“My eyes have seen your salvation”

A Sermon for the Presentation of the Lord in the Temple

Preached at Trinity Episcopal Church in Easton, Pennsylvania
February 2, 2020

O Lord, mercifully receive the prayers of your people who
call upon you, and grant that they may know and understand
what things they ought to do, and also may have grace and
power faithfully to accomplish them; through Jesus Christ
our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever. Amen.

Guide us waking, O Lord, and guard us sleeping; that awake
we may watch with Christ, and asleep we may rest in peace.

Lord, you now have set your servant free *
to go in peace as you have promised;

For these eyes of mine have seen the Savior, *
whom you have prepared for all the world to see:

A Light to enlighten the nations, *
and the glory of your people Israel.

Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit: *
as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever. Amen.

Guide us waking, O Lord, and guard us sleeping; that awake
we may watch with Christ, and asleep we may rest in peace.

Presentation-in-the-Temple

 

The words of the Canticle which I just shared with you are taken from the Holy Gospel According to Saint Luke. For those who pray the Daily Office, they are very familiar. They are used each night at the conclusion of the Office of Night Prayer, otherwise known as Compline. This Canticle is sometimes better known by the Latin title of the first few words, “Now you may let your servant depart in peace,” or Nunc Dimittis.

It is interesting that the last song which the Church chooses to sing at the very end of the day is a song about light. “This is the light of revelation to the nations and the glory of your people, Israel.” And yet, it makes sense when we remember that in the Jewish mind of the First Century, the day begins at Sunset and not at dawn. Thus, it is that the day begins with a time of rest—a mini-Sabbath, if you will, which strengthens one for all the tasks which will take place in the second part of the day—after waking in the morning. It is the time of quiet, of peace, and of rest. It is a time of preparation for what is yet to come—for what remains unknown. It is a time in which the efforts and plans of humans are laid aside—a time which is, perhaps, more fully governed by God.

There is perhaps also a sense in which it is a time that requires trust. We do not see well in the dark, and so are often unaware of things which lie outside the small area of light. In an era before electricity, or even flashlights, the darkness must have seemed much more intense. And especially in the cold winter, the nights must have seemed so very long. In such a time, in such a season, there must have been a hunger, a longing, a burning desire for warmth and light—and for the safety which they promised.

Night, though, also reminded those who lived in that time of the presence and promise of God. From the total and encompassing darkness, God created light—the Sun, the Moon, the Stars of the Sky. God illuminated creation and declared it good. Through the drops of rain falling after the flood, God caused light to permeate the rain and created the rainbow-a reminder of God’s abiding love and care for all of creation—and a promise of mercy and compassion. Moses saw God’s presence in the burning bush—which blazed but was not consumed and heard that the very place where he was standing was made holy by God’s presence. The people of Israel were consoled and comforted on their journey by the Pillar of Fire which illuminated the darkness of the desert through which they traveled for forty years. And, the menorah of the Temple reminded the People of God of the Eternal Presence of God in that most holy of places on earth—the very locus of the encounter between heaven and earth. It was, perhaps for this very reason, that the Sabbath candles were kindled at sunset each Friday night and then extinguished at the end of the Sabbath at sunset on Saturday night. It marked a separation between the sacred and the profane.

The Feast of the Presentation of our Lord in the Temple is a feast of light. This feast is also a feast of transition. It marks the definitive end of the Christmas season in some traditions. And it moves us forward to the brief interlude between the infancy of Our Lord and the inauguration of his Public Ministry which is recalled each year at the beginning of the Season of Lent. The account of the Presentation is found only in the Gospel of Luke.

It is helpful to recall the context in which we find this passage. The Gospel of Luke, we remember, is part of a two-volume history of salvation. In three phases, the entire unfolding of God’s saving actions in history is recalled: The Stage of Israel, the Stage of Jesus, and (especially in the Acts of the Apostles) the Stage of the Church.

This first stage, the Stage of Israel, uses common imagery from the Hebrew Scriptures to remind us of God’s actions in the past. Thus, there are Priests (like Zechariah), old people without children (like Elizabeth), visiting angels (like Gabriel) Prophets (like Anna and Simeon), The Shepherds in the field remind us of King David, from the city of Bethlehem. And above all else, there is the Temple—the house where the Lord abides.

In this stage we feast on the songs, or Canticles, which in story form remind us of singers from the Hebrew Scriptures. Each of the Songs of Praise find a place in the daily worship of the Church—the Gloria, “Glory to God in the Highest” commonly recited at the beginning of the Holy Eucharist—and modified as the conclusion to the Psalms, “Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit.” The Benedictus, that song of the Priest Zachariah, “Blessed be the God of Israel,” is used at Morning Prayer, or Lauds. The Magnificat, that hymn of the Virgin Mary, “My Soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,” is sung at Evening Prayer or Vespers, each night, And the Song of Simeon, the Nunc Dimittis, “Now Lord you may let your servant depart in peace,” concludes the Office of Night Prayer, or Compline, and brings to a conclusion the daily round of prayer at the close of each day. Yet, as we have already remembered, it is at the same time, also the beginning of the day,

In an earlier time, in which candlelight was far more precious, and treasured, this Feast was often called “Candlemas.” It was quite literally the Mass at which the candles to be used during the coming liturgical year were blessed. It was also a day in which the faithful brought their own candles to church to be blessed. There was a tradition in some places that the blessed candles were a visible reminder of God’s love and protection in time of trouble. And so, the blessed candles would be lit during storms or inclement weather. They would be placed at the bedside of those who were seriously ill. They would be lit at the bed of the mother in labor—and as a light to welcome the new-born child—into the world, into the family, into the home. And so there would often be a procession—early in the morning illuminating the darkness as they marched into the church to celebrate the Mass which recalled that the babe of Bethlehem was the “light of revelation to the nations.”

The account of the Presentation is another reminder to us, of the devout piety of Mary and Joseph. They are observant Jews. They fulfilled the requirements of the Law by entering their son into the Covenant with God by his circumcision on the eighth day following his birth. They named him as a child of God: “Jesus,” “Yeshua,” “Joshua,” -a name which means “God Saves.” And now, forty days later, they bring him to the Temple to complete two remaining commands. His mother comes to be Purified following childbirth—and to return to the secular work as mother, wife, and housekeeper. And, as first-born son—one who belongs to God—Jesus is brought to the Temple to be presented to God and to be redeemed or “bought back” so that his parents can raise him in their home.

Anna and Simeon are fascinating people. They appear to us—or at least to those who may be younger—as ancient. They are both in their “twilight years.” They are both preparing for the end of their lives. I suppose that Corporate America might well look at them and think that they are not very successful. They have devoted their entire lives to fasting, prayer, and service in the Temple. They have become fixtures there—a consoling presence to all who come at moments of transition. They welcome those who bring offerings to God to request help, or in thanksgiving. They greet babes, and parents, and especially mothers. They are a kind of two person welcoming committee, who over generations, must have been familiar to families, to pilgrims, and to all who came to find God. They reveal to us, that people at any and every stage of life can be and are called by God. They remind us of the gifts of experience, and faithful service over decades. They also remind us that in the Hebrew Scriptures, God often surprised the old—those whom we might imagine just want to comfortably enjoy retirement by asking them to do astonishing things—to go to a new land, or to begin a family. Things which we might imagine would be impossible to do.

I think that it is not going to far to suggest that Simeon plays a uniquely symbolic role. He is a prophet who celebrates the fulfillment of God’s promises through the prophets. He is a patriarch who welcomes the child of Promise and tenderly takes him into his arms to cuddle and caress him-to lay his hand on the child’s head in blessing. He is a priest who holds the child up and Presents him to God. And he is a herald who announces to all who hear his words, who this child is, and what his presence will mean to the whole world.

Luke does not have the story of the Magi, and so this is the moment in which God’s revelation to the Gentiles is announced. This child will welcome all into God’s family and kingdom—and not only the People of Israel. Like the Shekinah—the very presence of God in the Temple, “God’s glory,” this child will be the “Glory of Israel.” And yet, from the beginning we are warned that Jesus will be a “sign of contradiction,” that his coming will upset the status quo and cause an upheaval in the established order, and that even his mother’s heart will be pierced with a sword (as his own heart will be pierced on the cross). So, even in this lovely and tender moment, the seeds of sorrow are planted.

Simeon, though, celebrates God’s own fidelity to him, personally. God’s promise has been fulfilled. He has seen and held in his own arms the Messiah. And, in that moment, he realizes that God’s promise has been even better than he could have imagined. And so, he concludes with the words which each of us would be blessed to be able to say at the end of our own life:

“Lord, you now have set your servant free *
to go in peace as you have promised;

For these eyes of mine have seen the Savior, *
whom you have prepared for all the world to see.”

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