Today’s festival says a lot about salvation history. The elements of God’s plan for mankind are all present, in miniature. It also shows the need for us to obey God. God calls His people from the world into a special relationship, he asks their obedience, His law sets them apart and leads to greater holiness; and when the time is right He extends His salvation to the whole world under the New Covenant.
Forty days after the birth of Christ his parents, that is Joseph and the Theotokos did what was required of them. The Jewish law demanded an offering be made for a first born son. They used the more humble option of two doves, which says they were not rich. The law on this was an improvement on something found in the near east of ancient times, child sacrifice. The Prophet Jeremiah refers to it in this way: “For the children of Judah have done that which is evil in My sight, says the LORD; they have set their detestable things in the house whereon My name is called, to defile it. And they have built the high places of Topheth, which is in the valley of the son of Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire; which I commanded not, neither came it into My mind.”
God took animals in place of children. I suggest this was meeting the needs of people of the times. They needed to sacrifice, and were allowed to because they were not ready for anything else. Now we bring all babies to church at this age, to give thanks for their birth and for a blessing. The Law was a calling out of God’s people to something closer to the full revelation we have received. Now we find the idea even of animal sacrifice unpleasant, but that is because we have the New Covenant with God. Sacrifice is still a part of our thinking, it is just richer and holier. Now the true sacrifice has been done, that of Christ Himself. Indeed the real Priest , the only true Priest and source of all priesthood is seen for the first time in the Jerusalem Temple. Sacrifice under the Law is not needed now. But for the time it happened, Christ was as subject to the Law as everyone of that society.
We also see in the story another aspect of God’s calling. Two people prophesy. I quote: “Simeon… was just and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel: and the Holy Spirit was upon him.” He comes to the Temple by the prompting of the Holy Spirit. God had told him that he would see the Messiah, and so it proved to be. Likewise we have Anna who is described as a prophetess. (I cannot help but wonder if Mary knew these people from her time in the Temple before her betrothal.) Simeon and Anna were effectively monastics, and certainly ascetics, living lives of prayer and being available to God, despite the fact that there was no such thing as formal monasticism. A life dedicated to God is just that. That they were so close to God made them available as instruments to talk to people in God’s name. God uses prophecy to talk to His people directly. He always has, and the gift of prophecy is still within the Church.
Simeon had been waiting a long time. He gave that famous prayer of release. “Lord now let thy servant depart in peace…” It reads as if life had become almost a burden to him. Yet Simeon stayed obedient to God, and was open to God. He must have done much else that was noteworthy but we have very little recorded of him, except for this incident, and the fact he was, clearly, holy. He is almost an exemplar of the saint who toils unknown and unrecorded. There are many such and their worth to God is no less for their obscurity in our eyes. His prophecy to Mary is sharp. “Then Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, his mother: “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.” This is a warning and a preparation for the Mother of God. She carried on with her obedience. She was to suffer much anguish later, and shortly was to become a refugee in Egypt, yet she carried on.
All the adults involved show exemplary obedience to God, their roles may be different but the purpose is worked out in their lives, to a coherent plan. I think perhaps Joseph gained a lot from hearing confirmation of the unique status of his wife’s child. We know he had been subject to doubts and he was taking on a huge responsibility. He gets some reassurance here.
There are two other references in Simeon’s prophecy. He said to Mary, his mother: “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed.” Simeon’s words are correct. They resonate with Christ’s own words: “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” (Matthew 20:16). A new order has come about. Christ changed things for ever. He is the standard against which the people of God will be measured. He is of course Truth personified. Total holiness and perfection are demanding when encountered. That is what Christ is.
God’s revelation starts with a small nation. Christ is the Glory of God’s people Israel. He is also “a Light to lighten the Gentiles”. Salvation is not restricted to Israel. Today’s Gospel illustrates that. The salvation of all mankind is physically presented in the Temple. He truly is the Light of the world. In a gloomy month, as we struggle through some of the coldest of the winter, let us then rejoice in this Light manifest to us in the blessing and lighting of candles.
Let us then rejoice in God’s working out of His salvation in history for all the world, and let us take the obedience of Anna, of Simeon, of Joseph and of the Theotokos as examples. Their roles were different, yet they complement each other. So it is for us within the body of the Church with different gifts and tasks to accomplish. Individually and collectively let us reflect the light of Christ, to Whom be glory now and ever and to the ages of ages.