We talked just a couple of weeks ago about the baptism of Jesus, which took place when he was about 30. Today we hear the story of a ritual that is more analogous to the baptism a lot of us received. I, for example, was not baptised in a river, nor was I an adult. I don’t remember my baptism, and many of you don’t either. Our baptisms were much more like this presentation at the temple. Our parents, wishing to signal something of our community and the way they intended to raise us, took us to the place of worship—the church where my grandfather was the priest for me, the temple in Jerusalem for Jesus—and presented us there. It is a communal way of marking the relationship between the family, the child, and God.
It might seem strange that of his 33 years, Jesus only carried out his active ministry—traveling, teaching, performing miracles—for about 3 of them. And not to present this as an explanation, but he clearly needed to be steeped in his context and tradition to be able to speak to people so incredibly in their tradition and context. Everything happens in its context, and Jesus could not have been Jesus without a context. So this presentation at the Temple serves as a naming of that context. This place, this tradition, these people, this God. This will be the center of his life.
The people and events here matter then. It matters that you can sacrifice two turtledoves or two pigeons. My animal-loving daughter would disapprove of either, but it matters that the law has a provision for sacrificing pigeons, which are much cheaper and more common than turtledoves, so this ritual can be accessible to people who are not wealthy. Though there are always markers of wealth and poverty on people, poverty is not a barrier to the temple.
And it matters that Simeon is moved by a spiritual recognition of Jesus. I’ll confess that, had someone said something like the Song of Simeon to my children at their baptism, it would have set off alarm bells. It’s a lot to hear from a stranger. But again, context. Angels had appeared to Mary and Joseph declaring this child to be the Son of God. Strangers from far away had shown up at the stable where he was born, bearing age-inappropriate gifts for the infant. Simeon was part of the chorus of people whose eyes were open to see who this infant was.
His song is beautiful. That’s why we say it every week in Compline. “God, I can see that you have fulfilled your promise. I have seen it with my own eyes. This is the awaited savior, not just for Israel, but for all the world.” It speaks perfectly to that feeling of relief that we all yearn for. It captures the aspiration of peacefulness, and shows us that it is actually within our grasp.
It matters, what Simeon said after that to 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.” That, too, is not exactly what you want to hear when you bring your child to the Temple for the first time. But Simeon is not here to make small talk. That second clause, “and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed” is the part that gets me. The part about the falling and rising, and the sword piercing Mary’s soul, those are pretty incredible, but remember that no one knew exactly what kind of Messiah he would be. Some were expecting a military leader, who could be responsible for people’s falling and rising, and were he to die in battle, it would pierce Mary’s soul. But this notion of Jesus being a sign that will be opposed so that our inner thoughts will be revealed is something different.
It’s said that an idol shows us what we project onto it, and that God shows us something deeper, challenges us to know ourselves more deeply. It’s in that way that our opposition to Jesus reveals our inner thoughts. When we encounter God, in this case God in human form, we stand astride the gap between God’s kingdom and our local context, which are always happening in the same place, but which can move in very different directions.
Perhaps part of us is taking note of who sprang for doves and who brought pigeons to the sacrifice, quite plausibly unintentionally judging people based on their socioeconomic standing. And when we confront Jesus, that part of us resists. That part of us says, “this Kingdom of God sounds nice, but in case he’s wrong, I’m going to keep up with the materialistic game.” Our opposition to Jesus reveals our inner thoughts.
Perhaps part of us is a little taken aback by Simeon, this guy who is having a super-intense experience of God and is getting kind of emotional about it, and we’re used to a more stoic ethos. And so we might judge him because his experiences manifest differently in him than ours. We might even be jealous of the way he freely emotes, but subconsciously disguise our jealousy as disdain. He might seem unusual, based on our context. When we confront Jesus, the part of us that can be uncomfortable with people who operate differently than us will resist. We will fortify our jealousy against the uncertainty of love. Jesus will say, love your neighbor as yourself, and we will start looking for the loopholes. Our opposition to Jesus reveals our inner thoughts.
This level of awareness is actually pretty rare. It’s not terribly hard to attain, but you have to be willing to see yourself more clearly. And the real question is: what do you do, once you see yourself more clearly? How do you respond to the knowledge that you are materialistic, or that you judge others?
The classic academic achiever move would be to brutally suppress these feelings by forcing yourself to do the thing that is the right thing. It’s how you power through the late night study sessions and write the term papers, right? You don’t want to, but you do it anyway, because you know that’s the good thing to do. So you judge people, but you force yourself to act nice. I’m not angry if you do this. I do it all the time. It’s not the worst thing.
But Jesus wouldn’t see you that way. Jesus would look on you with compassion. Much of what opposes Jesus in us is really what opposes ourselves. I am materialistic because I am am worried that what I have won’t be enough to measure up. I judge people because I’m not comfortable with myself. So the fact that the Kingdom of God welcomes all, and that Jesus views us with compassion, is a nudge to let us stop opposing ourselves.
In all of what’s happening in this Gospel, this may be the most important thing to notice. The salvation Jesus offers, the Kingdom he brings, is one we participate in by letting ourselves participate in it. Loving your neighbor as yourself, after all, involves two kinds of love. Love for your neighbor and love for yourself.
So practice it a little. When you find yourself reacting in opposition to Jesus this week—either to what you hear in the Gospel or to what you see in the world—just give yourself a break. Realize that something in you likely opposes yourself, and that the love you offer yourself is directly connected to the love you offer others. A lot of people in places like this are fueled by self-loathing. It has always been thus. But it doesn’t have to be.
When I read this story of the presentation at the Temple, I see people of faith—Mary, Joseph, Simeon, Anna—expressing their faith in something that was uncertain. He was a baby. So much could happen. So much would happen. They knew they had been waiting for him, but they didn’t know exactly what he was. But people’s opposition to him would reveal their inner thoughts. The stark light of the Kingdom of God creates a lot of contrasts, and shines light on a lot of darker places. With the courage to face them, may we become the community that welcomes Jesus in our time.