewish law after childbirth: she and Joseph also bring to the temple the ritual offering required of the poor for this occasion –two doves or pigeons. Jesus is also with them, as their first born male child, to be presented for blessing and thanksgiving. So far, so good: this is the scaffolding of the narrative but from this point onwards the story radically changes.
First, the focus is no longer on Mary but on this elderly devout man Simeon who is waiting for the Messiah. Do we need to know more about this man? He is important to the Church – at least to the Catholic tradition - for his recognition of the Christ, remembered through his prayer (that we know as the Nunc Dimittis) which is daily said by the Church in its offices of Evensong, Compline and Vespers.
Legends and tradition cluster about Simeon. Luke merely says that Simeon had been told “that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah”. That is perhaps enough to arouse our curiosity, but much more has been claimed for him. Some authors have suggested Simeon was a priest of the temple; others a Doctor of the Law – a son of Hillel and father of Gamaliel, master of St Paul. Others have seen him to be a translator of the Bible, one of the Seventy, and even that God had preserved him in life during 350 years. Various liturgical texts exalt him as the greatest of the prophets: even more than Moses, it has been said Simeon deserves the title of “He who has seen God”, for to Moses God appeared enveloped in darkness, whilst Simeon carried in his arms the eternal incarnate Word.
To give attention to this tradition behind Simeon takes us further than the bare text of the gospel makes us start to see the gospel in a brighter and more luminous light. The figure of Simeon and the events associated with him begin to move from the margins and the footnotes of our interest. We start to realise that what is happening here in the gospel has significance beyond our culture and context. This becomes clearer to us if we look at the icons of the Presentation: there we see Simeon receiving the Christ child who is seated in the old man’s arms, as if on a throne and in an Orthodox Matins liturgy the Christ is made to say “I am not held by the old man: it is I Who hold him, for he asks me forgiveness.”
At this point you could say ‘the penny drops’ and we recover the vital insight that this is indeed a Feast of the Epiphany, for here is the moment when the church celebrates Christ’s encounter with humanity. In this moment we glimpse a memory of the meeting of man and God; the old name in Greek for this Feast, the Hypapante, simply means ‘The Meeting’. Christ comes as the Lord of scripture, the Old and New Testaments, to the temple where he is awaited by Simeon and Anna. One could say that Simeon and Anna represent Judaism, the Old Covenant and even that they stand for Adam and Eve, humanity itself. At this meeting, the promises of the Old Testament are fulfilled and what must come is foreseen.
You could say that in this meeting Epiphany is completed, the Christmas season now closed - and we now prepare for Lent.