The Feast of the Presentation

Luke 2:22-40

A Sermon by The Rev’d Canon Jenny Wilson

In the name of God, creating, redeeming, sanctifying, … Amen.

As we gather for Choral Evensong this evening, rejoicing in the presence of the choir, how wonderful it is to begin the service with the introit by Johannes Eccard, When to the temple Mary went. How wonderful to hear again the psalm chanted and the canticles sung. It is fitting that this evening is the feast on which we remember the story of one of those canticles, the Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple. In this scene, from the 2nd Chapter of the Gospel according to St Luke, the scene remembered in our introit, we hear the story when, not long after Jesus is born, the time comes for the family’s purification according to the law of Moses, and Mary and Joseph bring Jesus up to Jerusalem to present him to God offering a sacrifice a pair of turtle-doves or two young pigeons. It is story people of devout faith, living out the sacraments of that faith in their time and place.

Following the circumcision of Jesus, the story of which is told in the previous verses of Luke’s Gospel, two further religious acts are required of Joseph and Mary – the redemption of the firstborn son and his mother’s purification. Steeped in the stories of their faith, the Jewish firstborn children were consecrated to the Lord as a reminder of the story of the Exodus where all the firstborn children and animals were killed except the Israelite children who were “passed over” by the Lord. Were reminded of their salvation story.

Joseph and Mary, though, find greater blessing in their visit to the Temple for these sacred rites, than those they expected. They find encounters with two people of profound faith, two people who nurtured by their faith in God, keep watch for signs of God’s action in history.

Now there is a man in Jerusalem whose name is Simeon; this man is righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rests on him. It has been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he will not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Guided by the Spirit, Simeon comes into the temple; and when the parents bring in the child Jesus, to do for him what is customary under the law, Simeon takes him in his arms.

The Spirit is ever present in these few verses. The Holy Spirit rests on Simeon. The Holy Spirit reveals to him that he will see the Messiah before he dies. And, this day, the Spirit guides him into the temple. There is no doubt that this encounter is God’s doing. A blessing for Simeon and then, how much more so a blessing for Mary and Joseph and all who hear his words. All, including us, years later, who hear his words. Hear his words sung.

For Simeon, through the Holy Spirit, then guides that child’s parents.

Simeon takes Jesus in his arms and praises 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.’

Simeon’s words do not end there. He also blesses Mary and Joseph and then he turns to Mary and speaks to her, speaks to her of Jesus’ vocation and her own. “This child is destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel”, he says – some will fall, some will rise in response to Jesus – “and the inner thoughts of many will be revealed” – Jesus’ presence will expose who we are – and for Mary – Mary is told of the pain of it for her – more words for her to ponder in her heart to put with the angel Gabriel’s words to her and the shepherds’ words to her– “a sword will pierce your own soul too”.

And then there is Anna. The prophet who is also a person of devout faith, worshipping in the temple night and day who, when Mary and Joseph and Jesus come, praises God and speaks about the child to all who are looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.

Yes, the Nunc Dimittis is a blessing for Mary and Joseph and all who hear his words sung. A result of reflection on this story by scholars and musicians and ordinary people of faith, this story of people of devout faith, living out the sacraments of that faith in their time and place.

During this time of pandemic, which for many has meant coming to church, cathedral or indeed temple has not been possible, many churches and cathedrals have nurtured their own people of devout faith with services and music and talks online. I found myself watching one of the canons of Canterbury Cathedral, Emma Pennington, this week, speaking in a series entitled “Pathways into Prayer”. This particular talk was about lectio divina, holy reading, a way of spending time with a scripture passage that helps us listen to God, spend time with God, who would speak to us, reach out to us in scripture. Canon Emma used a word that I had not thought of before in the context of this way with scripture, a beautiful word that, for me, gave insight into what might happen when we allow scripture to reach us.

Lectio divina can be thought of as having four stages: lectio – reading, meditatio – meditating, oratio– prayer and contemplatio-comtemplate. It was about the second stage, meditatio, that our Canterbury Cathedral Canon said the following: She encouraged us to …

Lightly hold the text in our mind and allow the Holy Spirit to guide us to what jumps out or, how I like to imagine it, shimmers in the text for us. This may be a word or a sentence but once it comes into the forefront of your mind thinking it, holding it there, and allowing it to unfold itself as you ponder or meditate upon it.

Lightly hold the text in our mind and allow the Holy Spirit to guide us to what jumps out or, how I like to imagine it, shimmers in the text for us.

I thought the word “shimmer” was very beautiful. What is the word or sentence in a small passage of scripture on which we are reflecting that shimmers for us?

Lectio Divina is about keeping watch, listening for God, about noting what, through the Holy Spirit, shimmers for us. In a way this is just what each one of the characters in the story of the Presentation in the Temple have spent their lives doing …keeping watch, listening for God, noticing what shimmers. Simeon, whose song is the Nunc Dimittis, guided by the Holy Spirit, watches not only scripture but life, events, the happenings of each day as those days pass him by.

And so Simeon is ready to notice a baby. This baby shimmered for Simeon. Jesus shimmered for Simeon. Guided by the Spirit, Simeon, who was accustomed to keeping watch for the sign of God’s salvation, noticed when that salvation came into the temple in his mother’s arms. And then he spoke.

What shimmers for us in this story? As we gather in the presence of music and liturgy and one another’s presence, conscious of the extraordinary blessing that we can do so. What shimmers for us? As schools return and ordinary life resumes and we know that across the world for so many this is not so. What shimmers for us? As we remember the devotion of the firefighters who saved so many homes just days ago in our own Adelaide Hills and we think of the grief of the two families whose homes did not survive? What shimmers for us?

In a story of devotion and keeping watch and then, speaking out when the one who has kept watch for so long knows that God is at work. In a way that is what our life of faith is all about. Giving God time, be it reflecting on scripture using lectio divina or some other way of holy reading, be it allowing the beautiful music of our Cathedral Choir and our Cathedral Organ waft over us, be it walking in the bush. Giving God time that guided by the Holy Spirit as Simeon and Anna were, we might find that something shimmers and we, too, will know ourselves truly blessed.