Sunday's Gospel When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, "Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord"), and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, "a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons." Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord's Messiah. Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying, "Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; or my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel." And the child's father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother 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--and a sword will pierce your own soul too." There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem. When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.
About This Week's Meditation Prompts
Let us too stand in the Temple and hold God's Son and embrace him; and that we may deserve leave to withdraw and start on our way towards a better land, let us pray to God, the all-powerful, and to the little Jesus himself, whom we so much want to speak to and hold in our arms. His are glory and power now and always. Amen. -Origen 184/5-253/4
As he cradles Jesus in his arms the Eternal Now breaks forth into Simeon's consciousness (meditation one). In his ecstasy Simeon prophecies to Mary that a sword “will pierce your own soul,” something she senses herself as described in Yeats's poem (meditation two). The journey of consciousness comes at a cost not only for Mary, Joseph, and Jesus, but each of us who take our light from Light to become a burning and a shining lamp for others (meditation three), so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed. I hope you are enjoying these luminous and deep days of the continuing Christmas of your heart.
Meditation One (Introit) Radical Freedom
The entire song [the Nunc dimittis, Lk 2:29-32] is sung with the language of freedom. In the original Greek text, it has the connotation of releasing a slave. Simeon is describing his own experience as one of being released. In the song the word "now" is of utmost importance, emphasizing that an experience of profound liberation happened to him at that moment in time upon seeing the Christ Child. Simeon's song is his way of describing how he was finally "released" truly to live.
-Paul-Gordon Chandler Songs in Waiting: Spiritual Reflections on Christ's Birth quoted from Vicki Black's Speaking to the Soul: Daily Readings for the Christian Year
The Presentation, Fra Angelico, 1433-34
Symeon the priest, when he took Him up in his arms to present Him before God, understood as he saw Him that he was not presenting Him, but was being himself presented. For the Son was not presented by the servant to His Father, but the servant was presented by the Son to his Lord. For it is not possible that He, by Whom every offering is presented, should be presented by another. So that He Who receives offerings gave Himself to be offered by another, that those who presented Him, while offering Him, might themselves be presented by Him.
-Ephrem the Syrian 306-373 Homily On Our Lord
Almighty and everliving God, we humbly pray that, as your only-begotten Son was this day presented in the temple, so we may be presented to you with pure and clearn hearts by Jesus Christ our Lord; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen
-The Book of Common Prayer
A Song for Simeon
Lord, the Roman hyacinths are blooming in bowls and The winter sun creeps by the snow hills; The stubborn season has made stand. My life is light, waiting for the death wind, Like a feather on the back of my hand. Dust in sunlight and memory in corners Wait for the wind that chills towards the dead land.
Grant us thy peace. I have walked many years in this city, Kept faith and fast, provided for the poor, Have taken and given honour and ease. There went never any rejected from my door.
Who shall remember my house, where shall live my children’s children When the time of sorrow is come ? They will take to the goat’s path, and the fox’s home, Fleeing from the foreign faces and the foreign swords.
Before the time of cords and scourges and lamentation Grant us thy peace. Before the stations of the mountain of desolation, Before the certain hour of maternal sorrow, Now at this birth season of decease, Let the Infant, the still unspeaking and unspoken Word, Grant Israel’s consolation To one who has eighty years and no to-morrow.
According to thy word, They shall praise Thee and suffer in every generation With glory and derision, Light upon light, mounting the saints’ stair. Not for me the martyrdom, the ecstasy of thought and prayer, Not for me the ultimate vision. Grant me thy peace.
(And a sword shall pierce thy heart, Thine also).
I am tired with my own life and the lives of those after me, I am dying in my own death and the deaths of those after me. Let thy servant depart, Having seen thy salvation.
T. S. Eliot 1888-1965
He hath abolished the old drouth, And rivers run where all was dry, The field is sopp'd with merciful dew. He hath put a new song in my mouth, The words are old, the purport new, And taught my lips to quote this word That I shall live, I shall not die, But I shall when the shocks are stored See the salvation of the Lord.
We meet together, you and I, Meet in one acre of one land, And I will turn my looks to you, And you shall meet me with reply, We shall be sheaved with one band In harvest and in garnering, When heavenly vales so thick shall stand With corn that they shall laugh and sing.
—Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889)
detail, (ANNA) The Presentation in the Temple, Mariotto di Nardo
Presentation in the Temple, Fra Angelico, 1433-34, detail
Meditation Two (Insight) But At A Cost
The three-fold terror of love: a fallen flare Through the hollow of an ear; Wings beating about the room The terror of all terrors that I bore The Heavens in my womb. Had I not found content among the shows Every common woman knows, Chimney corner, garden walk, Or rocky cistern where we tread the clothes And gather all the talk? What is this flesh I purchased with my pains, This fallen star my milk sustains, This love that makes my heart's blood stop Or strikes a sudden chill into my bones And bids my hair stand up?
-W.B. Yeats 1865-1939
Meditation Three (Integration) Become A Light
Behold then, the candle alight in Simeon's hands. You must light your own candles by enkindling them at his, those lamps which the Lord commanded you to bear in your hands. So come to him and be enlightened that you do not so much bear lamps as become them, shining within yourself and radiating light to your neighbors. May there be a lamp in your heart, in your hand and in your mouth: let the lamp in your heart shine for yourself, the lamp in your hand and mouth shine for your neighbors. The lamp in your heart is a reverence for God inspired by faith; the lamp in your hand is the example of a good life; and the lamp in your mouth are the words of consolation you speak.
-Guerric of Igny c.1070-1157
Last Word Then, when the lamp of this mortal life is extinguished, there will appear for you who had so many lamps shining within you the light of unquenchable life, and it will shine for you at the evening of your life like the brightness of the noonday sun. -Guerric of Igny c.1070-1157 quoted from Celebrating the Seasons (Morehouse)
Presentation of Christ in the Temple, Stefan Lochner, 1447, detail
The Presentation in the Temple: A Short Sacred Opera for Four Voices
In legend, Luke the Gospel writer is not only a physician but an artist. To me, he is also a musician because of the perfect balance of the four complementing and contrasting emotional voices in this story.
If I were staging the Presentation as a short sacred opera, I would show the couple in a busy outer courtyard buying the two doves before entering the temple, maybe someplace in the concert hall itself. The market-like courtyard fades as Mary and Joseph ascend the steps to the stage. They enter the dark, echoing temple of beautifully proportioned pillars and arches, a template so many Renaisaissaince artists rendered for the Presentation. Mary and Joseph enter alone into this vast space, with the infant and a flimsy temporary cage for the turtledoves.
From an unseen place in the darkness you hear Simeon (baritone), singing of his longing for the consolation of Israel. Simeon, old, weary, reminds God of the promise that he “should not see death before he had seen the Lord's Christ.” A low light gradually illumines him as he sings of the exertion it took to come to the temple that day - the uneven, cobbled streets, the confusion of the marketplace, the impossible stairs, his failing faculties. And now, he waits in utter darkness, like the Gentiles, in the holy but silent space, ready to die but not yet fulfilled.
Then, from the opposite space in low-lit darkness, we hear Anna (contralto) sing her story of long widowhood and a life of ecstatic love for God, fasting and praying night and day in the temple. After her story, Simeon's voice blends with hers as they both summarize the states of their soul in this prescient moment.
Inspired by the Spirit, Simeon comes out of the darkness to watch the younger couple. Joseph, (tenor) wary, protective, shows Mary that the staff he carries suddenly blossoms again* at the threshold of the holy place. We were brought together for this child, but what does it mean? asks Joseph. Mary (soprano) remarks upon the blossoming staff, the sweet scent of the white flowers like apple blossoms in spring. And she remembers the day they were brought together in the Temple, and the tender times of learning to accept one another. Their voices also blend into a duet as they aknowledge the mystery of their lives together.
Simeon approaches, tears streaming down his withered face. “May I hold him?” asks the ancient man. After a pause, both Mary and Joseph assent and Simeon takes the child in his arms and sings another aria: Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word; for mine eyes have seen thy salvation which thou hast prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for the revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to thy people Israel.
Anna comes out of the shadows to join them. The four voices merge in praising God - lines from the psalms, or prophets blend to create the text here. Maybe they sing from Isaiah 60:1-7, “Arise, shine, for your light has come ...” You can imagine this yourself. What texts would you chose for the four of them to sing from the depth of human experience to Divine Love?
Now Simeon, overcome by the Spirit, prophecies: “Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is spoken against, … that thoughts out of many hearts may be revealed.” And he sings to Mary, “And a sword will pierce through your own soul also... that thoughts out of many hearts may be revealed.”
Anna joins the prophecy “... that thoughts out of many hearts may be revealed.” Joseph joins, and Mary, standing apart from the others, her voice the steady, pulsing, foundational note that pulls all the voices together as she ponders all of this this in her heart.
Someone should write this short libretto and sacred music and stage it. Meanwhile, I see it in my imagination and phrases from the unwritten music haunt me and bring me into this iconic Biblical scene. So much of scripture is sheer music.
* According to a later legend about Mary and Joseph (the Protoevengelion of James) Mary had been raised in the Temple and when she had come of age, the authorities, wanting to give Mary to a man of God, vetted righteous men. Joseph, not wanted to marry at all, came out of obedience, but as he entered the gathering his rod miraculously blossomed like Aaron's and he was chosen to be the husband of Mary.
The Presentation, Duccio, 1308-11
The Presentation, Philippe de Champaigne, 1648, detail