It’s wonderful, really, how commonplace the Gospel account of the Presentation is. So much of this story is completely ordinary. So much of it is just what regular people do, or did, in Jesus’ time. The events of Jesus’ birth had all been so extraordinary – but those unexpectedly expectant mothers Elizabeth and Mary had had their babies now, the divinely muted Zechariah had found his voice again, the angels had swept their Glorias back up into heaven, and the shepherds had taken all of their flocks back home. Life had, for the most part, gone back to normal. And so when 40 days had passed, and, according to the law, it was time for Mary and Joseph to take their first-born son to Jerusalem, Mary and Joseph took their first-born son to Jerusalem, just like everybody did. And when they got to the temple, they presented him to the Lord, just like everybody else did. And when they made an offering for the gift of his life, they offered two young birds, just like everybody else who was poor did. There were no trumpeting angels to announce their presence at the temple gate, no gathering crowds on the Jerusalem streets. No miraculous golden coins appeared in their pockets as they reached the tables of the money changers, no booming voice from heaven showered praises upon a beloved son. Just Mary, and Joseph, and Jesus. No fuss. They were, for this moment, just what they appeared to be – a family, blessed with a newborn babe, being faithful to God in the simplest, most ordinary way possible.
But then, in the middle of this wholly ordinary holy moment, something extraordinary happens. Simeon, a devout and righteous man, has been led to the temple by the promptings of his prayer. He is aflame with the Holy Spirit, expectant, hopeful. He notices this ordinary family making their ordinary offering, and in a flash, Simeon is given eyes to see. He sees Mary and Joseph for who they are, sees Jesus for who he is and who he will become. And so he does what all good people do in the Gospel of Luke when they are confronted with the presence of the divine – Simeon sings. Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word; For mine eyes have seen thy salvation, which thou hast prepared before the face of all people, To be a light to lighten the Gentiles, and to be the glory of thy people Israel.
But the song is not the extraordinary moment I’m talking about. The truly extraordinary thing happens before Simeon even opens his mouth. When the parents brought in the child Jesus, Luke tells us, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God. Simeon takes the infant Jesus in his arms. What a remarkable thing. I doubt that first-century customs were so different from ours as to make the practice of a strange man asking to hold your newborn baby a routine act. It would be one thing if Luke told us that Simeon was an old family friend, or if the temple priests had instructed Mary and Joseph to stop and see the old wise man on their way out the door. But nothing like this happens. Simeon approaches Mary and Joseph out of nowhere, comes up beside them and asks them, perhaps quietly, perhaps with eyes shining, Could I hold him?
And, amazingly, Mary lets him. She who has done nothing but protect this tiny little thing, during the days spent traveling heavy on the road to Bethlehem, during the hours spent in labor in an animal’s shelter, during the moments spent hosting shepherds and angels at the side of the manger, during these last days spent journeying again to Jerusalem with a newborn and a new husband and so much news to ponder in her heart, she sees a man she does not know asking to hold her son and her heart tells her to let go. And so she does. She hands her Jesus over and watches a stranger’s arms wrap around his tiny, fragile frame; watches a stranger’s hands touch his cheek and the still-soft crown of his head; watches her son change a life simply by being there, offer a gift simply by being held.
What a thing to hold Jesus. What a thing for Simeon to recognize who he is and still to have the courage to take him into his arms. He stands in the temple singing songs about how the child he holds carries with him the salvation of his people and yet seems unafraid that it is he and he alone who holds this child safe, he alone who in this moment protects this tiny Lord, who weighs, what, ten pounds?, with ten tiny fingers and ten tiny toes. Simeon stands with his hands cradling the one he knows bears a light so brilliant and so clarifying that it will burn into the darkness and dissolve the shadow of death, even his own death, and he feels no fear, only humility and a deep, final settling. This is the one he has been waiting for. And so he will no longer be afraid. He will risk reaching out to hold him, even if that means bearing responsibility for the truth that he holds. He will risk reaching out to touch the hem of his garment even if that means being touched by the refiner’s fire. He will take him into his arms, this tiny Christ-child, and worship the weight that he holds.
It seems like too great a risk sometimes to hold Jesus. We feel the weight of responsibility for his message, and we wish to simply put it down, give him back to his mother, to history, to the Church. Or we feel the heat of that great light that burns away everything in us that is even a little bit impure, even a little less-than, and we wish we could simply hand him back and worry about having a clean heart another day. But Jesus will not have this. Jesus wants to be held. And the reason we know this is that he commanded us to do so. On the night before he was crucified, he took bread, blessed, and broke it, and gave it to his disciples, saying, Take, eat. Reach out your hands, my beloved, and hold me.
Hold me. And yes, this means that as you bear me in your arms and in your heart, you must also bear me into the world. And yes, this means that the light of redemption that you now carry in your body will burn, not just burn into the darkness in the world but also burn away the darkness in you. Yes, and yes. But I am here to be held, he says. The Holy Spirit has moved upon you in your baptism, rests upon you, calls you again and again to this altar. You have been given the eyes to see me in the bread and the wine, to know that this is not only your salvation but the salvation of the whole world. You have seen Mary, our Mother, lifting me up to you, letting me go, into your arms and into your heart.
And this is what we do here, each week, each day – we hold him. We come, we worship, we eat and drink. We hold Jesus in our hands, and we become a family, blessed with a newborn babe, being faithful to God in the simplest, most ordinary, most wonderful way possible. You have come tonight to this temple; come and hold him, and when you do, know what it is you hold – the salvation of the world, the one who offers a gift just by being here. How extraordinary.
*I am indebted to Fr. Martin L. Smith for one of the themes of this sermon.
Preached by Mother Erika Takacs
2 February 2016, Candlemas
Saint Mark's Church, Philadelphia