The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple, 2 February 2020

February 2, 2020 | by Paul S. Nancarrow

Reading 1 Reading 2 Reading 3 Reading 4 Reading 1 Alt Reading 2 Alt
Malachi 3:1-4 Psalm 84 or Psalm 24:7-10 Hebrews 2:14-18 Luke 2:22-40

The Feast of the Presentation is the final installment in the cycle of liturgies for Christmas. It may seem a little strange to be thinking about Christmas here in February; after all, in the timetables of secular culture and marketing, Christmas is long over, we’ve blown past New Year’s, the candies are out for Valentine’s Day, and sales for Presidents Day and St Patrick’s are just around the corner! Who has time to look back toward Christmas now

But the Presentation has a long history in Christian tradition and practice. The Feast is attested in Jerusalem beginning around 350. In 542 Emperor Justinian introduced it at Constantinople, as a gesture of thanksgiving for the end of a time of plague. It is recorded in the western church between 687-701, when Pope Sergius directed that the feast be celebrated with a procession of candles and the singing of the canticle Nunc dimittis, taken from the Luke reading for the day. The custom developed of blessing candles for use in church all through the liturgical year on this day, from which the feast takes its other historical name, Candlemas. In Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Anglican liturgical calendars — and now in the RCL as well — the Presentation is considered a feast of the Lord, a handful of holy days that can take precedence over a Sunday. Therefore on this day we break from the ordinary round of post-Epiphany readings to look back toward the Christmas cycle. As a Christmas-connected day falling long after the cultural Christmas holiday has passed, the Presentation is a good reminder that liturgical time, the time of God’s unfolding aims in history, does not always flow according to our agendas and expectations. More than that, it reminds us that God’s presence and activity is often revealed to us in the fulfilling of expectations in most unexpected ways. 

Malachi 3:1-4 sets the expectation for the entire sequence. The date of this oracle is uncertain, but most scholars tie it to the early part of the fifth century BCE, when the Temple was being rebuilt but worship and social life had not yet been stabilized and were subject to abuses. Into this volatile situation the prophet speaks God’s promise that “my messenger” is being sent to prepare the way for God’s arrival, and that “the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple.” The “messenger of the covenant” who is coming will be a source of “delight,” but will also challenge the status quo: “Who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?” the prophet asks. The prophet describes the “messenger” in language that would become familiar in the developing messianic tradition: the messenger will be “like a refiner’s fire and like fuller’s soap”; he will “refine” and “purify” the people through a process of transformation that will be outwardly destructive, like fire, yet will bring out the inner truth of what God intends them to be. This is especially important for “the descendants of “Levi,” for when they are properly purified, they will “present offerings to the Lord in righteousness” so that “the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old.” 

The core of the promise, then, is that a messianic figure will appear in the Temple and will purify the liturgical life of the temple priesthood and, through them, the entire city and people. The prophet sees right-relationship with God, expressed in public liturgy, as central to right-relationship with each other in political and social life throughout the community. This kind of linkage of right-worship and right-society seems alien to us, given our long cultural history of keeping a wall of separation between worship and the conduct of social life, deeming the former to be a matter of personal preference and the latter a commitment to public values. The ancient prophets knew of no such separation, and drew a direct connection between the failure to honor God with offerings and acts of justice, and the failure to honor the poor, the orphaned and widowed, and the marginalized with place and voice and support in society. From this perspective, the purifying of Temple worship, and of the personal lives of those charged with leading Temple worship, was a necessary precondition of restoring a just and peaceable society in Jerusalem. 

On its own, this passage invites us to consider how our own liturgical and worship practice does or does not inform and support our efforts to create just and peaceable communities and social orders in our world. While we do not have — and most of us would not want — state-sponsored worship such as Malachi expects, it is still the case for us that the practices of worship — the offerings we make of ourselves, the ways we receive into ourselves the love of God and the call of Jesus to love one another as he loves us — can form in us modes of conduct that build up right-relationship with God and right-relationship with neighbor, not only in the church building but also and more so in our daily lives and occupations. How could our own commitment to purify our participation in worship lead us to deeper commitments to discerning God’s aims and embodying God’s ideals of justice and peace in public life? 

On this day, however, the Malachi reading does not so much stand on its own as it contributes to the drama building to a climax in Luke. On this day the key line is “the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple.” Simeon and Anna will experience that promise in the Gospel.

Psalm 84 also centers on worship in the Temple, and how the cultic liturgy opens into a “liturgy of life” outside the Temple as well. The psalm is often considered a pilgrim song, expressing the longing of the pilgrim to come from far away and worship in the central shrine. The Temple is a place of security and joy: sparrows and swallows can nest there unmolested, those who live there are happy, those whose hearts are on the pilgrim way will be strengthened, one day in the Temple is better than years elsewhere, to stand at the door of the Temple is better than to be inside a tent of the unrighteous. But even in the midst of this lavish praise for the Temple, it is made clear that the building is not the important thing. What matters is that the building is where “heart and flesh” can “sing for joy to the living God.” What matters is that the building is where “the LORD God” can be known as “sun and shield” who withholds “no good thing” from those who trust and “walk uprightly.” What matters, in the most striking line in the entire psalm, is that the building is where pilgrims may “go from strength to strength; the God of gods will be seen in Zion.” The Hebrew Scriptures stress over and over that God cannot be seen, and that no image of God is possible; so it is arresting to hear in this psalm that God will be seen in Zion. Even though there was no physical image in the Temple, it is not impossible that worshipers expected to “see” God in the liturgy, and especially in the sacrificial meal where one half of the animal was offered on the altar and the other half cooked and eaten as a feast. The Temple is where God can be “seen” in the conduct of worship that embodies God’s ideals for justice and peace, God’s aims for right-relationships that can transform the people’s lives. Vs. 7 is given an expanded and reinterpreted meaning in Luke, when Simeon and Anna see Jesus and recognize him. 

The small section of Psalm 27 offered as an alternative for this day relates directly to the Presentation, calling for the doors of the Temple to be opened for the arrival of the Lord. From the perspective of today’s liturgy (though certainly not in these lines’ context in the original psalm) the lines have a sort of revelatory irony, in that the one who comes to the Temple does not come as a King of glory, mighty in battle, but as an infant child whose mission will upend all ideas of glorified battle and conquering Kings. 

Hebrews 2:14-18 also explores a kind of revealing irony. Luke says that Mary and Joseph bring Jesus to the Temple to “designate him as holy to the Lord” (more about that ritual in the section on Luke below). But surely, no child in human history needed to be “designated holy” less than Jesus. Mary had received the angel’s promise that “the child to be born will be holy; he will be called the Son of God” (Luke 1:35). Her kinswoman Elizabeth had, inspired by the Spirit, recognized the child in Mary’s womb as “my Lord” (Luke 1:43). When Mary entered the Temple with Jesus, she knew the child was of God. Why then dedicate him to God? Why then buy him back from God, in place of sacrificing him, as was required of firstborn males (Exodus 13:2, 13)? 

Hebrews 2:17 provides an answer: “he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest.” Jesus’ participation in the redemption-of-the-firstborn ceremony, like his joining in John’s baptism of repentance later (Matthew 3:14-15), or his paying of the Temple tax later still (Matthew 17:27), is a sign of his solidarity with the human condition. Although he already belongs to God, although he of all people has no need of repentance, although he is “free” with regard to Temple service, he takes his position with those who must be redeemed, must repent, must make their offering to support the work of worship. The infant Jesus of the Presentation certainly does not have the adult intentionality of the Jesus who is baptized, or who directs Peter to catch a fish that miraculously has a coin in its mouth for the Temple tax; but perhaps this makes his solidarity in the human condition symbolized by the ceremony all the more poignant. Mary and Joseph offer Jesus to God, prefiguring the offering that Jesus will make of himself on the cross. It is because Jesus identifies himself so thoroughly with human reaching out to God in such ceremonies that he is able to make the connection between human need and divine grace. It is because Jesus is himself “tested” in suffering that he is “able to help those who are being tested.” 

It is intriguing to consider how Jesus’ participation in the customary liturgy might work in the other direction as well. By joining in the ceremony Jesus joins with all humanity reaching out to God in supplication and dedication. But because he is already holy, already “called the Son of God,” his joining in the ceremony is also a demonstration of God reaching out to human need. Liturgy is a two-way process: it is the human work of the people reaching out to God, and it is at the same time the divine work for the people lifting them to God. In all the moments of Jesus’ life, God gave him initial aims to fulfill ideals of justice and peace and love; Jesus embodied those aims in devoted action, and offered the satisfactions of all his moments to God in fully reciprocating love; from those offered satisfactions, God could then offer new aims, for Jesus and for others, conditioned by the justice and peace and love Jesus accomplished. In process thought, of course, it is true that all actual entities receive aims from God and offer satisfactions to God; Christian faith makes the claim that Jesus performed this receiving and offering to a superlative degree and with a unique intentionality within a human life. This would be true also of moments of Jesus’ life that were ceremonial moments, that were moments of participating in liturgy. In liturgy the pattern of receiving and offering, common to all entities and uniquely accomplished in human life in Jesus, is made more explicit, it is elicited into prominence, so that it can be experienced by worshipers and then intentionally re-enacted in life situations outside formal worship. Jesus’ solidarity with the liturgies of his people — Temple, synagogue, and upper room — creates the opportunity for others to experience the pattern of receiving-and-offering with God that is centrally constitutive of Jesus’ life. It is this that makes him “a merciful and faithful high priest” who can “free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death.” 

The irony that the one who least needs the liturgy of redemption is the one who most exemplifies the reality of the liturgy of redemption is the contribution of the Hebrews passage to the overall meaning of the Presentation lectionary. 

All these themes converge in the story told in Luke 2:22-40, of the moment when the conduct of a customary liturgy is interrupted and expanded by two inspired re-interpreters. Mary and Joseph bring Jesus to the Temple forty days after his birth “to do for him what was customary under the law.” Luke seems to conflate here two separate rites. He refers to “their purification,” actually a ceremony for reintegrating a woman into the worshiping community after having given birth to a male child, as directed in Leviticus 12. It is noteworthy in reference to Leviticus that Mary offers the “pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons” specified for a woman who “cannot afford a sheep.” The verse Luke quotes, however, is from Exodus 13:2, which has less to do with purification than with avoiding the sacrifice of the firstborn son by offering another sacrifice in his place, as Abraham was directed to do for Isaac in Genesis 22:13. It is entirely possible that Mary and Joseph came to the Temple to perform both rites at the same time, as long as they were staying nearby in Bethlehem and before journeying back home to Nazareth; it’s equally possible that Luke simply put the two ceremonies together as a good storytelling device to put Mary and Joseph and Jesus in the Temple where they could be met by Simeon and Anna. 

Because that is really the important part of this story. That the holy child will be incorporated into the liturgical life of the people is significant; more significant still is the way this child will transform the customary liturgy. 

Simeon had been promised by God that “he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah,” and at this moment he is “guided by the Spirit” to come to the Temple just as Mary and Joseph are arriving with Jesus. With that Spirit-guidance, Simeon recognizes the infant Jesus as the Messiah, the “consolation of Israel,” for whom he has been looking. But what Simeon has recognized is far different from what he most likely expected. The image from Malachi, of a refiner and purifier coming with fire, had been amplified through centuries of messianic expectation — as will be illustrated by John the Baptist in the next chapter of Luke — and was no doubt a significant feature of the “consolation” Simeon looked forward to. But this, this infant in arms, being brought to the Temple with a poor woman’s offering, this was hardly a sign of messianic accomplishment. 

And yet Simeon recognizes him. And Simeon stops the young family on their way to the ceremony, takes the child in his arms, and sings a song far more personal and immediate than the psalms that would be chanted in the Temple liturgy — a song, incidentally, that became and has been part of the Christian liturgy for centuries, especially for Vespers and Compline. Looking on Jesus, Simeon sings “my eyes have seen your salvation”; and not only Simeon’s salvation, but the light that God has “prepared in the presence of all peoples” to be “glory to your people Israel” and also “a light for revelation to the Gentiles.” Simeon embraces the universalist version of the messianic hope, seeing the Anointed One not as the one who will defeat all of Israel’s enemies and drive them out, but as the one who will unite Israel’s enemies and all the peoples in a new community in the Spirit. Having seen this light, even if only a glimpse in the infant and not yet the full light of revelation and glory for all, Simeon’s mission is fulfilled, his promise satisfied, and he is ready to be “dismissed” from his life in peace. 

While Mary and Joseph are “amazed” at Simeon’s song, he is not yet done with them. He addresses them directly, explaining that their child is a “sign” whose significance will reveal “the inner thoughts” of many, so that they will “rise or fall” in the light of revelation. And Simeon warns Mary that “a sword will pierce your own soul too”; Mary’s “inner thoughts” will be revealed as well, as she struggles to accept her son’s preaching (Mark 3:21), as she watches him die (John 19:26-27), and as she receives the Holy Spirit to proclaim her son and his church (Acts 1:14, 2:1-4). Mary had sung confidently that God would “bring down the powerful from their thrones, and lift up the lowly”, that God would “fill the hungry with good things, and send the rich away empty” in the Great Reversal (Luke 1:52-53); Simeon reminds her that her life will know God’s reversals as well. In all these respects, Simeon sees his messianic expectation fulfilled, but fulfilled in a way he had never expected. It is the gift of the Holy Spirit to him to be able to recognize this unexpected expectation. 

While Luke gives Simeon the song and the good lines, the broader witness he puts in the mouth of Anna. As a widow she lives a precarious life, technically protected by Torah but practically often overlooked and undersupported, and she spends all her days in the Temple, fasting and praying, and also relying on the sacred precincts to be a safe place for her, as in Psalm 84. She also recognizes Jesus as the agent of “the redemption of Israel”; but where Simeon speaks this insight only to Mary, Anna “praises God and speaks about the child” to everyone who is in the Temple at the time. What forty days before had been a heavenly message directed to a handful of shepherds is now, for the first time, made a matter of public announcement. Anna is the first of many women in Luke’s Gospel and Acts who will play special roles in bearing witness to Jesus. 

It is only after these encounters with Simeon and Anna that Mary and Joseph are able to complete the rituals, “everything required by the law of the Lord,” and return to Nazareth, where Jesus will “grow and become strong, filled with wisdom” until he returns to the Temple and sits among the teachers at age twelve. 

Now in one sense Simeon and Anna interrupt the liturgies Mary and Joseph have come to complete with Jesus. Simeon’s song and Anna’s witness are not part of the program for purification of a mother and dedication of a firstborn. But in another sense they expand and reveal the real purpose of these liturgies. Just as Jesus, of all firstborn sons, did not need to be dedicated to God, being already “called the Son of God,” so the ordinary liturgy of dedication would not be “big enough” to hold his significance. By injecting into the occasion his new song, Simeon broadens the liturgy, as it were, to include a new dimension of meaning suitable for the messianic child. Just as Mary’s experience of being mother to Jesus would “pierce her own soul,” so the ordinary liturgy of purification with two turtledoves would not be “big enough” to hold her significance. By injecting into the occasion his words to Mary, Simeon broadens her liturgy, as it were, to include a new dimension of meaning suitable for the mother of the Messiah. These extra-liturgical dimensions add to the meaning of the rites, increasing the aims offered by God through the liturgy and the satisfactions offered back to God by the liturgical participants. Mary and Joseph’s expectations that Mary would be purified and Jesus dedicated are fulfilled in the liturgies; but in the deeper experience of Simeon and Anna’s liturgical expansions, their expectations are fulfilled in unexpected ways. 

And that is the implicit promise of the liturgy of the Feast of the Presentation for us as well. Whether it be in a candlelit procession; whether it be in blessings of candles for use in church and at home; whether it be in special attention to these themes in preaching for the day — God offers the worshiping community in this Feast aims of love and justice and peace, aims of light to enlighten all people and glory for those who turn to God, aims to experience unexpected depth and meaning and compassion and action in the midst of the ordinary expectations of life. To the extent that we are willing and able to receive these expanded liturgical aims, we also can embody God’s ideals and return to God the offering of our actions, our completed occasions, the fulfillments of justice and peace and love we are able to accomplish, so that God can take them up in the Adventure of the Universe as One, and bring from them new aims for right-relationships and well-being for all. 

The Rev. Dr. Paul Nancarrow is an Episcopal priest retired from full-time parish ministry. His theological work has focused on process-relational interpretations of liturgy, and especially on the co-acting of divine action and human action in sacramental work and worship. He has taught Theology for deacons’ ordination training in Michigan, Minnesota, and Virginia. He can often be found contemplating the Adventure of the Universe as One from the saddle of his bicycle on back roads and rail-trails in the Upper Midwest.