By R. Leigh Spruill
Today is the 40th day since we celebrated Christmas. February 2 in the life of the church is another feast day related to Christ’s birth: The Presentation of Our Lord Jesus Christ in the temple at Jerusalem.
The story is told in the Gospel according to Luke. “When the time came for their purification according to the Law of Moses, they brought Jesus up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord.”
This story brings together two religious regulations from the law of Moses, from the parts of it we know as Exodus and Leviticus.
First, it was an aspect of Jewish cultic life that following childbirth, a woman was deemed ritually unclean for 40 days. After that she was ceremonially readmitted to the public worship life of the community.
Second, every firstborn son of a Jewish family was to be presented and dedicated to God in a ritual ceremony as well. This ritual has its roots in the Israelites’ Passover experience, their liberation from Egypt. Thereafter, the firstborn sons are to be symbolically offered up to the Lord voluntarily as part of their covenant loyalty to God. The firstborn sons of Israel belong to God. And in Jesus, Israel will come to see this offering literally.
So today, 40 days after Mary gave birth, it is declared that her postpartum purification is complete, and Jesus is presented and dedicated for God’s service.
To our modern ears and sensibilities, such Jewish cultic ritual may sound arcane. Well, it sure isn’t arcane to Mary and Joseph, nor will it be to Jesus later. One stress point here in Luke is that Jesus is born into a thoroughly observant Jewish household.
So you might think about that as you imagine Jesus as a little boy growing up in Nazareth. He was deeply well-formed in his Jewish identity; his parents taught him and modeled what they taught him — Mary and Joseph as examples to parents here.
But today, Jesus is a mere infant, 40 days old, and I can see him bumping along in his mother’s arms on a donkey during the journey up from Bethlehem to the temple, roughly the distance from here to the State Capitol downtown. One imagines these two, Mary and Joseph, feeling a bit nervous, perhaps awestruck by the scale of the temple. The grandeur, the hustle and bustle, only heighten their self-consciousness that they are just ordinary folk from the hinterlands.
Now there they are in the temple — here we are today with them — and into the midst of the liturgy suddenly enter two prophetic figures. Their names are Simeon and Anna. They are described as devout, obedient, constant in prayer, expectant, at home in the temple, longing for — looking for — God to show up in the world. In other words, Simeon and Anna represent Israel at her very best; for us they represent the Church at her very best.
And now enters Jesus to be presented and dedicated — to God, to them, to us, to the world.
We have a number of characters in the story, right? Mary and Joseph; Simeon and Anna. The temple itself functions as a character of sorts. The question is: what do they tell us about the last character, the real subject of the story who has no lines in it? Jesus.
Fighting the temptation to over-explain things, I would like to focus our gaze on Jesus by having us ponder the view from the perspective of Mary, his mother. How might what she sees happening in this story help us see who Jesus is? In other words, as with his birth, Jesus comes to us through Mary.
I think this has to be an unnerving experience for Mary. For there she is, this simple Jewish woman engulfed in the vastness of the temple complex, when a stranger, an elderly man named Simeon, a kind of religious eccentric, comes up and takes the baby out of her arms and lifts him up in praise. Years ago, the Holy Spirit had told him that he would not see death before he saw the coming Messiah.
And now, here he is: the Song of Simeon with which we are so familiar from our Book of Common Prayer:
Lord, you now have set your servant free
To go in peace as you have promised
For these eyes of mine have seen the Savior
Whom you have prepared for all the world to see.
The familiar beauty of these lines may obscure what an awkward moment this is for Mary: “Who is this old guy who just took my baby? And does he even know how to hold a baby? Please, sir, don’t drop him.”
Simeon must sense Mary’s anxiety, but the Holy Spirit mysteriously reveals to him that this Messiah’s saving work will involve his death. Simeon turns to Mary and shares this devastating prophecy: “this child is destined for a life that will be opposed by many and lead to suffering and grief … suffering and grief for you, Mary. It will be as if a sword has pierced your heart.”
There are other words for sword in Greek, but the one used here is for the broad sword, the very lethal double-edged sword.
Here, I think, we get to the heart of this story’s powerful poignancy, because we — reading it back through history — already know how this story will end. We know that this helpless, innocent baby boy will grow up to suffer rejection and revilement in almost every city and village where he goes, and ultimately will undergo a gruesome, public execution. And that is just the last thing any mother could possibly want to contemplate when looking down on her precious baby. Babies represent all our best hopes and dreams for the future.
I imagine Mary carrying this dark prophecy in the back of her mind for the next 30 years, all through Jesus’ upbringing, every joy and delight and funny moment with him somehow shaded by this memory.
This moment today in the temple, seeing and interpreting it through Mary’s experience, it is kind of like Mary stands along the shore of a great and wide river representing the whole world. And it is here, now, that she places her sweet-smelling baby boy on a small raft and gently pushes him out as the currents carry him away … sweeping the child into our fallen and dangerous and rebellious reality.
I have a hunch mothers relate to this more than I do, but I am not sure. I have shared a couple of times in the past my first intense experience of knowing the vulnerability of a world that might hurt a firstborn child.
In the early years of married life, Susalee and I were members of Grace and Holy Trinity Church in Richmond. The associate rector called one day and asked me if the parish might borrow our baby daughter Eleanor to be the baby Jesus in the Christmas pageant.
We said yes. Eleanor was not much older than Jesus today. To this day, I vividly recall sitting there in the pew on the day of the pageant and watching a little girl of about 12 playing Mary bounce up the chancel steps in her flowing costume carrying my little daughter. Mary had a slight misstep and almost lost her balance for a second. Eleanor’s arm came flinging out, and I thought: “Oh my God, what have we done to bring such life into all of this — she is too vulnerable, and I am too.”
I think that was my first palpable experience of realizing how vulnerable it feels to entrust one’s very own child to this world that has its own bent, and I do not control.
Similarly, there is worldwide cult of mothers who pray and weep for their lost sons and daughters, those who, in the words of singer Jason Isbell, “left home to try out all the sins.” And Mary is their patron saint, for she will pray and weep for her lost son who left home to forgive all the sins. And it will cost him everything to do so.
In this way, Mother Mary is an icon for God, the Father. For along with Mary, God delivers this baby boy into a world that will do everything it can to send him right on out of this world, precisely as he saves the world.
This Gospel story is a window into the very heart of God and the vulnerable love that inspires the coming of this little boy, dedicated to his mission today, to retrieve all his lost sons and daughters who rightly belong to this Father.
This Gospel story causes me to reflect: What if what we most love and hope for always has the potential to break our hearts? Do we dare still love and hope?
Yes. Yes. For there is a light at the center of reality who is Jesus the Christ, dedicated and lifted high to God in his dedication to coming low to us wherein our hearts — with Mary’s, with God’s, with his — are pierced but our lives saved, our futures secured.
The Rev. R. Leigh Spruill is rector of St. John the Divine, Houston.