By Christopher Wells
The second chapter of the Gospel of St. Luke delivers the narrative basis for the fourth and fifth joyful mysteries of the rosary, both ordered around the cultic center of Jewish worship: the Presentation (vv. 22-40) and the Finding (vv. 41-52) of our Lord in the Temple. And the Presentation occasions our third gospel canticle, the Nunc Dimittis or Song of Simeon, which stands as a sentinel of Christian prayer at the close of the day, in the services of Evening Prayer and Compline. The figures are rich and redolent, and they invite the Christian pilgrim to sit down to a feast of theological virtues.
To start, consider Simeon as an icon of the faithfulness of the Jewish Church, which welcomes the Lord as one expected and, more than that, as the creative Word who spoke her into being, as a creature called out (qahal). The Son and Word arrives on the doorstep of the temple as a 40-day-old infant and the devout old man, “looking forward to the consolation of Israel,” meets him as a charismatic to whom the Spirit had “revealed” that he would see “the Lord’s Messiah” before his death (Luke 2:25-26). And Simeon, among the first of the Lord’s disciples, not only sees with his eyes but touches with his hands “the word of life” (1 John 1:1), taking him in his arms and seeking his benediction:
Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace,
according to thy word;
For mine eyes have seen thy salvation,
which thou hast prepared before the face of all people,
To be a light to lighten the Gentiles,
and to be the glory of thy people Israel. (Luke 2:29-32 as Canticle 5, 1979 BCP, p. 51)
The Church made flesh rests in his bosom. The infant Savior convenes the assembly of his visible Body for the praise and glory of his own Name.
We rightly join righteous Simeon in his prayer! Would that all the citizens and saints of the commonwealth of Israel were such prophets, the Lord placing his Spirit upon each one (Eph. 2:12, 19; Num. 11:29). Would that the Word might in this way cleanse and sanctify the Church, presenting to himself a Body without blemish, glorious and holy (Eph. 5:26-27).
Here we see why a Feast of Presentation is and must be both a principal feast (on Feb. 2 each year) and a Feast of Purification, that is, a churching (in the old parlance) in the Spirit and the Son, for communion with the Father. All Christians must be purified, and Mary, in this case as Virgin and mother, serves as sacramental set piece for the universal call to holiness, as a bride preparing to meet her bridegroom (Rev. 21:2; Ps. 45:13-14). With her we strive as ones called “by the mercies of God to present [our] bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is [our] spiritual worship” (Rom. 12:1). With her we know that the sign of the Word incarnate “will be opposed” and that “a sword will pierce [our] own soul also” (Luke 2:34-35). Just here, already in the shadow of the cross, in the communion of Saints Simeon, Mary, and Joseph, and of all the apostles, prophets, and martyrs, we offer and present to the Lord “our selves, our souls and bodies,” humbly beseeching him that we who are unworthy may nonetheless, through Jesus Christ, be “made one body with him, that he may dwell in us, and we in him” (1979 BCP, p. 336).
The fifth joyful mystery provides a convenient window onto how exactly this works, ordered around continual travel to and from Jerusalem “to which the tribes go up, the tribes of the Lord, the assembly of Israel, to praise the Name of the Lord” (Ps. 122:4). As adoptive sons and daughters, sisters, brothers, and friends of the Holy Family we are numbered among those tribes, and we belong to the same assembly. Our Lord, and all of Scripture, beckon us down this road, the sacramental signs along which properly guide the grammar of our thinking and speaking. All seeking and finding is here anticipated, explained, and fulfilled in and through God’s effective example of faith, hope, and love in his Son. On arriving, we enter the temple with the youthful Jesus so as to be found where we must be, in our Father’s house. At home with him we increase “in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor,” and with his mother we treasure all these things in our heart (Luke 2:52, 51).
As foundlings of the Word made flesh we enroll in his school and eagerly take up the assigned material, ordered by a discipline of “listening” and “asking questions” (Luke 2:46). Even the old teachers come alongside in amazement, and all learn again “the first principles of the oracles of God,” as milk before meat (Heb. 5:12). In the good company of Mary and Joseph we remain slow to understand, needing demonstrations of obedience (Luke 2:50-51) — finally to the Father, by which the Son suffers unto perfection, as “the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him” (Heb. 5:8-9).
Here, in sum, we see a foretaste of the kingdom of heaven, which is like “a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son” (Matt. 22:2). We are those whom he found on the main streets, both good and bad, so that the hall may be filled with guests; we need, however, the proper attire, which is the clothing of humility (see Luke 14:7-11). Being poor, crippled, lame, and blind we cannot repay him. Sitting down at the lowest place, we hope to be made worthy of “the resurrection of the righteous” (14:14).
Seek the Lord while he wills to be found;
call upon him when he draws near.
Let the wicked forsake their ways
and the evil ones their thoughts;
And let them turn to the Lord, and he will have compassion,
and to our God, for he will richly pardon.
For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
nor your ways my ways, says the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.
For as rain and snow fall from the heavens
and return not again, but water the earth,
Bringing forth life and giving growth,
seed for sowing and bread for eating,
So is my word that goes forth from my mouth;
it will not return to me empty;
But it will accomplish that which I have purposed,
and prosper in that for which I sent it. (Isa. 55:6-11 as Canticle 10, BCP, pp. 86-87)
O Lord, sanctify and cleanse your Body the Church with the washing of water by the word, and present her gloriously to yourself without spot or wrinkle. Teach her members to be found by you at peace, patient in the salvation of your Son. Amen.