Jesus’ Presentation at the Temple

Today we celebrate the presentation of Jesus at the Temple. The story can be found in Luke 2. The presentation happens forty days after Christ’s birth, so we place it forty days after Christmas.

The day has marked significance for the culture Mary, Joseph, and therefore Jesus grew up in. Going to the temple was the chance for Mary to “purify” herself after giving birth. It also allowed the parents to offer sacrifices for their firstborn, as was laid out in the laws God gave Moses in the Old Testament.

While in the temple, the family runs into two people: Simeon and Anna.

Simeon, we are told, is righteous and devout. He lived in “prayerful expectancy” (MSG) for the redemption of Israel, for God to do all He had promised. We are also told the Holy Spirit was with him and through that Simeon knew he would see the Messiah before he died.

At this point, God had been silent for 400 years. The people of Israel were part of the Roman empire, their homeland not marked off uniquely for them. Some had returned from captivity to rebuild the temple and try to eke out a living. For most people, it must have felt that God had forgotten them.

The last prophet to speak was Malachi. He went to those living in Jerusalem to rebuke them for turning from God. His last words to them were a promise that the prophet Elijah would return and prepare the way for the Messiah.

But that was 16(ish) generations ago. 16 generations of God being quiet. No one brought a creditable word from Him. People went on living their lives. They went to the temple to offer sacrifices. They listened to teachings filled with prophecies of the One who would come to deliver them again. They tended their fields, raised their families, did their thing, and still, God was silent.

16 generations. 400 years. 400 years ago the Mayflower set out for America. King Louis III ruled France. There was the Battle of Cecora and the Battle of Amedamit. The Thirty Years War was just getting going.

What do we know or hold onto from those times? We have a jumbled sense of history at best. We hold onto folklore and mythology but really nothing concrete from Plymouth, 1620 still stands today. Can you remember what anyone said from that time?

But somehow, through all that silence, Simeon knew God was sending help in his lifetime! We don’t know how long Simeon held God’s promise, whether it was a day, a month, or years. Maybe it was just that morning when he felt a nudge to go to the temple. However long it was, when Simeon saw Mary and Joseph with their infant son he knew it was the Messiah. Simeon goes and takes the child into his arms and sings a hymn over the baby.

Presentation of Jesus at the Temple, 12th century cloisonné enamel icon from Georgia

Simeon’s words are worth further scrutiny. If we simply read them as a sweet man’s reaction to a baby, we miss some key messages that could only have come by a person overtaken by the knowledge of God. Through his words, Simeon acknowledged:

  1. God kept His word.
  2. Jesus is his salvation, which is an odd statement for a time when everything centered around and rested on keep the commandments not believing in a person.
  3. His hope has been answered and he is ready to meet God. Some take this to mean Simeon was old, but Luke’s narrative never says that. Imagine carrying around the idea of a 400-year-old promise and then seeing it fulfilled, what cry of joy would escape your lips! To know the history and oppression and pain of your people and then look into the face of a baby and know a page has been turned. That would be reason enough to say, “Lord I have seen Your glory, let me come home.”
  4. Jesus did not just come for the Jewish population. In the Gospels, we see the repeated tension of who the hope of Jesus is for. Jesus’ ministry was aimed mostly towards His people but His hope is for all people across all time. At this moment, before John the Baptist has said a word, before any of the disciples have been called, before Jesus can do much of anything, Simeon declares His hope is for everyone.

Simeone then turns his attention to Mary. He tells her that her infant son is bound for great things but His own people would not understand and even oppose Him. Simeon tells Mary a sword will pierce through her heart, a foreshadowing of her future suffering and pain. 

The other person mentioned in this scene is Anna. We are told that Anna is advanced in years, a widow. She too is devout, spending all her time at the temple fasting and praying for the coming Messiah. Anna is a prophetess – a term we do not understand today, but in that time to be called a prophetess was to declare and interpret God’s message.

Anna hears Simeon’s song and joins in. She too has seen the Messiah! Anna spread the word, telling the others still holding to hope that the Messiah had come.

What a moment for Mary and Joseph. Both of them put incredible belief in the messages they received from God about who their son was. We tend to overlook the faith of Joseph, to care for and love Mary and her son, having full faith in God that what He told Joseph was true. Mary and Joseph go home with their infant son and go about their lives.

They have the Messiah to care for and raise. The earth does not quake, things do not shift. Very few people comprehend who Jesus is. So while they swaddle the One who will change everything in their arms, they still have to feed, dress, change and care for him.

As the Archbishop of Canterbury said, “(today) is the reminder that all of our waiting, hoping and watching is fulfilled in Christ.”

Painting from the Menologion of Basil II (c. 1000 AD)

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