Thoughts on the Presentation of Our Lord Jesus Christ in the Temple

According to The University of the South’s official calendar some years ago, the important thing about the second of February, the thing that we all really needed to know, was that it was Groundhog Day. Now I want to make one thing clear from the beginning, and it’s this: I have absolutely nothing against groundhogs. I don’t doubt that they’re excellent creatures, beloved by God. Their very existence is just one more example of God’s boundless generosity in what the schoolmen taught us to call the “generous plenitude” – the copia – of creation. All that granted, the fact remains that in my sermon that day I decided to be very brave, ignore the university calendar, and say nothing more about groundhogs. Instead I referred the congregation—and you, dear reader, if you are interested—for further information about groundhogs to Google. For my part, I turned to another subject that the compilers of our university calendar presumably regarded as of less importance – namely, Saint Luke’s account of the Presentation of our Lord Jesus Christ in the Temple at Jerusalem.

Luke begins this story with Mary and Joseph, pious servants of God who act in obedience to God’s law. The Evangelist is a little vague and even perhaps somewhat confused about the details,[1] but the general implication of what he’s saying is clear enough. Mary and Joseph have brought the child Jesus to Jerusalem to present him to God because they are faithful Jews.

With that established, with the main picture sketched in, so to speak, Luke then takes a fresh tack.

Kai idou!” he says – “And behold!” – or as our NRSV rather boringly renders it, “now.”

Just what does Luke want us to “behold”? Well, actually it’s not a “what,” it’s a he – and his name is Simeon. And the first thing we learn about Simeon is that he’s definitely a good chap. Like Mary and Joseph he too is a faithful servant of God – he’s “just and devout,” and what’s more he’s waiting – waiting for something not for himself but for God’s people. He waits “for the consolation of Israel,” in other words, for God to fulfill God’s promises. What’s more even than that, the Holy Spirit is “upon him” – a sure sign that his waiting won’t be in vain. Indeed, through that same Spirit he has received a promise: “that he should not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah.”

What then? “In the Spirit” Luke tells us – and it’s his third mention of the Spirit within a few lines, so we can see how anxious he is that we shall see the action he describes as moving within the sphere of the divine dynamic, alive with the very breath of God! – “in the Spirit,” Simeon “came into the Temple.” The Greek word that Luke uses here for “temple” is hieron, not naos, so we should picture Simeon entering not into the Temple proper, but rather into its precincts. There, in an outer court – the court of the women, or the court of the gentiles – he meets with the holy family as they bring in the child Jesus, “to do for him according to the Law.”

There follows one of the most beautiful scenes in all Scripture, and it’s a pity that in rendering it our English versions somewhat let us down – and have done, since Wycliffe. For Luke doesn’t say that Simeon “took” the child, as our translations have it, but that he “received” him –Greek  edexato – implying Mary and Joseph’s permission, and even perhaps their invitation.[2] Quite often

Presentation of Christ in the Temple–Hans Holbein the Elder

paintings and stained-glass windows will portray Mary handing the child into Simeon’s arms and it’s an instance of the artist perceiving something in the text that translators seem to have missed, or at least ignored. Simeon, then, receives the child “into his arms,” and so the Spirit’s promise to him that he should see the Lord’s Messiah is fulfilled – and more than fulfilled! For Simeon not only sees him, he touches him, holds him, embraces him; and given that Jesus comes to Simeon in the weakness of babyhood, for this moment Simeon actually carries him, as the stronger carries the weaker. Simeon has waited faithfully upon God, and the reward of his faithfulness is that for just a moment, he becomes the bearer of Christ.

So it’s fitting that in that moment of joy Luke places on Simeon’s lips the third of the great prophetic hymns that mark the opening chapters of his gospel – the other two being, of course, Zechariah’s Benedictus and Our Lady’s Magnificat. All three hymns speak of the fulfillment of God’s promised salvation. Simeon’s hymn is briefer than either of the others. It’s an old man’s conversation with God. It’s the word of one on the threshold of death. Yet like the others it is confident, joyful, and full of hope.

Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace,

According to thy Word,

For mine eyes have seen thy Salvation…

“Salvation” – sōtērion – Luke loves to use this word and its cognates to speak of God’s work[3] but perhaps nowhere does he make clearer than he does here that Jesus is that work. Simeon has seen the Lord’s Messiah, as he was promised; he has seen Jesus, as Mary and Joseph have placed the baby in his arms; and therefore he has seen God’s salvation. We may say, if we wish to sound very learned, that Luke’s Christology is also his Soteriology, and we will be right, I think, more or less. Or, if it pleases us better, we may simply say with Simeon that in seeing Jesus, we have seen God’s promise, the joy and the hope that God offers us, a thing prepared

In the sight of all peoples,

A light for revelation to the nations,

And the glory of thy people Israel.[4]

It is, as I’ve said, a beautiful moment. No wonder the church for centuries has chosen to use the canticle Nunc Dimittis at Evening Prayer and in Compline, as we mark the end of the day and prepare ourselves for the night and for sleep, which is indeed a kind of death – “death’s counterfeit,” as Shakespeare and the other Elizabethan poets frequently remind us.[5]

That, however, is not all that Simeon has to say. Even as Mary and Joseph are marveling at his words, even as he blesses the little family, in that very moment, he also utters an aside that’s directed to Mary alone – Luke is very specific about that – and this aside is a much darker word that stands in tension with what has gone before.

Behold, this child is set for the fall and the rise of many in Israel,

And for a sign of contradiction –

And a sword will pierce your own soul also –

So that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed.

It’s a darker word, but it’s surely also a necessary word. In and through the light of God’s revelation in Jesus, Simeon and the holy family (and we) may indeed see salvation. But that doesn’t mean that they or we are removed from the world’s sorrows. The image of falling and rising reminds us – and Luke surely intends it to remind us – of Isaiah 8, where the prophet and his children are set for “signs and portents” in Israel, at which some will stumble and others gain new strength. That meant suffering for the prophet and his family, and it will mean suffering for Jesus. And Mary his mother will share in his suffering.

As we hear that, those of us soaked in Christian tradition naturally think of Mary standing weeping at the cross: stabat mater dolorosa, iuxta crucem lacrimosa. But of course it’s John who gives us our basis for that tradition, not Luke. The striking thing with Luke is that after his stories of Jesus’ birth and childhood, he will never actually mention Mary again until after the resurrection, when suddenly he will tell us that she is in the upper room, praying, in company with the eleven and the faithful women and the other disciples. Other people will have played active roles in Jesus’ story – people like Mary of Bethany, Mary of Magdala, Peter, and John – but of Mary we’ll have heard nothing. And yet at that point she’ll again be mentioned – mentioned, indeed, rather casually, in the middle of the list, as if her presence with the others was not something surprising, but rather something we ought to be taking for granted. The point, in a storyteller as accomplished as Luke, is surely clear enough. Mary, who manifested trust and obedience at the Annunciation, has continued to trust and obey, even though she was not centre-stage, and therefore – in the fashion, of course, of patriarchal narrative[6] – she has been ignored. Quietly and without fuss she has endured the promised sword thrust into her soul.   In her earlier trust and obedience she bore the Word of God in her own flesh. Now she will be present and will partake when the Spirit is given to the church and tongues of fire will come to rest on each (2.3, cf. 2.17). That is Mary’s story, as Luke tells it.

Luke likes to pair men and women,[7] and he does so in this morning’s go spel. Simeon doesn’t to have the stage to himself. Not at all! On comes Anna, an elderly woman who’s also a prophet and a worshiper of God. In some ways she balances Simeon, but Luke’s far too good a story-teller to have her merely repeat or reinforce what Simeon has done: so although he presents the two figures in a way that’s somewhat symmetrical, he also gives them different functions. Simeon has pointed to the gospel story in its entirety; he’s spoken of what’s to come, and of its effects. Anna acts with a narrower focus, but therefore a more precise one. Luke says of her that she “thanked” God – at least, that’s what our English versions have her do – though the expression Luke uses, anthōmologeito – says rather more than that. It’s good Old Testament Greek, and it implies publicly confessing or acknowledging something. So we need to note that Anna “openly and publicly gave thanks” to the Lord, and spoke “of him” to all in that place who were looking for “redemption” – the “redemption of Jerusalem,” which of course means by extension, “all of God’s people, Israel.”[8] Again the word “redemption” (lutrōsis) and its cognates is very specific in Luke’s usage, and indeed in the Bible generally: it speaks of release, whether legal (Ruth 3.3.12-4.14), or salvation-historical (Isa. 45.13; 52:3).[9] So the very simplicity of what is said by Anna directs us to the point. It’s not that nothing else matters. There’s a great deal that matters, and some of it matters very much, especially in our dealing with each other. But when it comes to the bottom line, when it comes to our hope for true and lasting deliverance, for “redemption,” then there’s only one place to go to and only One who can do it, as the Psalmist knew (LXX Ps. 48:8-9, 16; 129:8). “The Lord, whom you seek, will come suddenly into his temple,” said the prophet (Mal. 3:1). Well, says Anna, here He is! An eighteenth century Painter’s Manual speaks of Anna standing next to Joseph, and in her hand a tablet with the inscription, “This child has created heaven and earth.”[10] I dare say Luke himself was hardly quite there, but his narrative was certainly moving in that direction.[11]

Mary and Joseph brought Jesus to Jerusalem to present him to God. I don’t doubt the Evangelist wants us to understand that that’s what they truly thought they were doing, and in some sense what they were doing. Yet the confessions of Simeon and Anna make clear that in a deeper sense they weren’t presenting Jesus to God at all: it was Jesus who was presenting them. And so it will always be, as the Collect for the Presentation reminds us. On the altar at the Eucharist we in some sense “present” Christ, recalling his incarnation, death and resurrection. Yet in a deeper sense we do not present Christ at all: Christ presents us, and we come to His table only as those who know they are hand in hand with Christ. How else should we dare approach the living God? “Look,” we pray in one of our most beautiful Eucharistic hymns,

Look Father, look on his anointed face,

And only look on us as found in him.

Look not on our misusings of thy grace,

Our prayer so lanquid and our faith so dim,

For lo, between our sins and their reward,

We set the passion of thy Son our Lord.[12]

The essence of our faith is that like Simeon we have seen in Christ God’s salvation; like Anna we have seen in him God’s promised redemption. And those visions hold us fast, though death and hell come in arms against us:

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.

Those who truly understand this will publicly thank God for it, as Anna did, and will speak of it, as she did, to all who are looking for redemption. God grant that we may be such faithful witnesses. Amen.

[1] See François Bovon, Luke 1: A Commentary on the Gospel of Luke 1:1-9:50, trans. Cristine M. Thomas, ed. Helmut Koester (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002) 99; Joseph Fitzmyer, The Gospel according to Luke (New York: Doubleday, 1981-85) 1.424; Raymond Brown, The Birth of the Messiah (New York: Doubleday, 1977) 447-51. We should note, however, the overall structure of Luke’s carefully composed birth narratives: as they begin in the Temple at Jerusalem with those who are righteous and keep the commandments of God, so they conclude in the same way.

[2] Jerome has accepit, which gets edexato nicely: but alas, Douay-Rheims simply rendered it by “took,” in conformity with all the other English versions. Incidentally, my friend and colleague James Dunkly points out to me that the little blankets in which babies are often wrapped are called, at least in parts of the United States, “receiving blankets.”  As he says, “That’s what Simeon did. It’s what any reasonably careful adult does with a baby, and it’s what the blanket stands for.” See also Dionysius of Fourna’s description of the portrayal of Simeon in icons in n. 10.

[3] See François Bovon, Luke the Theologian: Thirty-three Years of Research, K. McKinney, transl. (Allison Park, Pennylvania: Pickwick, 1987) 242-70, 456 n.3.

[4] As John Martin Creed pointed out some years ago, Simeon’s confidence and joy are a striking contrast to the attitude of the aged sage Asita to the birth of the Buddha, with which this narrative of Simeon is sometimes compared (The Gospel according to St. Luke [London: Macmillan, 1950] 37-38: cf. Bovon, Luke 1: A Commentary 97).

[5]       Shake off this downy sleep, death’s counterfeit,

And look on death itself! (Macbeth 2.3.83-84)

Another less well-known but singularly beautiful example of the metaphor (which in itself is, of course, a commonplace) is offered by Shakespeare’s contemporary John Webster:

Oh, thou soft natural death! Thou art joint twin

To sweetest slumber. No rough-bearded comet

Stares on thy mild departure: the dull owl

Beats not against thy casement: – pity winds thy corse,

While horror waits on princes. (The White Devil 5.2.30-34)

[6] Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza noted some years ago that in narratives written in patriarchal societies, the presence of women will as a rule be mentioned only when their behavior can no longer be taken for granted, as when it “presents a problem or when women are exceptional individuals” (In Memory of Her: A Feminist Reconstruction of Christian Origins [New York: Crossroad, 1984] 45).   What I have drawn attention to above as implicit in Luke’s narrative is then an example (as I suppose) of what Sandra M. Schneiders calls “Revealing the Text’s Secrets”: that is, attempting “to extract from the biblical text the ‘secrets’ about women that are buried beneath its androcentric surface, especially the hidden history of women, which has been largely obscured or distorted, if not erased altogether, by male control of the tradition.” Often – as, I believe, in this case – what is needed is no more than to point to “what is plainly in the text but has remained ‘unnoticed’ or even been denied by exegetes” (The Revelatory Text: Interpreting the New Testament as Sacred Scripture, 2nd edition [Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1999] 185).

[7] In addition to the present instance, see, e.g., Mary and Zechariah in the birth narratives; the widow of Zarephath and Naaman the Syrian (4:26-27); the “woman who was a sinner” and Simon the Pharisee (7:36-50); the disciples and the women who “minister” to Jesus and them “out of their substance” (8.1-3); and the parables of the lost sheep and the ten coins (15:4-10).

[8] Bovon, Luke 1: A Commentary 106. Some versions, notably some readings of the Vulgate, read “Israel” here. At the time of the disastrous second revolt against Rome (A.D. 132-35), documents were actually dated to years from “the redemption of Israel” and “the redemption of Jerusalem” – in other words, Luke’s expression clearly reflects real Jewish aspirations of the period (see Fitzmyer, Luke 1.432).

[9] This is one of those cases where derivation is some use as an indicator of sense: lutrōsis and its cognates are all related directly or indirectly to luō (“to loose, to set free, to untie”) and they are invariably used in connection with some kind of liberation. In the LXX the verb generally has God as its subject and renders Hebrew ga’al “set free,” padah “deliver, redeem, save,” or paraq “pull away (i.e. from danger).” “I am the Lord… and I will deliver you from slavery and I will redeem (lutrōsomai) you by a raised arm and great judgment” (LXX Exod. 6:6); “because the Lord loved you… the Lord brought you out with a strong and a high arm and redeemed (elutrōsato) from a house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt” (LXX Deut. 7:8); “because with the Lord there is mercy, and much redemption (lutrōsis) is with him, and it he who will redeem (lutrōsetai) Israel from all its acts of lawlessness” (LXX Ps. 129.7-8). This is precisely the way in which Luke uses lutrōsis and its cognates e.g. at 1:68, 21:28, 24:21 and here at 2:38. The point at issue is not the means – although in secular usage the word normally implies payment of a ransom – but the fact of deliverance (cf. Isa. 52:3). Hence, as Fitzmyer points out, “the redemption of Jerusalem” at 2:38 is more or less synonymous with the earlier expression, “the consolation of Israel” (2:25) (Luke 1.432).

[10] “Saint Simeon the receiver of God holds the infant Christ in his arms, who gives him his blessing. The Virgin on the other side of the altar stretches out her arms to the child, and behind her Joseph carries two doves in his robe; near him the prophetess Anna points out Christ and holds a scroll with these words: ‘This child has created heaven and earth’” (Dionysius of Fourna, Painter’s Manual, trans. Paul Hetherington [Torrance, California: Oakwood, 1996 [London: Sagittarius, 1974] 32). Dionysius lived from c1670 to sometime after 1744.

[11] Despite Raymond Brown, The Birth of the Messiah 445, I am not entirely convinced that Mal. 3.1 was in Luke’s mind as he composed his version of what he probably received as a Jewish-Christian oral tradition (cf. Bovon, Luke 1: A Commentary 98). But that the church has made and continues to make such a connection can hardly be denied, as paintings such as Ambrosio Lorenzetti’s Presentation in the Temple (1342: now in the Uffizi), not to mention our own lectionaries, make clear (see Revised Common Lectionary, 576). The church did not make this connection without reason.

[12] From “And now O Father, mindful of the love” in William Bright, Hymns and Other Poems (London: Rivingtons, 1866); see The Hymnal 1982, 337.

Christopher Bryan


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