Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
The Rev. Matthew Wright
Presentation (transferred), Tuesday, February 3, 2015
“Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, ‘[…] and a sword will pierce your own soul too.’”
|Jesus coming at the end of times|
Today we celebrate Candlemas, or the Feast of the Presentation of Our Lord in the Temple, when 40 days after his birth, Mary and Joseph made an offering in the Temple on behalf of their firstborn son. But this is only one side of the coin of this feast day—the side that makes it a principal feast, recalling one of the major events in the life of Christ.
But prior to the 1960s, the Roman Catholic Church remembered this feast as “the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary”—a name still used by our brothers and sisters in the Anglican Church of Canada. The day when, 40 days after childbirth, Mary went with her husband to offer the appointed sacrifice for her purification according to Levitical law. And so this feast day was also, historically, a Marian feast.
Whether because of embarrassment around misogynistic conceptions of female purity, or because of a general shying away from Marian devotion, we in the Episcopal Church have dropped the Marian side of our feast day coin, which personally I find a little unfortunate.
There’s also one other name for this feast day, which focuses not on why the Holy Family went to the Temple, but on what happened while they were there. In the Byzantine Rite, this feast is remembered as Hypapante—or, “the meeting”—a reference to the meeting of the Christ Child and his Mother Mary with holy Simeon and the prophet Anna.
Simeon, we’re told, “was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him.” Anna, “was of a great age [… and] never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day.” These two often strike me, Anna in particular, as sort of “proto-monastics.” They live entirely devoted to God, in regular prayer and in constant hope for the fulfillment of Israel’s longing. They are, as Lynn Bauman describes the monastic vocation, eschatological beings (eschatology, of course, referring to “the Last Things,” to the end and goal of creation). Bauman writes:
To be an “eschatological being” means that practitioners of this path live now, in time, in light of this Ultimate End, […They] “proclaim the abolition of profane history” and announce the coming of a new [...] human community inhabited by the new humanity. Eschatological beings help men and women in the contemporary world to wake up […]. [They remind us that] there is an ultimate objective that is being realized even now...
Anna and Simeon were such reminders to Israel, abolishing profane history and living in light of their ultimate hope. And so it’s not surprising that they, of everyone present in the crowded Temple that day—these eschatological beings—noticed an unnoticeable couple with their infant, coming to offer two turtle doves, the offering appointed for the poor who could not afford a lamb. Anna and Simeon had cultivated a different way of seeing.
Now if Anna and Simeon are proto-monastics, Christ and Mary are monastic prototypes. If Anna and Simeon wait and hope for the eschaton, for the fulfillment of all things, Christ and Mary embody it. In Christ, the eschaton arrives as Person. In Christ there is no longer a hoping and waiting for the fullness of time, but a living out of it, from it, here and now.
Jonathan Wilson, who coined the term “new monasticsm”—at least in its current popular usage—writes that “living eschatologically is making present that which is yet to come.” Making present that which is yet to come. That’s what communities like Holy Cross do for the rest of us. That’s what, ultimately, all Christian communities are called to do. To make present, here and now in this world, a glimpse, an instantiation, of that which is yet to come. We are no longer called with Anna and Simeon to simply live in hope of Christ, but rather we are called to live Christ.
Wilson writes that, in our contemporary, postmodern world, we have lost a sense of telos, of an end-point, of a goal towards which everything is driving and around which we orient our lives. He says that the “recovery of teleological thinking and living [or, we might say, eschatological thinking and living] is one, perhaps the, critical task of the day.” And it’s communities like this one that exist to bear witness to that task—that we can create a coherent life organized around a meaningful, authentic, life-giving telos. That telos, of course, is Christ.
In the First Coming of Christ, recognized here by Anna and Simeon, the eschaton, our telos, our end, arrives as Person, as one embodying that final fulfillment. In the Second Coming—at least as my hero Teilhard de Chardin would have it—the eschaton will arrive, not as an individual Person but as a Community, a collective Person—as the fullness of the ever-growing Body of Christ as it comes into being through the whole of the human family.
Which brings me back around to the flip-side of our coin: that today is an equally Marian celebration. As most of you know, I’ve been spending a lot of time lately wading into Marian devotional writings as I prepare for the retreat I’m leading next month. And one of the most striking images I’ve encountered has come from St. Louis Grignon de Montfort, who wrote The True Devotion to the Blessed Virgin. De Montfort uses Mary in a particularly eschatological way. He believed that we were approaching, or entering into, what he called an “Age of Mary.” And that while Mary was all but hidden in Christ’s first incarnation, for the Second Coming to happen, she must be known fully and openly. He wrote:
“In these latter times Mary must shine forth more than ever in mercy, power and grace…”
“The salvation of the world began through Mary and through her it must be accomplished.”
“For your kingdom to come, O Lord, may the kingdom of Mary come.”
To live eschatologically, to be eschatological beings in the Christian sense, we have to be Marian beings. For Christ to come in fullness, we have to collectively be Mary. De Montfort wrote: “As she was the way by which Jesus first came to us, she will again be the way by which he will come to us the second time though not in the same manner.” Not individually, but collectively. Not as a single person, but as a growing Body of Christ. And so we are called to be Marian communities, communities of surrender. Eschatological communities that orient our world, and God willing, the world, towards our true telos, towards Christ, through Mary.
The way of Mary prepares for the birth of Christ in our world on an ever-growing scale. As we daily repeat her “yes” with the bells of the Angelus—“be it unto me according to your word”—as we daily repeat her “yes” to bearing Christ, her “yes” today to offering him at the Temple, her “yes” to Simeon’s prophecy, “and a sword will pierce your own soul too,” as we keep saying “yes,” as we become Mary, the Word becomes flesh; we become eschatological beings, bearing Christ together.
And a sword will pierce our own souls too. We cannot mother the growing Christ and escape that piercing. As we open ourselves to Christ’s growing presence in creation and in community, with Mary we will feel the pain of Christ, as he struggles to come into form through each of us. Our hearts will become sensitive to the human, animal, and ecological suffering that surrounds us. If Christ came the first time through Mary’s surrender, for Christ to come in fullness, it will be through our collective Marian service and surrender.
And so I pray: On this Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin, may we all be held in the sweetness of Mary, and may we slowly, slowly become her. May we keep awake and waiting with Anna and Simeon, eyes ready to see Christ in the poor and the unnoticed. May we collectively bear Christ for the world.