The Presentation of Jesus at the Temple – from the Menologion of Basil II,
an eleventh century illuminated manuscript. Byzantium. Public Domain.
Luke 2:22-40 When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”), and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”
Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying, “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him.
Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”
There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem. When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him
Luke 2:22-40 It’s been some time since your child was born, perhaps a month or so. After the whirlwind evening in the stable, some extended family in Bethlehem set you up with better accommodations for awhile while everyone got used to the new addition. The boy was circumcised on the eighth day in the local house of worship. This was your custom. And while there, a local priest talked about the unique role of first-born sons.
He reads from the Torah – from the book of Exodus:
“Every first-born male among your children you shall redeem (buyback). When in the future your child asks you, ‘What does this mean?’ you shall answer, ‘This reminds us that by the strength of hand the LORD we were brought out of Egypt, from the house of slavery.”
This ritual should be performed in Jerusalem, at the temple, where an offering can be made. Maybe we can stop in Jerusalem on our way back to Nazareth, you think. So, when everyone is okay to travel, you and your little family head up to Jerusalem to present your son to God.
The city is a busy place, of course. You are a bit of a country bumpkin, growing up in more pastoral settings, but you’ve been to Jerusalem enough times to know what to expect. The roads are heavy with people as you get closer. A few crucified bodies along the road – reminders of Rome’s presence, signs that insurrection will be met with brutal violence. You shield the eyes of your infant instinctively as you walk by.
You make your way through the winding streets to the temple area. It’s a prominent place and was renovated about 20 years ago by Herod. In the outer courtyard stand countless people – some talking business, others begging, some selling offerings, others exchanging money. You overhear two older men talking about a recent attack by a group of zealots and the swift action of Rome. One of the older men leans close to the other and whispers something about Herod. He’s power-hungry and self-indulgent, and he maintains his power by doing whatever Rome wants. The other man tells him to keep his voice down.
As you head toward the tables, an old man stops you. He greets you warmly and is excited to see your newborn son. He talks to you about God’s faithfulness to God’s people – how God has always been faithful and will soon bring about salvation and comfort to all people.
He asks to hold the child. He seems like a devout man, and given the last month, you’ve become accustomed to folks doting on this child.
“Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,” he says, looking to the sky. “For today, I’ve seen your salvation in the face of this child. You’ve prepared this salvation in the presence of your people – like a light revealed to all people for the glory of Israel.”
He then turns to you and offers a sincere blessing. Maybe it was something like:
“May the Lord bless you and keep you; May the Lord make His face shine upon you, and be gracious to you; May the Lord lift up His countenance upon you, And give you peace.”’
But he also offers a prophecy:
“Listen closely – this child will bring about the falling and rising of many in this land. He will be like a walking irony, a contradiction of power and might, and you will not go unscathed from his work. For a sword will pierce your soul as well – and the inner thoughts of many will be revealed.”
He hands your child back, and you feel a little rattled by this moment. You look at your spouse and wonder what to do with this encounter. The two of you talk about it and all the strange happenings since your son’s birth as you head toward the table where vendors are selling animals for sacrifice. You cannot afford the lamb, so you purchase two turtledoves and take them to the priests. In the distance, you hear a woman praising God for bringing about the consolation of Jerusalem.
The ceremony is done rather quickly. The animals are dispatched, a Scripture read, and a prayer said. You pack everything up and begin the journey back to Nazareth, where the boy will be raised.
There’s a lot to the story of Jesus’ presentation at the temple. I’d like to offer three insights that might help us gather some meaning from it. First, Jesus was raised in occupied territory under Roman rule. Jesus’ people resisted occupation and hoped for freedom. The importance of this context cannot be understated. One of the founding stories of the Jewish people was the exodus from Egypt. In this story, an entire people, held by slavery, were liberated by their God. The story was told over and over in many different ways. One of the ways this story was told was through the ransoming of the first-born son.
If you remember your Hebrew Bible, the last plague on Egypt was the slaying of the first-born. In this plague, the angel of the Lord visited the land of Egypt and killed the first-born males – both human and animal. The ancient Hebrew people were protected if they killed a lamb, painted their doorposts with its blood, and ate the Passover meal together.
The ceremony that Jesus’ parents undertake early in his life is a retelling of that story. Usually, a lamb would be sacrificed, the stories would be read, and prayers would be said. If you were poor and could not afford a lamb, you could give a pair of turtle doves or young pigeons. Regardless, Jesus grew up in a society that believed in a God that liberated the oppressed. Jesus also grew up as one of the countless oppressed, longing for God’s liberating work in the world.
Second, two unique characters in this story, Simeon and Anna, serve essential roles in our story as prophets of God’s coming liberation told in Luke’s gospel. There’s a cross-generational encounter here. Both prophets are advanced in years and serve as meaningful connections to Israel’s past – noting that the coming Messiah figure has deep roots in the history of God’s people. Both are also lay-folks devout but not authorities of people in power. Likely this highlights Jesus’ outsider status even more and places him on the side of the devout oppressed and not the powerful but complicit. Finally, both are considered prophets. Luke likes to make a distinction between prophets and witnesses. Prophets wait for the coming of God’s salvation. Witnesses experience God’s salvation. Prophets hope for the day of the Lord. Witnesses partake in the Day of the Lord. Moving from the season of Advent to the season of Christmas, the church experiences both roles in some form or fashion. For most of December, we’ve waited. We’ve hoped. Images of light and darkness are prevalent with the idea that the light of salvation is coming in the many different ways we define it. But after Christmas, the church moves from waiting for Jesus to proclaiming Jesus – from prophetic hope to earnest witness.
Third, three words are really full of meaning in this passage: “Salvation,” “Revelation,” and “Redemption.” Simeon has seen God’s salvation in this child brought to the temple. This child, he declares, will be a revelation of light to all people (Jews and Gentiles). Anna sees the child as part of the story in the redemption or consolation of Jerusalem.
Salvation longs for a day where evil is no more. Where individuals, communities, and the entire world are set free from bondage and oppression. Salvation happens when justice is levied yet is mixed with contradictory elements of grace and forgiveness. It longs for a world set just right, and in this gospel context, it longs for a world where God rules in place of a foreign power or the devil or Herod or whatever personification of evil we might conjure.
Often, and especially in religious expressions in the US, salvation is associated with the saving of personal souls, conversion experiences, and eternal life. “Are you saved?” is a question echoed across the centuries by many firebrand preachers and evangelists before altar calls, confession, and baptisms. In some ways, it provided the hearer with direct agency to affect their eternal destiny. To the historically marginalized, this is empowerment. But the salvation found in our Scriptures is probably something more than this. For Simeon, salvation has nothing to do with accepting Jesus into your heart or being with God when you die. It’s also not just for a chosen people, God’s holy elect. Instead, this salvation is inclusive, something available to gentiles – our Scripture’s way of saying that it was for everyone. In these words, Simeon envisions an entire world set free from the things that hurt people and harm creation.
Unfortunately, Anna is not given any lines, but we read that she speaks a lot, spreading the news of this child to all who looked for the consolation of Jerusalem. While Simeon sees God’s salvation on the world stage, Anna sees God’s work in the world in the streets of her city. Salvation is not an abstract notion – it’s not just a lovely thought we have about life after death, or justice, or lasting peace. God’s saving work happens in the streets of a city that has seen its share of loss and disaster.
I love this story. And, although the text doesn’t allow for this reading, I’d love to think that Simeon and Anna do this for all the babies and their tired parents as they enter the temple to present their child to God. What a way to mark life as sacred. To say something like:
I can die in peace, knowing that your child is in this world. Because your child is so important and the world will never be the same. In fact, it will be a lot better because of this child.
And while it might have been Simeon and Anna’s role to praise and bless Jesus, to mark him as special and unique, perhaps it’s the role of the church to do the same for all of our young people, to greet them and their parents with a blessing and sense of relief, knowing that the world will be better because they are in it.
The pandemic has affected all of us in different ways. Some have carried the brunt of insecurity, being laid off, or furloughed, wondering where the money for rent, bills, and food will come from. Some have had to carry the brunt of loneliness, vulnerable populations that can’t get out as usual because catching COVID could do serious damage. Others bear the brunt of being overwhelmed. Many parents have continued to work full-time while educating their children at home with limited time and resources for essential self-care.
As we enter this new year, we’ve got a few more months of this pandemic, maybe a little more. It would be a good practice to remember our parents with small children these days in our prayers and actions. They are working hard to make life safe and semi-normal for their children with limited tools in this unprecedented time. We can play that role of Simeon or Anna for these parents in our lives, offering reassurance, pointing to a better future, doing a little bit of the leg work to make the days go just a little smoother.
May God bless you and keep you this New Year. May God give you hope and comfort in 2021. And may God bring salvation to this world for us, through us, and for the sake of all creation. Amen.