The season of Epiphany comes to an end with what is known as the Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, more commonly known as Candlemas. It is on this day that we remember how the child who had been made known to the Magi is now recognized by Simeon and Anna, when he comes to be presented by his parents in the Temple according to the Law of Israel. He is both ‘a light to lighten the Gentiles’ and ‘the glory of God’s people Israel’. But the redemption he will bring must be won through suffering; the Incarnation of Christ is directed to the Passion; and Simeon’s final words move our attention away from the celebration of Christmas and towards the mysteries of Easter. What Jesus accomplished for us was achieved through his birth, life, death, resurrection and exaltation.
We know that Mary and Joseph travelled with Jesus to Jerusalem to present him in the Temple; it is helpful to explore the reason why. The answer can be found in Leviticus 12 where we learn of the requirement for every Jewish woman who gave birth to a son to go to Jerusalem forty days after the birth and offer for the purposes of ritual purification two sacrifices in the temple. This is because (as difficult as it might be for us to understand) women were considered unclean after the birth of a child – for a period of 40 days for a boy, and 60 days for a girl, women were not allowed to worship in the temple.
That’s something that we find difficult to understand today; it is so different to our culture. We may be a little more familiar though if we think about cleansing and purification, for example when parents bring their children for baptism, there is often a sense of how they want to “get right with God”, they want to “do the right thing”, and they appreciate the encounter with the grace that comes through baptism perhaps much like Mary would have had a similar encounter through purification.
In the case of a firstborn son there was also a requirement that in his presentation at the temple, he be acknowledged as belonging to the Lord in a special way (Exodus 13:2, 12, 15). This involved the child being ‘redeemed’ by the payment of a fee of five shekels (Numbers 18:15–16). Though this payment could be made anywhere in the land, the ideal was to present the child in the temple (Nehemiah 10:35–36). And when this was done, the purification and presentation would be done together. To use two turtledoves or young pigeons for the sacrifice instead of the usual lamb and one turtledove or pigeon was actually a concession for poor folk (Leviticus 12:8).
Whether we are blessed with the gift of a child or the many other blessings that God has given us – in either case we are invited to make a response. Mary and Joseph’s response was to do what the law required of them by presenting Jesus in the Temple for dedication, in which there is a dual action of giving thanks and then asking for God’s blessing. Jesus was born under the law (Galatians 4:4), obeyed God’s law perfectly (John 8:46), redeemed us from the curse of the law (Galatians 3:13), and set us free from bondage (Galatians 5:1).
There are several characters in this important account – Mary, Joseph, Jesus himself, Simeon and Anna. I want us to focus today on Simeon and Anna who had that amazing encounter with Jesus. Here is what we learn about them:
- Both are elderly – with Simeon we are told “It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah” (Luke 2:26) and with Anna “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.” (Luke 2:36-37).
- Both are devoutly religious, people who are expecting the “consolation of Israel” (Luke 2:25) and the “redemption of Jerusalem.” (Luke 2:37-38).
- Equally important, both are prophets. Anna is explicitly given this rare and honoured title (Luke 2:36), and when Simeon speaks by the power of the Holy Spirit of God he too is prophesying (Luke 2:25ff.).
It is on this occasion that the Christ-child is recognized by Simeon and Anna, when he comes to be presented in the Temple according to the Law of Israel. Simeon held the baby Jesus and called him “a Light for revelation to the Gentiles.” (Luke 2:32) Imagine if you can that you are Simeon, holding Jesus gently in your arms, gazing upon him. As you picture that, listen to the words of Simeon which we frequently recollect in the Nunc Dimmitis or Song of Simeon:
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.”
What an incredible revelation of Christ Simeon had – not only by his recognising who Christ was and all that he came to be, but also in finally holding that Christ-child in his arms. I don’t know about you, but I can almost imagine Simeon stood there gazing upon Christ with tears of joy in his eyes…I have hoped and waited for so many years and now finally “my eyes have seen your salvation.”
Now imagine for a moment that you are Mary or Joseph hearing those words. They had both had encounters with angels, had both beheld the wonders of Shepherds coming and paying homage at the birth of Jesus, and sometime later beheld the Magi kneeling in adoration before Christ. And despite all of this, having heard the words of Simeon they were still amazed.
And 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.”” Imagine what Mary and Joseph must have thought about those words, particularly with that prophetic statement looking forwards to the great sacrifice that Jesus had to make once for all.
Anna, like Simeon, had that double revelation of Christ. She too understood all that he was and all that he came to be. As a consequence of that revelation she “came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.” (Luke 2:38)
I don’t know if you know that the name ‘Anna’ means ‘Favour’ or ‘Grace,’ and originates from the Hebrew ‘chanan’, meaning “to bend or stoop in kindness” and “to find favour and show favour.” She certainly did find favour in God’s eyes, for He revealed the Messiah, the Hope of Israel, to her aged eyes. Her anointed ministry during later years of life reminds us very beautifully that all are called to ministry, whether young or old, male or female. There is always ministry awaiting the sensitive, obedient, and pure—ministry that can influence and shape the rising generation (Titus 2:2-5). I think we desperately need the Simeon’s and Anna’s – people who speak God’s truth and see God at work so clearly – people who God can use no matter how unworthy or inadequate they might be – people of faith and people of hope. In Curacy, I attended Morning Prayer every day and I was usually joined by an elderly gentleman. He was a good friend. He was my Simeon. It was a privilege to pray with him and in my frequent encounters with him I saw something of God’s love and grace at work. He encouraged me immensely and invited me to walk deeper in God’s grace. He passed away 4 years ago and the Song of Simeon was said at his funeral.