The Presentation in the Temple
Reflections for Candlemas 2018
Readings: Malachi 3:1-4; Hebrews 2: 14-18; Luke 2:22-40
You have to let your imagination speak and make you alert to some of the possibilities for us in the scriptures and how we receive them. So, let's imagine ... Just another Sunday in the Cathedral and a couple enter with their baby; they are just casual visitors and you don’t know them. If you are on the door as a sidesperson (or not, just someone else in the congregation) what do you do? Smile, welcome, greet – pay attention or virtually ignore – the Anglican ‘chill’ at its best?
I hope not the latter! Pope Francis has this to say:
"Many try to escape from others and take refuge in the comfort of their privacy or in a small circle of close friends, renouncing the realism of the social aspect of the Gospel. For just as some people want a purely spiritual Christ, without flesh and without the cross, they also want their interpersonal relationships provided by sophisticated equipment, by screens and systems which can be turned on and off on command. Meanwhile, the Gospel tells us constantly to run the risk of a face-to-face encounter with others, with their physical presence which challenges us, with their pain and their pleas, with their joy which infects us in our close and continuous interaction. True faith in the incarnate Son of God is inseparable from self-giving, from membership in the community, from service, from reconciliation with others. The Son of God, by becoming flesh, summoned us to the revolution of tenderness." (In paragraph #88 of his Apostolic Exhortation “Evangelii Gaudium),”
The Feast of the Presentation focuses our attention on an extraordinary moment: it is a midpoint between Christmas and Easter: we look back to Christmas and we look ahead to Easter. It begins innocently enough, as we hear the phrase ‘When the time came’. We are drawn onto a moment of encounter.
‘When the time came’: time is complicated. There is the time we measure by our watches and the unfailing sequence of hours, days and years, we call it Chronos; and there is another measure of time that operates in scripture, we call it Kairos; the time understood by great moments, the time in which God acts and by which we understand ourselves and our world differently.
‘When the time came’: to the casual observer this must have looked like any other day in the temple: a poor couple coming to do what custom and law required after the statutory 40 days.(Leviticus 12: 2-8). We may imagine a lot of activity going on in the temple at the time. Priests and Levites taking turns to be on duty, busy, various sacrifices being offered, a variety of people coming and going, lots of movement, noise, distractions, the ordinary business of time, chronos.
Except that Luke focuses his account on two figures: Simeon and Anna. In the briefest of descriptions we are given just enough detail about each to understand that they were people open to the Holy Spirit and receptive to God. And at this particular moment in time, ‘Guided by the Spirit’ Simeon enters the temple and takes Jesus in his arms.
‘When the time came’: for Simeon this is a Kairos moment: God has acted; this is what he has been waiting for, all these years. It is at this tender moment that the Evangelist places on Simeon’s lips the canticle Nunc Dimittis, a prayer rooted in ancient Israel and in the Church "My eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all peoples, a light of revelation to the Gentiles and glory for your people Israel" (2:30-32). This is the voice of song and poetry, that reaches beyond that ordinary moment as worlds and time intersect.
The moment is grounded in the particular deeply physical reality of the incarnation as Simeon holds the Christ in his arms, feeling the warmth and weight of this new life. No parent or grandparent could fail to understand or imagine his feelings in that moment – a lifetime of hope and waiting held in his arms. This new life, so vulnerable, so slight, so in need of care and protection – ‘My eyes have seen your salvation’… A world of possibilities is held in that moment; he holds the future close to his heart. At the same time, even as Simeon remembers the past; the ages long years of waiting, he also turns towards the future and to Mary, pointing toward the future (and the Easter that is yet to come): “This child is destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel … and a sword will pierce your own soul too."
In this moment of encounter, time shrinks, chronos and Kairos fuse, the ordinary moment has a new significance, the encounter with the other, with the Holy. That is why we are here in the Eucharist – for such encounter. I am told that in the Eastern Church the Divine Liturgy begins with the Deacon declaring to the Priest “It is time for the Lord to act” reminding all present that the time of the liturgy is an intersection with Eternity. May it be so.