[This is a homily for the Feast of the Presentation (or Meeting) of Our Lord in the Temple I gave in 2005. The feast was on February 2, but since we're still in the post-festal period, I can get away with it---and help keep you from entirely forgetting the feast once the day has passed!]
There are several ironies in the text of the Gospel for this feast. First of all, it says that the time came for Mary’s purification. In the Latin Church they used to call this feast Purification of Mary; at least that was one of the names of the feast. That in itself is quite an irony, that the all-pure and undefiled one comes for purification! It’s something like Christ having to be baptized along with a bunch of sinners.
Another irony is that the ever-blessed and completely sinless one had to make a sin offering in the temple. That’s what the doves are about. As we heard in the readings for Vespers, in one offering, one of the doves is offered—or a lamb if you can afford it—for a holocaust and the other dove for a sin-offering. So the Mother of God, the all-pure, is purified, and the sinless one makes a sin-offering.
Well, we know from the Old Testament that this impurity that has to be taken care of is a ritual impurity. It has simply to do with the flow of blood that happens when you give birth to a child. So Mary’s having to be purified is not a matter of moral or spiritual purification, it’s simply a legal ritual purification, which she underwent in obedience to the law, just as Christ submitted to the various rules and regulations of the law that He didn’t really have to.
Another irony here is that they bring Jesus to present Him to God. The one who was in intimate and ontological communion with the Father and the Spirit for all eternity now is offered to God! And “every male that opens the womb is called holy to the Lord,” set apart for the Lord. Again, that’s like the understatement of the millennium, that this one should be called holy to the Lord, the all-Holy Son of God Himself!
So they come into the temple to perform these rituals and they meet Simeon. Now I think we could probably call him “St. Simeon the Old Theologian” because first of all, at least tradition has it that he was an old man. I’m sure he wasn’t three hundred and some years old like some of the pious legends say, but he was most likely an old man. Also it says that he was righteous and devout, and the traditional definition in the Eastern Church is that a theologian is one who prays, one who is in union with God.
He had seen the one that he was waiting for. The Holy Spirit told him that he would not die until he saw the Messiah, the Christ, the anointed one of the Lord. That was a great thing, because everyone was waiting for the Messiah, but no one knew exactly when He was going to come. Now Simeon was told, He’s going to come in your lifetime. That was a great joy and hope for him, and he obviously rejoiced when that happened. Then he began his famous hymn, “Lord now you may let your servant go in peace.”
He says, You can let me go, obviously because the prophecy has been fulfilled. So he says, “My eyes have seen your salvation, which you prepared in the presence of all people.” That’s significant. “A light of revelation to the Gentiles and the glory of your people Israel.” This is actually quite extraordinary at this time; this is long before St. Paul started preaching about the mystery of God that has been finally revealed, that the Gentiles, all people, are eligible for salvation through Christ. This was one of the great themes of St. Paul’s gospel. But now, when St. Paul was probably not even born, Simeon the old theologian included the Gentiles in the saving work of God, saying “You have come for salvation for all peoples.” This is the first intimation in the gospel that the Messiah of Israel is the Savior of the world, of all peoples, the Gentiles too.
“His father and mother marveled at what was being said.” Now maybe we marvel that Mary marveled at this, because we would think that, being who she is and having had all these other revelations herself, she would have sort of taken it all in stride. But if, as it says at the end of the gospel, that Jesus Himself, the Son of God, had to grow in wisdom and grace before God, then certainly someone who is a mere mortal also had to grow in wisdom and grace and understanding.
The things that happened in her life and her experience with her little Son were a progressive revelation to her. So little by little, as all these events came about, the birth of Jesus with the shepherds and the Magi, Mary was pondering these things in her heart and reflecting upon these mysteries. And now, hearing this prophecy, she marvels at what was being said about Him. Perhaps she was marveling that other people knew who her little baby was. I mean, the Kid was only forty days old! He didn’t have time to be introduced to the whole world yet. They walk into the temple and everyone knows who He is! Anna is singing his praises and Simeon is blessing Him and making prophecies about Him. And so they marveled.
But Simeon has to be the true prophet, and the true prophet does not just prophesy sweet and wonderful things like: He is the light of revelation, salvation and glory. It can never end there, because the true prophet is always going to give the hard saying. The true prophet is always going to cut to the quick of whatever the situation is that he’s prophesying about. So he says to Mary his mother, “Behold this child is set for the fall and the rising of many in Israel,” and so far that’s not so bad, but, “a sign that is to be contradicted,” that is, literally, spoken against, “and a sword will pierce through your own soul.” So here then is the prophecy of suffering that is going to come, the prophecy of contradiction.
As St. Paul says, anyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus can expect to be persecuted. And Jesus Himself said, the world hates Me because I testify against it that its works are evil. So if you speak the truth, someone’s going to hate you. If you speak the truth, someone’s going to persecute you and attack you and try to make your life miserable. It’s always been that way and it will probably always be that way, because there is sin in the world and sinners will fight the truth because they can’t stand to face it. They will fight the light because they are used to living in darkness, and that’s where they want to stay. Well, tough. If we’re going to stand for Christ, we speak the truth and take whatever comes from it. He said, “No servant is greater than his master. They persecuted me and they’ll persecute you too.”
This all brings us to the Cross. The sword piercing Mary’s soul is the prophecy of her suffering at the foot of the Cross. The Cross is the place where the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed, because the Cross is the place of judgment and of mercy. It’s the place of mercy for those who come to the Cross with faith and repentance. But it’s a place of judgment for those who come to the Cross with arrogance or pride, and who stand there without repenting. It’s like those who mocked and ridiculed Christ as He was suffering: they were at the Cross all right, but the Cross was judgment for them. But for those who stood at the Cross with love for Jesus—St John and Our Lady and the others—the Cross was mercy and salvation.
We see that Mary was present at the two offerings of Christ here. At the offering of Him in the Temple as a Child she was present, and at the offering of Christ to his Father on the Cross as a sacrifice for our salvation she was also present. That’s like the bookends of her life with Christ, which was a continual offering of Him to the Father. So she offers Him in the Temple. And she had to offer Him again, let go of Him, for his ministry to the world. She couldn’t keep Him at home. She had to let Him go out and be a sign of contradiction and take the flak from the Pharisees and everybody else who refused to believe in the truth and embrace the light. And finally, she had to make the ultimate offering of Him on the Cross, giving Him back to the Father as the sacrificed Lamb who takes away the sins of the world. That marked her whole life, that offering of her Son to God.
Now we have a purification to undergo, too, and we don’t have the advantage of being all-pure and saying, well, this is just a legal ritual purification that we have to go through. No, we really have to be purified because we really have sins and faults and bad habits and impurities that have to be purged out of us. Our purification is basically through prayer, fasting, confession and Communion.
We’re actually very fortunate. It’s very easy for us to receive forgiveness of sins. We don’t have to kill a bird in sacrifice to get forgiveness of sins. All we have to do is go to confession and receive absolution and then we have forgiveness. We don’t have to make sin-offerings in the Temple. But the most foundational and probably the most effective means of purification is suffering.
The Coptic monk Matthew the Poor says, “Suffering is more powerful than worship,” and that’s a really strong statement, because you can come to church and say “Glory be to You, O Lord” and all the rest, and still come away unmoved. But if you suffer, and through that suffering allow yourself to be drawn into that sacrifice of Christ, that changes you and affects you on a very deep level, which you will not soon forget—like you can forget whatever you said or did in the church as soon as you walk out.
We have to accept the sword piercing the soul. Are we greater than the Mother of God, that we think that we don’t have to go through suffering for our communion with God? If she, the sinless undefiled one, had to do that, then we deserve to be punished for our sins and to suffer, as a matter of justice. But as Matthew the Poor also said, since Christ has suffered for us, our suffering doesn’t have the character of punishment anymore. It has the character of sacrifice, of offering, of purification, of a gift of love received from God and given back to God.
So on this feast of Jesus being presented to God in the Temple, let us present ourselves, or allow ourselves to be presented in the hands of Mary to Christ. And being presented, we make a present of ourselves; we make a gift of ourselves to God. And finally, we come to the Temple here to receive the Eucharist, which is, as Simeon says, our salvation, our light, and the glory that God wishes to communicate to us. Christ is present in the Eucharist as the light of revelation and is the glory of his people, a glory now that is veiled in the sacramental signs, but a glory which is real and will be manifested fully at the last day.
If we are faithful, if we accept suffering, and if we accept God’s will in all things, then that dwelling of God in the temple of our own bodies will be manifest, and it will be the glory of his people Israel and our salvation and our light. Once we embrace all that wholeheartedly, making the gift of ourselves to God and thanking Him for all of his gifts to us, then we will, sooner or later, be able to depart in peace unto everlasting life.