Blessings and Burdens, Joys and Sorrows
The Presentation: Joy and Sorrow
If you have ever lived in - or even simply visited - a very large city – think New York or San Francisco, London or Paris, or even Philly - you may have discovered that it can be exciting and exhilarating to simply walk down busy sidewalks as life swirls around you in patterns of infinite possibility. Signs blink, cars and buses honk, glasses and dishes clatter in sidewalk cafes, a planter of flowers provides an unexpected pop of color, and snippets of conversations fall upon the ear – some casual, some earnest; different accents, or even foreign languages. Every person who passes by offers a fleeting opportunity for a life-changing encounter — a glance, a word, a smile, a tear, a door held open, a sudden side-step move to avoid a collision or an accidental entanglement that might mean nothing, or perhaps everything. And while the vast majority of these potential encounters will never materialize or lead to anything lasting or of substance, their promise makes the air thick with hope and intrigue, like the stillness before a violent summer thunderstorm. There is mystery, and there is opportunity, and there may be revelation in those crowded city streets for the one who is willing to walk them with an openness to the infinite possibilities.
So it is for the Holy Family in today’s Gospel passage, moving through the crowds of Jerusalem with a newborn infant in arms, headed to the great, imposing Temple complex to fulfill a ritual obligation, just days after their child’s birth.
On their way, there is dust and splattered mud. The pungent smell of market stalls, sweet and savory spices, the cloying and heady perfume of incense. The blood of newly slaughtered chickens and livestock, and the stinging smoke of cooking fires. Voices laughing, arguing, negotiating, sharing gossip or confidences. Mary and Joseph and the infant Jesus encounter all of this in the streets and alley ways of Jerusalem. A city, in all its vulgarity and glory, its seediness and magnificence, and capacity for surprise.
Then, as this small family from a small town in Galilee passes through the great and golden gates and enters the crowded Temple compound, a man crosses their path. A stranger, yes, but there must have been something about him — an air of trustworthiness and faith, compassion and grace and devotion — because Mary instinctively places her precious, days-old, first-born child into his open arms; while Joseph stands there at her side, quizzically holding the sacrificial turtledoves, as the unheeding crowds in the Temple courtyard swirl about and rush past them, filled with their own pressing needs. The old man is rapturous at first, praising God, saying something about light and promises and the Gentiles. But Mary can tell from his expression that this man knows. He somehow knows this son of hers is not just any child. He somehow knows who her son truly is.
But this is not the end of the sacred encounter.
For then, the aged Simeon looks at the hopeful face of Jesus’ mother and utters the words she must hear, although they are words that no mother surely ever wants to hear: “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.”
“. . . a sword will pierce your own soul too.” Fateful, terrifying words. This is what might happen when we meet a stranger on a city street; they might reveal the truth to us, including the truth we truly don’t want to know. The truth that we must carry within our hearts through all the years, through the joys and the pains. Carry all the way to Golgotha.
This Gospel story leaves us with a bit of a conundrum in our celebration of this Feast of the Presentation. Is this day meant to be a joyful occasion? Or a somber one? Are we to be happy? Or tearful? Or perhaps both. Indeed, as Jesus’ followers who live in the tension of both the cross and the empty tomb, can we ever fully delineate between these two experiences in our own Christian journey?
There is much gladness, to be sure, in both the priest Simeon and the widow Anna’s meeting with the Christ Child. Both of them recognize that, in this moment, what the prophet Malachi had long ago promised, and they had both long wished for, has come to pass: “The Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his Temple.” And thus, in this moment there is great joy, for God has fulfilled his promise to Israel; the King of Glory has come into his Temple, and redemption and salvation is at hand.
But at the same time, there is also pain, or perhaps even worse, a promise of pain yet to come with those haunting words, “a sword will pierce your own soul too.” This child, while destined for glory, is also destined for suffering, and whether Mary can really understand what Simeon is telling her, now there is no escaping the fact: her baby boy will one day return to this city for another purpose, and at that time, there will be no happy ending. The Temple priests who will bless her son today will one day seek to crucify him; and now that God’s great plan of salvation is set in motion, there is no turning back.
The pain to come and the gladness of today are interwoven so very tightly, they form a pattern that only time will make clear. But for now, there is only this moment, this intimate encounter of inseparable blessing and dread, as the unseeing city and uninterested world goes about its business.
Ancient though this Gospel encounter might be, the scene will still seem familiar to us, rushing as we do through the crowded marketplace of 21st-century life. Whether we live in a city or not, we know what it is like to go about our business, focusing on the task at hand, distracted by a toothache or a heartbreak, family turmoil or rumors of war. And just when we start to get lost inside our own narrative, a stranger bumps into us and tells us something we need to hear. It might be a kind word; it might be a sobering one. But it is something true, something that jolts us back into an understanding that our lives are not simply our own private drama to be enacted according to our own choices and selfish desires and preferences. We are each and every one of us part of a much larger story, one that contains all manner of great joys and deep sorrows, and the world will draw us into that story whether we like it or not. Yes, at some point, a sword will pierce our own souls, too. And sometimes we must be reminded of that, lest our hearts become focused too narrowly on ourselves and we lose sight of the full scope of human life and God’s great and grand vision for us.
As followers of Jesus, in fact, we must pursue, must seek out these hard and surprising encounters — we must follow the Christ Child into the Temple, as it were, and see who we might encounter there to tell us the truth about ourselves and our role in God’s plan. We do this in any number of ways — by coming to church each week, by going out into the community to serve others, by taking an unpopular stand on issues of justice or forgiveness or peace.
In all these activities and many more, we place ourselves in a vulnerable position that risks the likelihood of colliding with wise and terrifying and God-sent strangers. But we know that if we don’t follow Christ into the Temples of the world, the Simeons and the Annas of the world will never cross our path, will never find us. The divine appointments God has in store for us will never happen. And as a result, we will never rejoice and never grieve with them; we will never see what they see for us; we will never understand ourselves and our importance and true worth through the reflection and honesty of their piercing gaze.
And so, on this day, on a feast that contains both joy and sorrow, in a Temple and world that contain both blessing and burden, we learn this: in the city and everywhere, as in all of life, there is much to be found. Some of it is wondrous and joyous, and some of it is disturbing and sorrowful. There are strangers around every corner, and every so often, one of them will be sent by God to stop us in our tracks and change the trajectory of our story forever.
In the city and in life, there is danger and distraction, and yes, at the same time, there is goodness and grace. And God can be found in all of it. The fundamental lesson is that we must present ourselves in its midst, in the cacophony, in the muddy streets and dark alleyways, in the crowded and jostling sea of searching souls to learn the truth of our life. Like Mary and Joseph - like Jesus - we must make our own way into both the stillness of the Temple and into the noise of the world; allow our fragile hearts to be pierced and broken open, because somehow that is the only way we can fully live. Because somehow, it is the only way we can be fully and eternally saved.
The Presentation: Joy and Sorrow
Malachi 3:1-4; Psalm 84 or Psalm 24:7-10; Hebrews 2:14-18; Luke 2:22-40