A Pattern Far Better
By The Rev. Charles Hoffacker
We live in a world where often young children are overlooked, younger adults feel overwhelmed, and older adults have no useful place. It’s a world that’s out of joint.
Today we have reason to rejoice, however. For today is set before us another pattern, a far better one, and a pattern that we can live out and promote, for in it older adults, younger adults, and children all have an honored and special place.
Today we celebrate the presentation of Jesus in the temple. This feast occurs every year on February 2, the fortieth day after Christmas. Once every few years February 2 falls on a Sunday and so we can keep this celebration more fully than may be possible otherwise.
Luke’s Gospel recounts that forty days after his birth, Jesus is taken to the temple by Mary and Joseph. This is the expected thing for them to do. It is the custom of God’s people in that time and place.
Forty days after her child’s birth, Mary can again worship in the Temple. Her ritual cleansing calls for the sacrifice of a lamb and a pigeon, but because she and Joseph are poor folks, they offer instead a pair of pigeons, the accepted substitute that the poor can make in place of a more expensive offering.
It’s also time to consecrate this first-born son to the Lord. This recalls how the Lord delivered Israel from Egypt, how they redeemed them from their bondage. When the angel of death took Egypt’s first-born sons, the first-born sons of Israel were spared.
It’s not as though this young family has the vast temple complex to themselves. This house of the Lord at the center of Jerusalem is swarming with activity. Numerous people are there to worship the Lord, to fulfill their religious obligations. The little threesome seems to be hardly noticed among the press of hundreds of people. After all, there are many new babies brought to the temple this day.
But the young couple and their child are noticed by two people. The first of them is Simeon. Somehow he felt drawn to go to the temple that day. In itself, this is not surprising. He is a devout man who often visits the temple. Indeed, though he has never told anyone, he firmly believes that before he dies, God will grant him the privilege on laying eyes on God’s own messiah. Perhaps this will be the day.
Simeon walks through the milling crowds. He sees a couple with their child who look no different than the people around them. Yet what he hears inside himself is unmistakable. These are the ones, and their baby is the messiah! Simeon doesn’t know whether to cry or laugh. He’s not sure whether he’s grateful to God or angry. The messiah is a baby?
Simeon had always pictured him differently, as a strong man dressed is armor, or some superhuman figure radiating light. But a baby? This baby starts wiggling in his mother’s arms.
Something wells up inside Simeon. It comes out: a prayer to God, a flood of words, a song sung to a unknown melody. Now Simeon is an old man, slow, cautious, reverent, careful. Yet right there in the temple, high on the Holy Spirit, he sings out in a loud voice, like some teenager in the first throes of love:
“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;
A Light to enlighten the nations,
and the glory of your people Israel.”
[This translation of Luke 2:29-31 appears as the Song of Simeon in The Book of Common Prayer (New York: Church Hymnal Corporation, 1979), p. 120.]
The young husband and wife look at him with perplexed expressions. You’d think by now, with all the strange things that have happened recently in their lives, they would have become incapable of surprise. But the old man’s song leaves them speechless.
As they stand silent, the old man speaks to them the words of a blessing, takes the baby in his arms, and addresses the woman. “Behold, this child is set for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and for a sign which is spoken against. Yes, a sword will pierce through your own soul.”
How much easier, Mary and Joseph both think, would it be if this old man simply said something conventional, such as “What a beautiful baby!” Mary feels that sword cutting her already.
Then an old woman comes up, the talkative sort. She begins to praise God aloud, her ancient face crinkled in a smile of delight. She strikes up conversations with perfect strangers nearby in that curious way old ladies have of doing so. She brags about this baby as though he were her own grandchild. Though her glasses are trifocals, she sees something special: this child will be the start of a new exodus, a fresh redemption for God’s captive people.
Some in the crowd recognize her. She’s Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, eighty-four years old. She’s been a widow longer than most of them have been alive. And pious! Lives at the temple, prays all the time, fasts more than she eats. And now the old girl is dancing a jig over a baby some couple brought in!
The scene closes with two young parents with confused faces leaving the temple quickly. Their baby’s fallen asleep again, but they are rattled, astounded at what happened to them.
The next several years of their lives back home at Nazareth will be quiet and uneventful as they delight in their child’s growth. But they will never forget that day in Jerusalem when they met Anna and Simeon. And neither should we.
I said that this story offers us a pattern, one for us to live out and promote. The strange scene in the temple brings together a baby, a young couple, and a pair of old people.
Imagine a world where younger adults are not constantly overwhelmed by the duties of daily existence, but go to worship, where they are surprised and transformed by God’s loving intentions for them.
Imagine a world where older adults find purpose and direction, where they listen for some word to speak to the next generation, and anticipate God calling them home some day.
Imagine a world where each and every child is welcomed and treated as important in God’s plan, regarded as a precious revelation, a sign that God remembers us for good.
You and I live in a world where often children are overlooked, younger adults feel overwhelmed, and older adults have no useful place. It’s a world that’s out of joint.
But today a young couple bring their baby to Jerusalem, and in the temple meet an old woman and an old man. Today there unfolds part of the story of redemption.
We are given a pattern we can live out and promote where older adults, younger adults, and children all have an honored and special place. And through the story and the sacrament the strength is available to us to make that pattern come true here in the world where we live.
Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.
Copyright 2009. The Rev. Charles Hoffacker. Used by permission.