Reflection for the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord - February 2, 2017

January 30, 2017

"To take Jesus in our hands and enfold him in our arms..."

In 1997, St. John Paul II established the special Day of Consecrated Life to coincide with the Feast of the Presentation of the Child Jesus in the Temple of Jerusalem (February 2). The Pope gave three reasons for his selection of February 2 as a special day for religious women and men: first, to praise and thank the Lord for the gift of consecrated life; second, to promote the knowledge and appreciation of consecrated women and men by all the People of God; and third, to invite all those who have dedicated their life to the cause of the Gospel to celebrate the wonderful ways that Lord has worked through them.

Biblical background

According to the Mosaic law (Leviticus 12:2-8), a woman who gives birth to a boy is unable for forty days to touch anything sacred or to enter the temple area by reason of her legal impurity. At the end of this period she is required to offer a year-old lamb as a burnt offering and a turtledove or young pigeon as an expiation of sin. The woman who could not afford a lamb offered instead two turtledoves or two young pigeons, as Mary and Joseph do in today’s Gospel. They took him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord: as the firstborn son (Luke 2:7) Jesus was consecrated to the Lord as the law required (Exodus 13:2, 12), but there was no requirement that this be done at the temple. The concept of a presentation at the temple is probably derived from 1 Sam 1:24-28, where Hannah offers the child Samuel for sanctuary services. The law further stipulated (Numbers 3:47-48) that the firstborn son should be redeemed by the parents through their payment of five shekels to a member of a priestly family. Luke remains silent about this legal requirement.
Let us reflect on the very poignant Gospel scene of the Presentation of the Child Jesus in the Temple found in chapter 2 of Luke’s Infancy narrative (2:22-38). In this touching scene, we encounter four individuals who embrace the new life of Jesus held in their arms: the elderly and faithful Simeon, the old, wise prophetess Anna, and the young couple, Mary and Joseph, who in faithful obedience offer their child to the Lord. Luke writes that "when the parents brought in the child Jesus to perform the custom of the law in regard to him, the old Simeon took the baby into his arms and blessed God" (Lk 2:27-28). At that point the evangelist places on Simeon's lips the canticle Nunc Dimittis - this beautiful prayer is really an anthology of the prayer of ancient Israel. The liturgy has us repeat it daily at night prayer: "My eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all peoples, a light of revelation to the Gentiles and glory for your people Israel" (2:30-32).
The Holy Spirit was at work in Simeon and also in the life of the prophetess Anna who, having remained a widow since her youth, "never left the Temple, but worshipped night and day with fasting and prayer" (2:37). She was a woman consecrated to God and, in the light of God's Spirit, especially capable of grasping God's plan and interpreting God's commands. "And coming forward at that very time, Anna gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were awaiting the redemption of Jerusalem" (Lk 2:38). Like Simeon she too, without a doubt was moved by the Holy Spirit in her encounter with Jesus.
The prophetic words of Simeon and Anna not only announced the Savior's coming into the world and his presence in Israel's midst, but also his redemptive sacrifice. This second part of the prophecy was directed precisely to Mary, mother of the Savior: "He is destined for the rise and fall of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be contradicted (and you yourself a sword will pierce) so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed" (2:34-35).
Two important perspectives for the Consecrated life flow from this deeply touching Gospel story. The Presentation of God’s own son into Jerusalem’s majestic temple takes place amidst the many comings and goings of various people, busy with their work: priests and Levites taking turns to be on duty; crowds of devout pilgrims anxious to encounter the God of Israel in his earthly dwelling in Jerusalem. Yet none of them noticed anything special about the scene unfolding before them. Jesus was a child like the others, a first-born son of very simple, humble, holy parents.
The temple priests, too, were incapable of recognizing the signs of the new and special presence of the Messiah and Saviour. Rather it was two elderly people, Simeon and Anna, who were able to discover the great newness present in the person of the child Jesus. Because they were led by the Holy Spirit, Simeon and Anna found in this Child the fulfillment of their patient waiting and faithful watchfulness. Upon seeing the Child, Simeon and Anna understood that he was the long Awaited One. He was the fulfillment of their hopes and dreams.
Simeon and Anna, coupled with the simplicity and piety of Mary, Joseph and the baby reveal the sheer humanity of this meeting. The old man holds the child in his arms - the torch of life somehow spanning two generations of faithful Jews. Holding this child in his arms, he knows that he is holding his very future close to his heart. What contentment to know that he is embracing in his arms the continuity of his own life! Simeon has hoped, he has believed and now his hope, in the shape of a baby, is here, full of vitality and future promise. The old man rejoices that others will continue his work; he is happy that in his own decline there is indeed a reawakening, a rebirth, a future that is opening up.
Anna, too, is not afraid to bless the newness and challenge that this child brings. It is not easy for the old person that lies within each one of us to welcome the new, to take the baby up in our arms. There is always the fear that the baby will not survive, that the newborn will not share the same ideals, that this child will betray our ideals and in so doing put us aside and take our place. Though elderly, Simeon and Anna embodied a hopeful, youthful vision. They were evergreen.
This story is played out each time I have visited my elderly confrères in our various retirement homes and congregational infirmary. There are those who rejoice in us younger brothers, like Simeon and Anna, because they see us carrying the torch forward. And there are those who fear that we will not survive, that we will betray their ideals and not pay attention to them because they are simply old. If we hope to be consecrated men and women of vision in the Church today, it is because we are standing on the shoulders of giants, of those who have gone before us. We must never forget this fact. Each time we have attempted to go forward, not remembering what and who went before us, we have paid a dear price.
The second unique perspective of Luke’s Presentation Gospel scene is that of bearing Christ to the world. If our religious congregations, our local communities, our educational institutions, our parish structures, our varied apostolic works do not bear Jesus to the world, and do not speak about him openly, then we are not fulfilling the mission entrusted to us by God and the Church.
 (CNS photo/Paul Haring) 
The newness, effectiveness, power of proclamation of our educational and pastoral efforts do not primarily consist in the use of dazzling, original methods or techniques, which certainly have their effectiveness, but in being filled with the Holy Spirit and allowing ourselves to be guided by Him. The novelty of authentic proclamation of the Good News lies in immersing ourselves deeply in the mystery of Christ, the assimilation of His Word and of His presence in the Eucharist, so that He Himself, the living Jesus, can act and speak through poor instruments like us.
Pope Francis is a magnificent example of the New Evangelization in the flesh. He speaks so often about the “culture of encounter” that brings us face to face with other human beings. If you want to know what Evangelization looks like, feels likes, smells like look at Francis, himself an elderly man, who lives the Gospel of Joy. Pope Francis as not lost his hopeful, youthful vision. He, too, is evergreen.
In paragraph #88 of his Apostolic Exhortation “Evangelii Gaudium,” the Bishop of Rome writes:
"Many try to escape from others and take refuge in the comfort of their privacy or in a small circle of close friends, renouncing the realism of the social aspect of the Gospel. For just as some people want a purely spiritual Christ, without flesh and without the cross, they also want their interpersonal relationships provided by sophisticated equipment, by screens and systems which can be turned on and off on command. Meanwhile, the Gospel tells us constantly to run the risk of a face-to-face encounter with others, with their physical presence which challenges us, with their pain and their pleas, with their joy which infects us in our close and continuous interaction. True faith in the incarnate Son of God is inseparable from self-giving, from membership in the community, from service, from reconciliation with others. The Son of God, by becoming flesh, summoned us to the revolution of tenderness."

A Kairos Moment

When Mary and Joseph arrived at Jerusalem’s Temple, with the Child Jesus in their arms, it was not just one more ordinary moment in the life of an old priest and a faithful prophetess on duty that day. It was the divinely appointed moment. Ordinary time “chronos” was suddenly transformed into “the moment from God.”
Because we live in this very same kairos, the “appointed time and hour” of our history, we cannot speak of the future of the Church, the future of our parish community, the future of our dioceses and religious congregations,, the future of our activities of education and evangelization, indeed the future of anything! The only real issue for us is Jesus and the future of the Church, Jesus and the future of our parish community, Jesus and the future of our dioceses and religious communities, Jesus and the future of our educational and pastoral programs and activities, Jesus and the future of everything! Too often our look at the future is purely scientific or sociological, with no reference to Jesus, the Gospel or the action of the Spirit in history and in the church.
On this special day when we give thanks to God for the Consecrated Life, we must ask ourselves some significant questions. Why do some of our contemporaries - brothers and sisters in religious life - see and find Christ, while others do not? What opens the eyes and the heart? What is lacking in those who remain indifferent? Does our self-assurance, the claim to knowing reality, the presumption of having formulated a definitive judgment on everything not close us off and make our hearts insensitive to the newness of God? How often are we dead certain of the idea that we have formed of the world, of the Church, of the consecrated life, and no longer let ourselves be involved in the curiosity and intimacy of an adventure with God who wants to meet us and draw us closer to Him?
How frequently do we place our confidence in ourselves rather than in the Child of Bethlehem, and we do not think it possible that God could be so great as to make himself small so as to come really close to us? How could it be that God’s glory and power are revealed in a helpless Baby?
The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple, and the carefully chosen words of Simeon's prayer invite us into contemplation and adoration of the Word made flesh, dwelling powerfully among us. We all lead busy lives. We do important, good works. Many of our lives are deeply enmeshed with the institutions and enterprises we serve. At times are we not so caught up with the comings and goings of so many people in our daily existence, that we forget to notice Jesus in our midst?
Jesus, who comes to us in the distressing disguise of the poor, the unbalanced, the angry, sad and confused people who make up our worlds? Jesus, who comes to us from very simple, humble, holy parents who cannot do anything for us, except simply to be there? Could it be that we consecrated women and men, like those in Jerusalem’s temple, are incapable of recognizing the signs of the new and special presence of the Messiah and Saviour? And when we do encounter the radical newness that is Jesus, will we hold the baby in our arms, welcome him, make room for him in our lives? Will the 'newness' he brings really enter into our lives or will we try to put the old and the new together hoping that the newness of God will cause us minimum disturbance?
How do we see God's glory in our lives? Do we thirst for justice and peace? What are the new situations and who are the new people who have entered our lives in the last little while? What new realities are we avoiding or afraid of or rebelling against? How are we truly light and salvation for other people? Are we capable of warming human hearts by our lives? Do we radiate joy or announce despair? Do we live the Gospel of joy?
I conclude with the striking words of a great theologian and teacher of the second century, Origen (185-223). They are from his homily on Luke’s account of the Presentation of the Child Jesus in the Temple:
“Simeon knew that no one could release a man from the prison of the body with hope of life to come, except the one whom he enfolded in his arms. Hence, he also says to him, “Now you dismiss your servant, Lord, in peace” (Lk 8,44). For, as long as I did not hold Christ, as long as my arms did not enfold him, I was imprisoned, and unable to escape from my bounds. But this is true not only of Simeon, but of the whole human race. Anyone who departs from this world, anyone who is released from prison and the house of those in chains, to go forth and reign, should take Jesus in his hands. He should enfold him with his arms, and fully grasp him in his bosom. Then he will be able to go in joy where he longs to go… .”
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