Something that continually fascinates me is how a language unfolds; as someone who used to work in early childhood development, seeing how kids would intuit sentence construction never failed to amaze me. “Her did something,” or “it happened yesterday night” are all stepping stones to getting a grasp on the English language. I’m also incredibly interested in colloquial phrases and how they came to be. For example, “bite the bullet” stems from a late 19th century practice in pre-anesthesia surgery, where the doctor would have the patient literally bite a bullet to distract from the pain. And “mad as a hatter” doesn’t come from Lewis Carol’s Alice in Wonderland, but is predated to the 17th century when hat makers would use mercury in their felting and it would slowly poison them, making them appear mad. And reading through our gospel this week, I’ve been wondering if the phrase, “now I can die happy,” might have roots in Simeon’s song.
Today we celebrate the Feast of the Presentation in which the Holy Family comes to the Temple for the purification ritual some forty days after Jesus’ birth, and perhaps in reading through this passage and hearing this story of Simeon and Anna’s reaction to the Christ child, it could be a little confusing about why this narrative gets such special attention; in our prayer book the Feast of the Presentation is on the same level as the Feast of the Transfiguration, noted as one of Jesus’ greatest miracles. But in our gospel lesson, Jesus doesn’t say or do anything. There are no miracles here; this passage simply recounts a young, poor family bringing their sacrifice and their young child to the temple as the law commanded them to do. In many ways in likely felt like an ordinary day for the very common ritual to take place; so why does this encounter take such a high place in our church year and in our life of faith?
Maybe it is because on this entirely ordinary day, God showed up in the form of a faithful family, doing what they were bound to do, and Simeon and Anna saw it. And to say that Simeon and Anna saw the small infant in Mary’s arms is not of much significance, but on this ordinary day they saw not just the child, they saw the Messiah, the Christ. Simeon, old in years, had been told by the Spirit that he wouldn’t die until he saw the Messiah, and when he saw Jesus, he gave rise to his song, “for these eyes of mine have seen your salvation;” I can die happy now! And shortly after Simeon celebrated the coming of the Messiah, Anna, a prophet whose life was full of fasting and praying in the temple, saw Jesus and began praising God, and then she went about spreading the good news that the Messiah had come. So, perhaps this day gets special attention in our church calendar because the act of seeing Christ that is modeled by Simeon and Anna is still something that we are tasked to do, even 2,000 years later.
Simeon and Anna are busy about their lives, but they see the Christ and then they proclaim God’s goodness; they let their ritual be interrupted by the presence of the Messiah, by the presence of the Beloved. Simeon and Anna could have easily held conceptions about what the Messiah would look like, or what the Holy Family might be, and I can’t help but wonder, what would have happened if Anna and Simeon had overlooked Mary and Joseph because they brought in the offering set aside for the poor. They could have seen the two turtle doves and two young pigeons, the supplemental sacrifice set aside for the poor, and assumed that this could not possibly be the one for whom they were waiting; instead they saw that God was present in the ordinary. Maybe the importance of this feast day lies not in what we learn from Christ, but in what we can learn from those who were able to see the Christ.
What might our life and faith look like if we didn’t rest until we saw Christ in others each and every day? How might our faith be deeper and broader if the thing about which we were most concerned was to see the image of God on each person that we encounter on a daily basis? What if for the next season of our lives, the guiding principle was, as we affirm in our baptismal covenant, that we seek and serve Christ in all persons, and that God is present to us in the ordinary?
A while back, I was talking to an atheist acquaintance of mine at an ordinary lunch, and while he doesn’t share our faith, I have learned that folks get curious when they sit down to share a meal with a priest, even if they don’t believe in God. He asked me what it meant, in my eyes, to be Christian, and why does it matter? I talked about how I’m a better person when I follow Christ’s example and how community, a central tenant of our faith, is vital to my spiritual and emotional health, among other things. And I talked about communion and baptism, and I walked him through our baptismal covenant. He pushed back, however, on the affirmation that we would seek and serve Christ in all persons, “that’s impossible; it’s impossible to do that to all people.” I thought about the validity of his pushback and ultimately agreed that it was difficult, but that with God’s help, we’ll get awfully close.
Our lives of faith are not meant to be formed around what is possible, but around of unflinching belief that God shows up in the ordinary, plain, everyday world, and chooses to love us. When you come and extend your fragile hands to receive the sacrament of the body of Christ, remember that to do so provides nourishment, but it also challenges you to do as Simeon and Anna did: to see, to really see Christ in all persons. And as you leave this space today, remember that we are not just to see Christ in all persons, but to serve them as well, even when it feels impossible. And even then, the majority of our faith cannot be lived in private, quietly seeing the image of God everywhere we go, but we must go out and share the good news of God in Christ, just as Anna did that day, so that at the end of our lives our song can be the same as Simeon’s, “Lord, you now have set your servant free, For these eyes of mine have seen the Savior.”
A sermon delivered to the people of Christ Episcopal Church in Bowling Green, KY for The Feast of the Presentation on Sunday, February 2, 2020.