God Keeps His Promises

By Bruce Robison

On our Church calendar, there are several names for February 2. On the ancient, pre-Reformation calendar, today was the 40th and Last Day of the Christmas Season. In our 1979 Prayer Book calendar, we call this “the Feast of the Presentation of our Lord in the Temple.” In earlier prayer books, today was also called “the Feast of the Purification of St. Mary the Virgin.” It offers thanksgiving for her safe delivery and marking with ritual prayer again according to the law that she is now “purified” and able to return to the everyday life of the community.

Also, and perhaps you have heard this term in traditional Anglican contexts, a third name for today, “Candlemas.” On this feast day in deep winter, people would come to church and bring with them candles to be blessed and taken home as a reminder that, even though the 40 Days of Christmas have come to an end, the light of Christ illuminates all our lives from this time forth and forever.

In any event, on this feast day, the Presentation of our Lord, the Purification of St. Mary the Virgin, and Candlemas, we return to the second chapter of Luke.

The first 21 verses of chapter 2 are so familiar at Christmas. The decree of Caesar Augustus, Mary and Joseph traveling to Bethlehem, “and while they were there the time came for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger.” And then the shepherds, and the angels. Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace and good will to men. Now it’s 40 days later, and the journey from Bethlehem to Jerusalem.

Just about five miles, so not too difficult a trip. And Luke wants to emphasize here that what Joseph and Mary are doing is a sign of their piety and faithfulness, as he reminds us that this observance is “according to the law of Moses,” and quoting from Exodus and Leviticus about the offering of the sacrifice, “a pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons.”

The temple of course is a bustling place, and I imagine on just about any day of the year it was probably crowded with worshipers from the Holy City and all the towns and villages of the region. And in the midst of all the crowds, Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus immediately come to the attention of two special people in the temple.

First there is Simeon of Jerusalem. Luke tells us about him — that he is a man of great faith, “righteous and devout,” and that at the very center of his life of prayer was the belief given to him by the Holy Spirit that he would live to be a witness to the fulfillment of God’s promise through the prophets. God’s promise was to bring healing and spiritual consolation and renewal to Israel and to all the peoples of the world by sending the Messiah.

The Spirit was stirring in Simeon that morning, leading him to the Temple. And so he was there — in the right place at the right time — when Mary and Joseph arrived with Jesus. As soon as he laid eyes on them, Simeon was struck with absolute certainty that at long last God’s promise had been fulfilled. He comes up to the family, and I guess he must have said something like, “That’s a beautiful baby – may I hold him?” He takes the baby in his arms and is overwhelmed with joy. He begins to sing out praise to God in the words of a song, a canticle, that we traditionally call the Song of Simeon, or the Nunc Dimittis, the first two words of the song in the Latin translation of the Bible.

Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word. Now I can die happy, with a full and peaceful heart, because I know that God’s true word has been fulfilled, God’s salvation and healing, restoring and renewing of all peoples now to be accomplished in and through this Holy Child.

Immanuel: God with Us! God keeps his promises! And then he hands the baby back to his mother, with these deep words, telling her what she already knows — that the mysteries of the ages will be revealed in this child. And we notice the hints of the cross even in this moment, that the blessing that the child will bring won’t come easy, many will fall and many will rise, and that portentous word to Mary: “and a sword will pierce your heart also.”

Our minds can’t help but skip ahead in the story to Good Friday, the soldier piercing him in the side, and then the beautiful artistic image we sometimes call the Pieta, of Mary one last time holding her son Jesus in arms as his body is taken down from the cross. There is no joy like the joy of Mary this morning, as she brings her son for the first time to his Father’s house. And one day soon there will be no sorrow like her sorrow.

And then we hear even more. This woman Anna — Luke calls her a “prophetess.” Someone gifted with a special insight and ability to hear and understand God’s Word and then to apply that word and see what it means for his faithful people. She a widow of great age who has been for many years and decades, like Simeon, living a life saturated in prayer, worship, the proclamation and study of Scripture in the great Temple, coming there every day.

And Anna is also at the right place at the right time: when she comes over to the Holy Family, perhaps because she heard Simeon’s song of prayer, she also sees and begins at once to proclaim to all the people that day, everyone standing nearby in the temple, word of how God was fulfilling his promises now, coming to bring redemption to this fallen world.

The angels sang to the shepherds, the star guided the wise men, and now Simeon and Anna are led to the Christ child. They recognize him and worship him and become evangelists of the kingdom, singing and proclaiming the good news, not because of some supernatural sign, but because their minds and their hearts have been immersed year by year with prayer and Scripture as they have worshiped in God’s Temple.

Which makes me think. Most of us don’t actually see and hear angels singing above us, like the shepherds, and most of us aren’t given a sign in the heavens, like the wise men. But God’s Word is here for all of us, just as it was for Simeon and Anna, and the gift that the Holy Spirit gives for prayer and worship, even as we are here this morning, in God’s temple at All Saints Brighton Heights. Simeon and Anna would have many times sung that psalm this morning in the Jerusalem temple, and so wonderful for us to share it here as well: how lovely is thy dwelling place, Lord God of hosts.

What a gift and a blessing for us, as the Holy Spirit prepares our minds and heart through Word and Sacrament, so that we also are able to see Jesus and know who he is.

I was just telling someone the other day that I think the single most important thing that has happened spiritually, in my life of faith as a Christian, the most important thing, was when I decided many years ago now to begin the practice and habit of daily Bible reading. If that’s not a part of your practice, I commend it to you. It’s not a hard thing, and it’s good, it’s even fun.

There are lots of ways to do it. Some people start at the beginning, in Genesis, and read a chapter or two every day until they get to the end, and then start over. Some get together in Bible study groups. Some follow the daily office lectionary in the back of the prayer book — a mix of readings from the Old and New Testament, which is what I use. But there are lots of pamphlets and guides. I noticed a little stack of Forward Day by Day booklets outside the church office. But for me, anyway, the significant thing isn’t really which plan to follow, but that it’s something that happens, something I do, every day.

As for Simeon and Anna, our “patron saints” this morning, so that when Jesus came into their presence, they were ready, they had been made ready, they were prepared to receive him and welcome him and then share the good news with others.

We turn the corner this morning, leaving the Christmas season behind and in the next three Sundays preparing for Lent and Holy Week and Good Friday and Easter. But we would be reminded this morning that the reality we actually live in is a reality that is shining brightly with the light of Jesus Christ our Savior and Redeemer, who was born for us, who lived and died for us, who took our sins into himself, who is the source of all grace and mercy and every blessing. Everything that’s good comes from him.

Old Simeon and Anna gave their life to prayer and worship and most of all to attending carefully to God’s holy Word, and when Jesus entered the temple that morning they knew him immediately, they knew that every promise of God was true and was now fulfilled in their presence. They knew who this child was and why he had come, and they gave thanks and praise to God. It was good news for all people everywhere. And for you and for me. How lovely is thy dwelling place, Lord God of hosts.

The Rev. Bruce Robison is a retired priest of the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh continuing to serve as vicar of All Saints Church, Brighton Heights.

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