Luke 2: 22-40
The presentation of the baby Jesus in the temple by his parents only features in Luke’s gospel. It is the final part of that opening section in which Luke tells of Jesus’ birth and what happens to him as a baby.
The presentation is mandated in Exodus 22, which says that no less than 30 days after birth the first born son is given to God. In practice in ancient Israel this meant given over to become a priest.
By the time of Jesus, the ceremony was symbolic, in that the baby was immediately returned, subject to the parents making a payment of five shekels and bringing a sacrificial offering. Mary and Joseph purchase two young birds from the temple for this purpose, being the sacrifice made by those who could not afford anything larger.
This ceremony is still performed today, going by the Hebrew name of Pidyon Haben. Today it is usually performed in the home, like many Jewish rituals, and the requirement for a sacrifice has been dropped. The rabbi has the option of returning the five shekels as a gift for the child, although this tradition is voluntary.
Within this scene of Jewish orthodoxy, Luke describes two prophets, Simeon and Anna. Both speak about the future of the child – sadly only Simeon’s words are recorded.
I am struck by Simeon’s words to Mary: “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.”
Two themes are introduced here which will be important in Luke’s gospel. First is the theme of opposition. There will be no unity, no consensus in the people’s response to Jesus’ ministry. Some will see in it opportunity, new life, others a threat to their interests, their legitimacy; some will embrace his message, some oppose it.
However, to see this theme as dividing people into the good and the bad would be too simplistic. When Jesus teaches about the wheat and the weeds growing together, so finely that the one cannot be separated without harming the other, I believe that this mixing runs through the human heart, through all of us. So at a given moment there are those who tip one way and others who tip the other way, but both instincts live in all, we are at the same time both children of God and wilful egos, both connected and separated.
The second theme is one of revelation. For the consequence Simeon describes for those who oppose Jesus is not one of overt judgment or condemnation, but the revelation of their inner thoughts.
I am reminded of the house where I grew up, and the time when it was knocked down. It was a huge, rambling Victorian building, which we shared with 65 teenage boys – for my father was a housemaster in a boarding school. We lived up one end, with a connecting door on each floor into the boys’ part. In term time we were forbidden to go through those doors, but in the holidays we could roam around all of the huge old house, in many an imagined adventure.
The house also had cellars. Low passages leading to windowless rooms which we found both scary and exciting. I recall one holiday we were allowed to turn one such room into a den, painting the walls and gathering unwanted furniture, including an old standard lamp which cast dark shadows.
When I was 17 my father finished his term as housemaster and went back to being a regular teacher, moving a few streets away. And then I recall on a visit home some years later being told that Pennell House had been knocked down and so I went back to the site. What I found was a great empty space, with all the rubble cleared away; and there were the cellars, now exposed to the light. And I noticed that old den by the colour of the paint we had used, revealed in the afternoon sunshine. It was a gentle, warm light, but one which penetrated all the dark corners we used to know.
A picture for me then of the revealing light of Christ, a gentle, warm light, but one before which, as w. e say in the confession, no secrets are hidden, all is revealed.
There is then no need for what the world calls judgment, the light brings truth, both humbling us to accept what it reveals but also holding us in the confidence that, for all the shame of secrets exposed, we are still loved.
But in Simeon’s words it is the many, the group rather than the individual, whose collective thoughts are revealed. And here we contend with the secrets, concealed behind our collective myths, in which we all collude. As Richard Rohr says, “It’s the nature of culture to have its agreed-upon lies.”
This is for many an important meaning of the Cross, that in his crucifixion Christ reveals the hidden violence of society, its scapegoating of some to protect the majority. This truth is behind the use of the phrase “lifted up” in the gospel of John: Christ is lifted up both in the sense of being executed and, as an act of revelation.
Simeon’s prophetic words challenge us today, both as individuals to be open and transparent, and perhaps more importantly in our institutions and in our culture, to name the workings of power, the hidden violence and oppression.
For there is nothing hidden, except to be disclosed; nor is anything secret, except to come to light.
Richard Young (Rector)