Almighty and everliving God, we humbly beseech thee that, as thy only-begotten Son was this day presented in the temple, so we may be presented unto thee with pure and clean hearts by the same thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord….
In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The Feast of the Presentation is a major feast of our Lord which occurs forty days after Christmas, which is the number of days after his birth that he was taken to the Temple with his parents to be presented to God as their firstborn son. This was done “according to the law of Moses” that governed the lives of faithful Jews like Mary and Joseph throughout the Old Testament. And in this sense, there was little to nothing that was especially remarkable about this event in Christ’s life. It’s just what you did, and no doubt that there were probably lots of other babies being presented in the temple alongside Jesus. But this is just the kind of inconspicuous event that defined every other part of Christ’s life. And more importantly, no matter how ordinary his presentation was, it was “fitting” for him to be presented in order that Jesus would “fulfil all righteousness” (Matthew 3:15), as he said himself to John the Baptist at his baptism later on in his life. As our Epistle from the Letter to the Hebrews puts it, Christ “had to be made like his brethren in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God.” His presentation in the temple, which dedicated him to the service of God as a firstborn son, was just one such respect in which he joined his brethren and experienced the full measure of a human life.
But we’ll have to back up a bit so that we can understand just what it meant for Israelite parents to present their firstborn child in the temple. The theme of the long-awaited firstborn son is found again and again in the Old Testament -- it’s one of the most central themes in Scripture. Abraham’s wife Sarah is barren until she receives the promise from God that she will bear a son even in her old age; a son that will secure the promise that God had already given to Abraham that he would be “exceedingly fruitful,” “the father of a multitude of nations” (Genesis 17:5-6) and that “by your descendants shall all the nations of the earth bless themselves (Genesis 22:18). In the promise that Sarah would bear a son is included all of the people of the earth -- an important point to keep in mind as we continue.
Then, later on, is the story of Hannah as found in 1 Samuel. This was the appointed Old Testament reading at Evening Prayer last night for the Eve of the Presentation, and we read there that, like Sarah, Hannah had also been desperately desiring a son, having been barren. Eventually, though, her prayers are answered and she gives birth to her son Samuel. She tells her husband, “As soon as the child is weaned, I will bring him, that he may appear in the presence of the Lord, and abide there for ever.” When the time comes, after she has weaned him, she takes Samuel with her “to the house of the Lord at Shiloh,” and after making the appointed sacrifices, Hannah says to Eli, the priest there:
Oh, my lord! As you live, my lord, I am the woman who was standing here in your presence, praying to the Lord. For this child I prayed; and the Lord has granted me my petition which I made to him. Therefore I have lent him to the Lord; as long as he lives, he is lent to the Lord. (1 Samuel 1:20-28)
This is the presentation of Samuel in the temple, so to speak -- “the house of the Lord at Shiloh.” And the meaning is the same as what we find in Christ’s presentation all those centuries later. When both Hannah and Mary take their sons to the temple, they are “lending them to the Lord”; they are dedicating them entirely to the service of God; the sons become in a special way the possession of God, for as God tells Moses in the Book of Exodus, “consecrate to me all the first-born; whatever is the first to open the womb among the people of Israel, both of man and of beast, is mine” (Exodus 13:1-2).
Both of these examples together illustrate the precedent and the profound meaning of Mary and Joseph’s journey to Jerusalem to present the child Jesus in the temple. And given what we know about who Jesus is, we see that it not only makes sense that Jesus would be presented to God like these other sons of the Old Testament tradition, but Christ’s presentation specifically possesses an even deeper meaning. For Jesus is not just the son of devout parents like Isaac or Samuel, but has for his mother the Blessed Virgin Mary and for his father none other than God the Father. God has sent his own son into the world to be born of a virgin and this son now returns to him to be presented in the temple. Jesus thus fulfills the original point of God’s promise given to Abraham so long before, for the firstborn son who is consecrated to God is himself already consecrated in the fullness of divinity. He is the Son of God. Even still, as Mary’s son -- a son of Israel -- it was fitting that Jesus undergo all of the rituals and commandments established by the Law in order, again, “to fulfill all righteousness” and “to be made like his brethren in every respect.”
So Mary and Joseph arrive at the temple with Jesus, and there the story picks up as follows:
Now there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon, and this man was righteous and devout, looking for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he should not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ.
See how the promise for the “Lord’s Christ” is a function of the promise of a son that had pervaded the Old Testament. Ultimately, every firstborn son is to be a type of the Lord’s Christ -- a son of God -- which is why the Law commanded them to be consecrated to the Lord. But the expectation of the real deal, the Lord’s Christ as such, belongs to the entire people of Israel. And it’s Simeon that represents this expectation here, for he had received the descent of the Holy Spirit upon him, who had revealed to him that he would see for himself the Christ before his death.
And inspired by the Spirit [Simeon] came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him according to the custom of the law, he took him up in his arms and blessed God and said,
Some of you might recognize this song of Simeon as the Nunc dimittis which we say at the office of Evening Prayer. Here, Simeon has seen his promise fulfilled, for his eyes have seen the salvation of God in the face of the Christ child he holds in arms. But even for Simeon, the promise he had so patiently waited for is not just his alone. This salvation that he sees before him is the salvation that has been “prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles.” This is the ultimate promise for the people of Israel, the promise that had been given to their forefather, Abraham. Remember what God told to him back in Genesis: “by your descendants shall all the nations of the earth bless themselves.” The promise of a son for Abraham was never just for him alone or even for his descendants, but for all the nations, for all peoples. The son of Abraham, the son of Hannah, the firstborn son consecrated and lent to the Lord for life, has finally arrived in the fullness of Jesus who “was this day presented in the temple.”
With the fulfillment of this promise comes the possibility that we who are Gentiles can now participate in the salvation that has been prepared before us. The light of Christ has been revealed to us, first in the Epiphany when the Magi followed the star to Bethlehem and now in the Presentation of Christ in the Temple. As a result, we are now included in the blessing and promise given to Abraham because we have been included in Christ. To be in Christ is to be presented with him in the temple of the presence of the God who is now our Father. As St. Paul says to the Colossians (which our Collect picks up as well), “you, who once were estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, [Christ] has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and irreproachable before him” (Colossians 1:21-22).
I said in an earlier sermon this year that Christ could be in “his Father’s house” no matter where he was on earth because his very body was the house; he himself is the new Temple. Similarly, his presentation in the temple on this feast day signals the coming of this new temple. We “who once were estranged and hostile in mind” can be presented “holy and blameless” before God because the “temple” in which we are presented is the holy and blameless body of Christ, the Church.
This is why, to close, our constant presence in the worship of the Church is so essential for our presentation before God. For, as Paul continues, Christ presents us holy and blameless before God, “provided that [we[ continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel which you heard” (Colossians 1:23). We are to imitate the blessed example of Simeon, who diligently pursued righteousness and devotion and looked for the consolation of Israel, never forsaking the promise that he had received from the Holy Spirit. We are to be like the prophetess Anna, who “did not depart from the temple, worshiping with fasting and prayer night and day.” The Presentation of Christ in the Temple teaches us that to be presented before God in Christ demands that we never depart from this new temple of Christ, who’s body is the Church. So make the words of Simeon’s song your own; never stop looking for the salvation that God has prepared for you, for in so doing, our eyes too will see this salvation; and like Simeon, we too will depart in peace and into glory.
A blessed Feast of the Presentation of Christ to you all. Amen.