For many years the town in which we live held a bonfire on the Sunday evening after New Year’s Day. The public works department had collected up all of the old Christmas trees that residents left on the curb, hauled them to the mulch area behind one of the elementary schools, and then set them alight. The public was invited, and it was a magnificent sight: hundreds of Christmas trees, a brilliant light, over-powering heat, sparks flying up into the night sky, the fragrance of pine and fir…and, of course, the ready presence of the fire trucks. For the hour or so of the fire, it consumed not only the trees, but our attention; everything else literally paled in comparison to the intensity of heat and light coming from the bonfire.
After it was over we would walk the few blocks back to our house with flashlights and streetlights to guide our way; while we got home perfectly well, the walk seemed very dim, and the images of the fire’s power stayed with us, as if we had gotten a glimpse of an alternate reality.
And that’s what happened to Mary and Joseph when they took their six-week old infant to the Temple. The ancient Jewish Law required that parents take their first-born boy to the Temple, and offer a sacrifice in thanksgiving; at the same time, the mother would have been declared ritually clean by the Temple priest, and ready to resume sexual relations with her husband. Jesus’ parents offered a sacrifice of turtledoves or pigeons because they were poor; the law actually called for the sacrifice of a lamb, but made allowances for those who could not afford that. They were doing what their faith and culture expected and required, but what they met with was so much greater.
Simeon and Anna - both faithful elders, both righteous in the Lord’s eyes, holding out hope for the fulfillment of God’s promises – met Mary and Joseph and their baby and knew deep within that this was the One for whom they had waited and prayed, the One who would fulfill the ancient hope of his people. Simeon, in particular, took Jesus in his arms and made this proclamation:
Lord, you now have set your servant free
to go in peace as you have promised;
For these eyes of mine have seen the Savior,
whom you have prepared for all the world to see:
A Light to enlighten the nations,
and the glory of your people Israel.
Can you imagine what it must have been like for Joseph and Mary to have this happen, to have strangers come, and not only fuss over your child, but to ask to hold him and then say: “This is what I’ve been waiting for my whole life; I can die in peace now. God’s promises for the whole world are coming true.” I think we might feel a tad uncomfortable with that – and say to ourselves, if not out loud, What is going on here?! In fact, there was a very great deal going on in this meeting of Simeon, Anna, and Jesus in the Temple.
The Temple was the place where the presence of God was supposed to reside in its greatest and most intense concentration.
Way back in the Book of Exodus, we read about the presence of God leading the Israelites through the desert into freedom as they fled slavery in Egypt. The form God’s presence took was as a cloud by day, and as a pillar of fire by night, so that all could see and follow.
The Hebrew word for this majestic presence of God that dwelt among the people is shekinah, and it often gets translated into English as glory – the glory of God; so that God’s glory is not just a quality or an adjective used to describe the divine, but the reality of God’s presence. It was this shekinah, this majestic presence of God, that was understood to dwell amongst the people in the Temple’s holy of holies, that most sacred of places into which a priest could enter only once a year.
This is the kind of language that Simeon was using: a light to enlighten, to be a revelation to the Gentiles, the nations; and the glory, the magnificent presence, the shekinah of God with God’s people. And he was ascribing all of this to Jesus, to this tiny baby in his arms.
In my mind’s eye Simeon, Anna, Jesus, Mary and Joseph, are all engulfed in intense and powerful light, casting all around them into shadow, causing them for that moment in time to be the white-hot center of reality. And at the core of all of it was Jesus.
The curtain had been drawn back, the alternate universe of heaven had pushed through, the dim shadows of the everyday had faded into the background, and the glory of God was seen in all its fullness. And life would never be quite the same again.
But human beings can only take so much reality at any one time; to take in so much glory and power and truth is overwhelming.
And so the family returned to Nazareth, went back to daily life where, as Luke tells us, “The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.” Even so, the memory of that intensity, that fire, stayed with them, I am sure.
When we think of God’s presence, my guess is that we often think of God as a rock to stand on, as a place of shelter (Hide me under the shadow of thy wings, the Psalmist says), even as light on our path – all good, Biblical images: trustworthy and true.
But they may not carry this same sense of God’s shekinah – the glorious, majestic, overwhelming presence of God that is as all-consuming as fire; the presence that led God’s people out of bondage, through the wilderness, rested in the Temple, and then was fully embodied in Jesus.
The writer Annie Dillard has this to say: “On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return. ” This Feast of the Presentation, this Candlemas, reminds us that faith in God and life in Christ is all about the intense and magnificent power and presence of God, a flash of reality amidst the dimmer events of daily life.
When come to meet Jesus, like Simeon and Anna, with hope and expectation – we, too, may be overwhelmed with the glory of God, and then sent on our way, enlightened and empowered even if all around us is darkness. Maybe we would be wise to have the fire engines at the ready. Amen.
Victoria Geer McGrath
All Saints’ Church, Millington, NJ
Feast of the Presentation
February 2, 2014