Presentation of the Lord (2020)
The Sacrament of Baptism, with the exception of adult baptism, is a remarkably unpredictable experience. If the child to be baptized is overtired, ready to eat, cranky, intestinally challenged, or simply uncooperative, you never quite know what to expect. Blessedly I have attended very few Masses with multiple baptisms, where the liturgy is unpredictable from beginning to end.
While you cannot predict the actions or reactions of the baby, the reactions of the parents and grandparents are customarily very predictable. There are numerous broad smiles, representing a very deep joy that they are able to witness this moment. There is, if allowed, countless photos being taken to memorialize this very special moment, which marks a new child as a son or daughter of the loving God we worship. Like the other sacraments, a baptism draws us closer to God than we can ever get on our own, and proclaims to all the witnesses the redemption won for us by a God who took on our human flesh in order that He might guide us back to God’s kingdom where we belong.
The first reading from the prophet Malachi proclaims a moment when the waywardness of the priests and people will be refined and purified, so much so that the “sacrifice will please the Lord, as in the days of old, as in years gone by.” It will happen when “the Lord whom you seek” will “come to the temple,” and it will be a striking moment, in which some will be unable to stand, unable to survive. Malachi’s words are meant to prefigure the moment we celebrate today, when Mary and Joseph bring the child Jesus to the temple, in order to fulfill the requirement of the Law. There is irony in this moment predicted by Malachi, for the assumption of bystanders would be that it was the woman carrying the child who is in need of purification. Yet Mary is without need of purification, having been purified before she was born for the role she would play in the salvation of the world.
The presentation of Jesus in the temple as described by Luke is without any of the dramatic and apocalyptic details hinted at by Malachi, but it is not without significance. While there is the joy present at ordinary baptisms, there is also a sense of foreboding in the person of Simeon who had been assured by the Holy Spirit that “he would not see death before he had seen the Christ of the Lord.” When Mary and Joseph carried Jesus into the temple Simeon lovingly takes Him into his arms and states, “Now Master, you may let your servant go in peace, according to your word, for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you prepared in the sight of all the peoples: a light for the revelation to the Gentiles, and glory for your people Israel.” Luke tells us Mary and Joseph were “amazed” at what Simeon said, indicating that while they were indeed blessed, they were not prescient. Further, when Simeon said that this little baby “was destined for the rise and fall of many in Israel,” it surely had to be a head scratching moment for Joseph and Mary. The “sword” Simeon referred to which “will pierce” Mary would not fully be understood by Mary until she stood at the foot of the cross and watch the baby she brought this day to the temple be brutally crucified before her very eyes.
Anna was also in the temple, spending a great deal of time there since the death of her husband seven years ago, and the Spirit helped her to speak about this child to “all who were awaiting the redemption of Jerusalem.” She was an ordinary woman, with extraordinary insight, and it is clear that the Holy Spirit was present in the temple on this day we celebrate today. As Mary and Joseph had already greatly cooperated with the Spirit, so Simeon and Anna were open to and cooperating with the Spirit, and they serve as examples for all those who call themselves Christian. We believe that the baby whose birth we celebrated forty days ago, once entering this world, has never left. Even after the Ascension, He left His Spirit to be with us and in our midst, and we are called to have the eyes of faith that are able to see and feel the Lord present in the most ordinary of situations, in the most ordinary of people. We can assume that many with less faith were in the temple the day the Holy Family entered, and they never noticed, never sensed what was different about this new family. May we find ourselves numbered with the Simeons and Annas of the world, who are attuned to the presence of the Spirit in our midst, who truly know when it is Jesus who walks among them.