FEAST OF THE PRESENTATION OF THE LORD
“No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main…” Brexit, as it is called, went into effect yesterday; and one can only wonder what the poet, John Donne, would make of it. The world increasingly comes under the sway of a culture that stands in stark contrast to the view that no man – or nation – is an island. That is one reason that today’s feast of Our Lord’s Presentation in the Temple is so vitally important. It is a powerful challenge to the individualism that stands at the heart of post-modern identity.
The Presentation is first and foremost a ritual of belonging, of identity affirmed, of bonds cemented. Forty days after his birth, every male infant had to be presented before Almighty God in the Temple and a sacrifice offered to satisfy God’s claim on him. “Every male that opens the womb shall be consecrated to the Lord.” Very clearly the truth is stated that our lives are not simply our own to do with as we please. We belong to our God, the loving Father who created us for himself. In the presentation sacrifice, Jesus’ belonging to the Covenant between God and his Chosen People is affirmed and renewed. The presence of Simeon and Anna and their unselfconscious interaction with Mary and Joseph make it clear that the ritual does not involve the Holy Family alone; it is a matter of the People of God receiving and recognizing this boy as one of themselves, a Son of the Covenant.
In the course of the Presentation ritual, identities are revealed and affirmed. Simeon immediately recognizes Jesus as the Christ, “the salvation which [God] has prepared in the sight of all the peoples.” And his destiny is revealed. Jesus is “destined for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be contradicted.” Mary, for her part, can expect to find herself pierced with a sword like the one that will pierce her Son’s side on the cross. In the encounter in the Temple, Simeon finds his own destiny fulfilled and Anna at last reaches the pinnacle of her prophetic gift, speaking about the child to all who were awaiting the redemption of Jerusalem.
In a recent Op Ed column in the New York Times, the commentator David Brooks decried the individualism that has taken hold of our culture; and accurately identifies it as the source of so much of the unhappiness and dissatisfaction we hear about today. That dissatisfaction lies at the root of much of the addiction and the alarming rate of suicide, especially among young people. “We are creating societies that pulverize who we are and what we are made to be. But we are created with an innate tendency to relationships and interdependence. We don’t cooperate only to get things we want individually,” he writes. “We collaborate to build shared environments we can enjoy together. Often, we pick a challenge just so we can have the joy of collaborating. Relationships are ends to themselves.”
Today’s feast marks the far end of the Christmas season. And it makes a culminating statement about the meaning of the Incarnation. Jesus was born not simply to offer salvation to individuals one by one, but to call together a new People of God. Fulness of life will be found by all who take part in the shared effort to build the Kingdom of God, guided and empowered by the Holy Spirit, the way Simeon and Anna found fulfillment in the ancient Temple ritual and in the company of Mary and Joseph as well as Jesus.
Today is Candlemas Day, the day when candles are blessed for use in our churches and homes in the coming year. Today we hail Jesus as the true Light of the World, the one who points the way into the future. As the daylight begins to return to our northern climes, we pray that Jesus may bring all of humanity closer together in a shared and sustained effort to put an end to hunger, disease, violence, prejudice and hatred, cold indifference to the plight of strangers. May the Light of Christ shine ever brighter in our world.