Sunday, February 2, 2014

Presentation of Jesus in the Temple - Feb 2, 2014

Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
Br. Randy Greve, OHC
Year A - Presentation of Jesus in the Temple - Sunday, February 2, 2014

Malachi 3:1-4 
Hebrews 2:14-18 
Luke 2:22-40 
Simeon and holding his Savior
Today's feast marks the 40th day since Christmas. Today we celebrate the visit of the Holy Family to the Jerusalem temple to restore Mary into ritual purity and community after giving birth and to offer the sacrifice of thanksgiving and redemption for her first-born son. An otherwise ordinary act for the ordinary families of the time. But this is no ordinary trip to the temple because this is no ordinary son. This son is also the Savior of the world. Even as an infant Jesus is recognized and celebrated and worshiped. His birth is already changing things, already bringing hope. Perhaps Mary and Joseph believed they could quietly slip into the temple, make their offering, and blend into the crowd and back to their home. But with this baby good news has come for all people - there will be no blending in anywhere. Everyone will know - everyone must know - who this child is. Jesus' conception, birth, and now presentation is the inspiration of heavenly and earthly praise that only gets louder and grows farther as Jesus grows in wisdom and favor.

What moves me about this text is the way Luke uses language to evoke a moment in time, a person, the fulfillment of hope, and how that imagery draws us into the story. In the temple we meet the old man Simeon. Having waited for so long for this day, he does what Zechariah and Mary and the angels have done before him in Luke’s gospel - he bursts into song - or at least poetry - which may well have been taken up and sung by the early church even in Luke’s time in the 80s or 90s of the first century. I saw a post on Facebook by the theologian Miroslav Volf in which he recounted an exchange with a Cistercian monk: he asked the old monk “what is the secret to long life?”. The monk replied, “Well, we sing alot.”. Which raises the question "How do we respond to the wonder and mystery of the mighty acts of God?". Or to ask it another way, "Is there a better method than singing?"

It is impossible for me to read the Nunc Dimittis, Simeon’s hymn of praise to the baby Christ, outside its place in the Church’s liturgical life. The Church has used his words, along with the Benedictus of Zechariah and the Magnificat of Mary, as pillars of the daily office from the earliest preserved liturgies. We are inheritors of this tradition as we use these songs in our own Monastic Breviary to this day. In repeating these three canticles daily, we are grounding ourselves in the story of salvation: promise fulfilled, hope arrived, incarnation fully Divine and fully human, a kingdom coming and now here that upsets and topples even mighty and eternal Rome and whatever force or system in our own day that sets itself up as the solution. 

Luke is not interested in exploring the “how” of these mighty acts. He is not giving us scholarly treatises on the incarnation. He is more interested in inviting us to praise God in the “now” of them. Luke wants us to marvel and wonder and celebrate and employ all our creativity into joining the choir, in adding
our voices to the beautiful poetry of it all. And that is precisely what liturgy is designed to do, why the Church elevates these great hymns to a place of prominent repetition and meditation.

And consider the surprising irony of it all: Zechariah, struck dumb because of his lack of faith, proclaims the Benedictus as soon as his tongue is loosed. Mary, the young girl from nowhere saying “yes” to God and a life she can barely imagine, but trusting that God is present even through scandal and confusion, death and resurrection - her “yes” remains true. And today Simeon, nearing the grave, knowing that his time is short, trusting that the promise must be near, lives long enough to hold salvation in his arms and to look into the eyes of the one who will save not only Israel, but Gentiles as well - the whole world. These are the people - struggling, striving, waiting just as we are - who are teaching us how to praise, how to sing. Through their lives and help the liturgical day unfolds over and over again in this pattern of promise fulfilled, redemption recognized, and salvation seen and shared.

From time to time I am asked if I get bored repeating the same words day after day, week after week. I can honestly say that my answer is an emphatic “no”! The truth here is inexhaustible, the tender humanness and power of these words is the antithesis of boredom. If anything, they get richer and deeper with time, sharing their mystery slowly, challenging and calling forth ever more of my presence and participation. There will never come a time in this life when I totally “get it” and so I am excited to get up every day and hope to understand just a bit more, to participate in the divine story just a bit more.

Let's consider the words of the Nunc Dimittis itself. At Compline, when we sing it and come to the line “for these eyes of mine have seen the Savior”, I often ask myself “where, how, in who have I seen salvation today?”. The same Christ whom Simeon held is alive among and within us today. He is always, just as at his annunciation, birth, and presentation, making himself known, wanting to be seen
by us. My vagueness at times in answering my own question is not because Christ is hidden, but because I am not seeing, not looking at what is before my eyes with an expectancy and awareness of the offering of salvation.

Instead my eyes see what I can control, possess, use for pleasure or power or distraction - and Christ, salvation, is not seen that way. Sometimes I know the gift of a sacred moment, an encounter which clearly has the sense of the presence of Christ to it and so I can say at Compline “there was Christ, in that person, in that moment”. Other times I can reflect on the effects of an encounter that may not be known consciously. Then I can look at my character and my spiritual health and see the quiet and steady unfolding of salvation in life and relationships: By God’s grace openness to seeing and experiencing Christ moves us from:
- argument to praise,
- from competition to humility,
- from possession to generosity,
- from fear to trust,
- from despair to hope.

But this cannot happen without liturgy. Liturgy gives us the container and space to reconnect to the salvation story. When we pray faithfully and sincerely we remember again how to be in the wonder, gratitude, and openness of the Christian revelation. The purpose of gathering in this chapel as we do day by day and as you have this weekend is not to reenact some quaint cultural tradition based on myths from the distant past. It is to listen to and echo the songs of our forebears and friends - Zechariah and Mary and Simeon and Anna and all the saints - who point us to Christ among us and within us.

In the ordinariness of parents bringing their baby son to the temple for an offering, Simeon saw something greater - indeed the greatest gift of all. He is teaching us to wait and watch and see and praise. So let us use our spiritual practices wisely and faithfully and be watching and praising with Simeon - in our liturgies of hymns of the good news, in our own private prayer, in our acts of mercy in the world - all in the assurance that Christ comes and reveals himself to us - in ways we expect and ways that surprise, in the convenient and the inconvenient, in the knowable and in ways beyond knowing - yet Christ is through all and in all and with all.

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