Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple
Sunday 2 February
The light all around us © Suzanne Grimmett
The English poet William Blake told the story from his childhood of one day when he was playing outside, seeing a tree filled with angels of light. Overwhelmed with excitement, he runs home to tell his father what he has seen. But his father responds grimly with a warning that if he ever tells a lie like this again, he would beat him.
I wonder how many others of us have had our ability to see the light beaten out of us, either literally or metaphorically. In a culture that would reduce truth to what can be measured or placed under a microscope, what do we do with experiences we may have that help us to see the presence of the Divine all around us?
This morning we hear the story of the infant Jesus brought to the temple, and the gift of sight of these two elders, Simeon and Anna. In a moment that has the sense of a consummation Simeon takes the baby in his arms and proclaims;
my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples…
What is this salvation that Simeon sees? Commonly the idea of salvation is reduced to having a place in heaven when you die. Yet this is clearly not what Simeon is talking about. Neither is he talking about a salvation from the very earthly power of the occupying Roman forces. Rather, he is seized by a moment of wonder when he looks at this child and sees the face of God come amongst the people. He has seen nothing less than the light of God unveiled before him, and it is a light that has been born from Israel, but is for all people. In seeing Jesus, Simeon is seeing the salvation of God; before him is the one who will overcome all separations between God and God’s creation.
Luke characteristically speaks of the work of the Holy Spirit giving revelation of God’s purposes in one transcendent moment. And the Spirit in Luke’s Gospel is astonishingly egalitarian- giving visions to the aged, the poor, the nobodies. Anna, a poor widow who has been faithfully worshipping and praying at the temple, is drawn out of historical obscurity by her proclamation that she saw in the child the redemption of Israel. Not only is Anna given the accolade of being one who is a most faithful servant, she is also given the title of “prophet”- another hint from the Gospel writer that all the usual seats of religious and secular power are being upended. Luke is also the Gospel writer who tells of women not only being the first ones at the tomb on Easter morning, but also the ones who carry the message of resurrection to all the other disciples. The Gospel is good news for everyone, lifting up the oppressed and setting the captive free. The light revealed that day in the temple is named in the Gospel as a light of liberation, whereby all are set free from the powers of sin and death so that all can be reconciled to God and to one another.
There is a direct connection between light and reconciliation. There is something that happens when we are prepared to let go of our own self righteousness and allow ourselves to see the light within the other, even when that other is our enemy.
The best story to illustrate this is found in Genesis, the first book of the Bible. Jacob, the grandson of Abraham, was been a trickster all his life, taking advantage of others and manipulating situations so that he, rather than his brother Esau, earned rewards of both wealth and favour. Jacob, however, is transformed by mystical encounters with God and decides to meet his estranged brother not with his usual tricks and traps but with gifts and humility. Jacob had allowed the light of God to reveal himself as he really was, and there was no longer any way to hide- it is time to live in truth.
But Esau, instead of seeking revenge and retribution, runs to his brother and embraces him, turning away from the gifts and desiring only reconciliation. “To see your face”, responds Jacob to Esau, “is to see the face of God.”
When we experience forgiveness and reconciliation, the light of God is revealed to us. For Simeon and Anna, they are given the gift of sight that recognises that God has come not to defeat armies or to create a new religious group of the blessed, but rather to reconcile all people- that from Israel comes the one who is light for the nations, both Jew and Gentile. The light is shining equally on all those whom everyone presumed were God’s enemies. In gentle humility God has come, bringing not judgement but forgiveness and the promise that we will never be separated from love again. The face of God was revealed in the vulnerable face of a baby in the temple so that all may see the face of God in one another.
Perhaps this is what mystical experience is all about- seeing the face of God all around us. The light has come into the world not to condemn the darkness, but to reveal the glory that is everywhere in this God-bathed universe. However, we need to be prepared to welcome our kinship with one another. This may sound sentimental, but is actually hugely threatening to anyone or any group who like to maintain power over others, or believe that the light belongs to them and them alone. To suggest that all are worthy is confronting to anyone whose sense of worth is found not in the goodness of God but pinned to their own self righteousness. It is also threatening to those whose sense of power is supported by systems of patriarchy or economic or political supremacy Luke’s Gospel insists that the kingdom of God is for everyone; and that includes Gentiles, women, the poor, the aged. Yet such a message still seems to have not taken hold as down the ages we have seen systematic suppression and silencing of so many who proclaim it- think of those who have been assassinated for their advocacy for the poor and oppressed in South America or during the civil rights movement. Think of all the women burned in witch hunts for sharing their healing wisdom. Think of spiritual leaders who have been denounced as heretics or executed because they dared to proclaim that God’s love and mercy was for all. The forgiveness, love and light of the Christ child Simeon holds in his arms will ultimately be too threatening and the powers of Jesus day will put him to death, bringing pain like a sword to to Mary, his mother, on that day when the world would seek to shut out his piercing light.
Yet the light would not be put out. As the reading from Hebrews reminds us it was, through death that he destroyed “the one who has the power of death.” It is the death-dealing powers of this world that would mock and ridicule and tell us we are mad when we see the light of God still shining out of another human face, or God’s presence in an act of family forgiveness, or in that graced moment when our eyes adjust to see that a tree is full of angels. The light continues to shine in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
What do we do when we catch a glimpse of the divine right here amongst us? Thomas Merton famously related his own mystical insight, not of trees full of angels, but of an ordinary day in an ordinary street filled with everyday people, saying;
Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts where neither sin nor desire nor self knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God’s eyes. If only they could all see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed. I suppose the big problem would be that we would fall down and worship each other.
Perhaps as we today celebrate that moment where two old people gently hold a baby, discerning the face of God in his sweet baby features, we may realise that God truly shows no partiality, but will turn up anywhere and everywhere. And maybe when we learn to see ourselves as we really are, and each other as we really are, we will laugh with joy at the ridiculous audacity of a God who is hidden everywhere in plain sight.