Eucharist – 4th Sunday after Epiphany – 31st Jan 2021
Jesus Is Presented in the Temple
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;for 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 favour of God was upon him.
Reflection: Do you remember, a good few years ago, a series on the television about great religious paintings? It coincided with an exhibition at the National Gallery in London, which brought masterpieces together from all over the world, to be seen by thousands of people. My mother (who fancied herself as a bit of an artist in her youth) pined to see it, for real, but couldn’t, by then, cope with travel: so for Christmas I bought her the book that went with the series, and later chose it as a memento of her after she died. These last few weeks, on and off in the evening, I’ve been going through it again: and have noticed that its title, “Seeing Salvation”, comes from the song sung by Simeon, in the Temple, when he saw the infant Jesus and his parents, come to present him according to custom, in his extreme old age.
All the pictures in the exhibition showed how artists, known or unknown from the dawn of Christianity up to the present day, chose to (re)present their Saviour, that others might know him, too. The author guides us through the life of Christ (and beyond) as we follow, and, perhaps, seeing our own salvation, do the same. The very last picture takes us back to the beginning: to see the presentation of Christ in the Temple, which we ourselves last heard of only as recently as just after Christmas, as part of the infancy narrative, but can recite every night if we wish. This was Jesus’s first presence there, but for the ever-present old man, Simeon, it was close his last: not death, yet, but certainly the fulfilment of a whole lifetime’s hope and prayer. No wonder he rejoices in song – his dreams have come true! – and he can (at last) rest in peace. He may not, like Christ on the Cross, say “it is finished”, but choose (like him) not to fight to the death and say “it is enough”.
Hence the placing of the Rembrandt that closes the book: in the Epilogue – the final summary of all that has gone before. Simeon is satisfied, and satisfactory: his work is ended, and so is the book’s. Rembrandt portrays Simeon as a very old man, with a beard, and downcast, half-closed, eyes: as if he were going blind, and the face of Christ were the very last thing he would ever see. What a treasure! what a thing to look back on, and be glad of, as other sights fade. They say the last thing anyone sees before blindness stays imprinted on their mind’s eye until death: please God, that any of us should see such goodness and be so blessed.
But ponder one more little thought, if you will. Maybe it’s me being fanciful, but Rembrandt (I’ve heard) was prolific in his self-portraits, and showed himself as he was, all his life, to anyone who looked. In the end he was old, with a beard, and his sight was failing; like Simeon, he may have had to touch with his hands to be sure of the person before him: like the father in that other Rembrandt we have looked at, known as “the Prodigal Son”, in which an elderly, bearded, father stoops to hold again the (adult) son he thought he’d never see again. Our parents, once, at our baptism, presented us to our Father in his house: and many of us then wandered off. But our likeness to Christ, at any age, persists: and may, as the funeral service puts it, be “remembered for good”, with him, in his home, forever.