Sermons from St Faith's   

The Presentation

Fr Dennis Smith

Sunday, February 3rd, 2019

They were just doing what was expected, it was an ordinary ritual, not all that different from the ritual around any new baby. Mary and Joseph with their family and friends were taking their first-born son, Jesus, into the Temple, to be presented to God, given to God, and then brought back, on a temporary loan, as it were, from God by means of a sacrificial offering. It was a predictable ritual. But then something extraordinary happened, which causes the Church around the world to celebrate today. The parents, Mary and Joseph, were to have a disclosure that would change everything, and reach down even to us. And the means by which this would be brought about would be two separate, unlikely, elderly characters.  And for a few moments their lives would coincide with that of Jesus and his parents.

After living for so many years as the Anawim, “the silent in the land”, Simeon and Anna had seen it all – and like a generation among us that still remembers the horrors of the Second World War, they were old enough to recall the days when the invading Romans conquered Jerusalem and their lives were changed forever. Since their late teens or early twenties, they ha d lived under oppression, like so many in Europe in our day. Anna was once married, expecting like all young women to have a baby. Instead, she saw her hopes for a child evaporate when, after seven agonizing years, her husband died. And being barren, she would have forfeited any chance of being remarried and would be condemned to live out her days on the margins of a society that had little use for her.

We can disparage or patronise the elderly.  Both Simeon and Anna are witnesses to the fact that all the hopes and yearnings for salvation come to fruition now, as God reveals his son in the Temple. This brief encounter with Mary and her baby lasts only a moment. When it’s over, they move on and we never see or hear from them again. But the moment is unforgettable. The birth of a child is one of the most amazing of human experiences. The Dominican priest and writer, Timothy Radcliffe, tells of being in Rwanda during the genocide together with a brother in his religious community who had given twenty five years of his life to the country.

Everything was destroyed; most of his friends had been killed. They wept together. But that Christmas Father Timothy received a photograph of the brother with two big Rwandan babies in his arms. On the photograph, the brother had written “Africa has a future.” What Simeon and Anna witness too is the audacious claim that the hope of the world is found not in human initiative, in strategy and programmes and policies, but in the activity of God through his son Jesus.  He is, says Simeon, “a light for revelation to the Gentiles.” He is, says St John, “the light of the world.”  But it doesn’t happen without cost. Simeon’s final, fateful words speak of resistance and suffering and so move us from Christmas towards Lent and Christ’s suffering.

Anna and Simeon waited and prayed, and God revealed to them that this was the child they had waited for all their lives. They understood that their private hopes and the hopes of the world were answered in the baby cradled in his mother’s arms. In Rembrandt’s painting of Simeon, there is absolute calm. No one moves or speaks, but everyone looks. Simeon holds the child, in amazement and veneration. He knows he has seen salvation, and that is enough.

The hurt in Anna’s heart, the shattered dreams, the long years spent on the fringes of society, are the reason Jesus came. The reign of fear in today’s world, the hunger, pain and suffering we see on faces around  us and in the news, the abuse of power, the erosion of honesty in public life, the rise of tyrants and rampant injustice, are the reasons Jesus came.

Jesus is at work reconnecting this broken world with the God who created it, giving us the reason for living and hoping. Simeon didn’t live to see how it all turned out, but he died in peace knowing that darkness was defeated and light had broken through. And Anna, a woman of sorrows, makes her final appearance in a burst of joy. She may have been disqualified from a woman’s role in her culture, but God gave her a starring role in his story. God places the woman who never got to welcome a baby of her own, first in line to welcome this one.  

She is the first evangelist, the first to proclaim the good news that Jesus is the deliverer. And we are invited to lay aside our false hopes and disappointments and bear witness to the hope and light that Jesus has brought into our own lives. Our vocation as Christ’s disciples is to be the successors of Simeon and Anna, bearers of the hope and light and glory that is to be found fully in Jesus Christ. We are to declare and to demonstrate in our church life and our individual witness that the one whom Mary presented in the Temple is none other than the light of the world.

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