Presentation of the Lord
In a 2016 interview, Peter Mommsen, the editor of Plough, posed a question to Stanley Hauerwas about the campaign for the acceptance of euthanasia and its connection to a desire for control. In response, Hauerwas said, “I say that in a hundred years, if Christians are identified as people who do not kill their children or the elderly, we will have done well. Because that’s clearly coming.” Hauerwas’ words, which have been oft-quoted in the two years since, have been on my mind in the past couple of weeks, as the annual March for Life in Washington D.C. and policy discussions in New York and Virginia have thrust the issue of abortion, always a prevalent topic, into the spotlight of social media and other contexts of debate. In the midst of a discussion that can be so inescapably polarizing, Hauerwas’ words remind us, as followers of Jesus, that so much of our witness and so much of our identity hinges on how we value—not just in word, but in deed—the most vulnerable among us.
This was, of course, an important concern and a calling card of the early church, one that remains as salient as ever in our current climate. The world in which we live and move today is one that not only offers opportunities for us to pit ourselves against one another but also, increasingly, tempts us to pit vulnerable communities against each other as well. The visual and verbal rhetoric of the abortion debate, which so often pits the mother and the child against one another in the language of rights, is one example of this. So, too, is the way we talk about “legal” vs. “illegal” immigrants, urban vs. rural poor, and any number of generational, socioeconomic, ethnic, political, and other variegated distinctions that make people more easily divided and more easily manipulated.
Hauerwas’ words, and the important, if modest, call to faithfulness they articulate, also resonate as I read the Gospel text for this week. Luke’s account of the Presentation in the Temple is a powerful one for any number of reasons, not the least of which is the way that this story brings together the witness of those who might normally be seen as marginal, and who could certainly be described as vulnerable, both in their day and in our own.
The scene opens at the Jerusalem Temple, the seat of power for the politico-religious authorities of the Jewish people, which was at the same time a symbolic reminder of their oppression under the Romans and the dominion of Herod. Entering the Temple on this day is a couple, economically impoverished even by the standards of their day. We can discern this both from Joseph’s status as a small-town carpenter, and also from the fact that the sacrifice they came to offer on this day was the one prescribed by the Law for those who lived below the poverty line: a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.
This couple brings with them their infant son, just over a month old, who despite his identity as the Son of the Most High, the Christ who had come to save the world, is helpless and dependent in every way, the very picture of vulnerability. He is dependent on his mother and father, not to mention his extended community of family and neighbors, for everything he required to live and to flourish. On this day, this means that the Son of God, who had “become like his brothers and sisters in every respect,” was carried in his mother’s arms to the Temple, where he might be consecrated, purified, and set apart as holy to the Lord. If nothing else, this journey of the Holy Family should cause us to question our conventional notions about importance, vulnerability, and the ways that God works in and through people and situations that we are apt to ignore or overlook.
As the story continues, other characters enter the scene. Two elderly prophets, a man and a woman, encounter the family in succession and make their mark on the narrative. Simeon, first, utters a soaring declaration about this child’s identity as the Salvation of all Israel, followed by a difficult truth about the child’s destiny as one who will suffer rejection and opposition, in the process bringing hardship into the lives of many, including his own mother. And while we know, to some degree, how this prophecy will be fulfilled in the ministry, and especially in the crucifixion of Jesus, we read that the child’s parents were amazed at this proclamation, and we can only imagine how such a prophecy might have affected them in that moment.
Following upon Simeon’s declaration, Anna, an older woman, makes her appearance. She was a fixture in the Temple, it seems, worshiping through prayer and fasting every day, an embodiment of the sort of faithfulness that would rather spend one day in the courts of the Lord than a thousand days elsewhere. On this day, when she encounters the Christ child, it seems that her fasting and prayer have been answered; her longing for a visitation from the Lord has been fulfilled. And she bears witness, in a moment of praise and proclamation, to the hope that this child represents, the redemption of Jerusalem, cradled in his mother’s arms.
And so, in the context of a space as religiously and politically charged as the courts of Herod’s Temple, God uses a collective of vulnerable and oft-overlooked witnesses, people that our world would pit against one another—a poor couple, far from home; an elderly man; an aging widow; a helpless, dependent baby—to embody and proclaim and demonstrate the hope that had come into the world, a hope that would bring about the rising and falling of many in Israel, a light to the Gentiles and the redemption of Jerusalem. For the Christian community this story, at least in part, reminds us of the worth that God ascribes to those whom our larger society might deem worthless or burdensome–the poor, the elderly, and children, among so many others. It’s hard to know how many people might have heard or seen what happened in the Temple that day. It’s hard to know how many hearts would have been pierced by what transpired. But those with eyes to see and ears to hear caught a glimpse the King of Glory, revealed in the face of his anointed.