Speaking from across the Border - Presentation of Jesus at the Temple
Have you ever had the experience of speaking words that were so true, that you didn't even know you knew them, and you surprised yourself by what you were saying? Have you ever heard yourself speak from the very depths of your intuition, and felt a sudden shock of recognition that what you said was something you always knew, but at the same time haven't ever thought in that way before? ...that what you said was at the same time a surprise, and something you have always known in your depths?
Today is the feast of Presentation, an annual point in the church calendar where we reflect on that Scripture that we've just heard, about Mary and Joseph bringing Jesus to the temple, and the reactions of Simeon and Anna when they see him. To me, I hear in Simeon and Anna's words the kind of deep true-speaking that I just referred to. I'd like to dwell with the themes of recognition, faithfulness and truthtelling, as they appear in this passage, with the understanding that we, too, are called to notice, and to give voice to, these 'soundings from the deep' that emerge in us as we spend time in company with God's Spirit.
This is a narrative, a story that's been written after the events, by someone who was persuaded that Jesus was the long awaited Messiah, God's anointed one. We could look at this part of the story as simply a narrative device, a kind of literary proof of Jesus' special identity. But to me, the question of whether this event unfolded exactly as described or whether it has been written into the life of Jesus in order to verify him as the Messiah from the outset, is not a very interesting question. What matters – especially as this is the gospel of Luke, the gospel that invites us onto the path of maturing in service – is: what aspects of faithful discipleship are being illustrated in this part of the text? How are we, as people who look for the presence of the Christ in our own lives now, being invited to discover where and how we might find him? What is it about Simeon and Anna that we are called to emulate, so that we too, like them, might see the Holy One in our midst?
Both Simeon and Anna see something in the infant Jesus that nobody could be expected to know or see. He's just a baby. And yet both of them have some recognition that stirs within them when they see him. They could have confronted that recognition with objections, with expectations that when the Anointed One came to his temple he would do so with authority, with status, and with a trail of miracles and great acts already behind him, so that all would know and see that the time had come for God to redeem Israel. All Simeon and Anna saw was a baby, brought to the temple by people that - as far as we know – would have seemed much like any other couple coming to observe their religious duty. They could have second guessed their inner knowing and stayed silent. But they didn't. They look at the baby and see and name the Christ.
We are told that both Simeon and Anna lived their lives in conversation with the Holy Spirit. They had already, over their lives of faithful service, attuned the eyes and ears of their hearts to see and hear what lies partly hidden, what lies beneath the surface of everyday reality. I'm reading a book at the moment that suggests that our human life is like being in a kind of 'border country', where Ultimate Reality – God – the Holy comes to us through glimpses across a border that is sometimes quite opaque, and at other times alive with presence. At times, through certain experiences, and through moments of insight and discovery, we might glimpse depths that usually lie hidden from us, and encounter something for which we have no adequate names. There are small hints in this passage that both Simeon and Anna were very familiar with life in the border country, they knew how to put themselves in the way of deep knowing, new answers, and the whispers of God. And because of this attunement, because of this openness to God's Spirit, they were able to see what others may have missed...that this child would provoke responses in other people that would be far reaching...for themselves and for the destiny of the Chosen nation of Israel.
In what ways do we, in a serious and disciplined way, orient our lives within this border country? As Lent approaches, I invite us to ponder what in our experience takes us into the space where we are more likely to see and hear Truth, where our deepest knowing is activated. And to consider the conditions that are necessary to cultivate this listening readiness in ourselves. What can we do that will create space for those journeys across the border that are our particular way of connecting with God?
One of the things that I notice about both Simeon and Anna is their age, and the sense that they have been waiting a long time for this special moment. Simeon is waiting to be released into death, at peace in the knowledge that he has seen God's salvation for the world. Anna is in the temple day and night with fasting and prayer. It may be that for any one of us, we have one special thing that is ours to see or say in the world, one moment where God will speak in and through us for the healing of the world. Which is not to invalidate anything else we do, or to suggest that we should sit around waiting for that time. But that often our faithful presence, our spiritual discipline, may not lead to fireworks, or immediate world-changing events. Our task is simply to turn up in our own lives, to be present, to tune in, and to respond to the prompts that emerge. And that years may pass before we have any sense that our longing for any kind of revelation from God is fulfilled.
The final theme that emerges from this story for me is that of truth telling. We reflected on this a couple of weeks ago. When there is true vision – the kind of seeing that moves and changes us – there is also true speech. Simeon speaks some public words of prophecy about the child, and then some private, and difficult words, to his mother Mary. Anna, in her praises 'spoke of the child to all who looked forward to the deliverance of Jerusalem.' They did not hold back from sharing what they had recognised. Nor is it for us to hide or swallow down those things that rise up in us, those treasures that we bring back from the hidden places. They are for others, as well as us. This idea has been abused by many in the church, I know. Many of us will cringe at memories of people with hurtful opinions masquerading as prophetic words, 'speaking the truth in love' in ways that divided and condemned. What we think of as a 'truth' that must be given voice is sometimes a distortion that we speak out of our need to control other people, to feel spiritually superior, to make ourselves safe, or to wound where we have been wounded.
So how do we know? When should we speak what burns in us, and when should we stay silent? In our own context I'll offer some very quick and general guidelines for sharing our insights from across the border. Be prepared for the wider faith community to hear what you have to say, and to discern whether they also hear Truth in it. Say nothing until you recognise the presence of love and compassion in yourself toward those to, or about whom you are speaking. Become aware of your own fears and defensive reactions and be quicker to work on those than to say what you want to say. Spend enough time in prayer that you learn to taste the difference between your own voice and the voice that wells up within you from a True and Holy intuition. And speak from yourself rather than claiming the insight of God – let the hearers discern whether it's God they are hearing through you.
But having offered these cautions and qualifiers, I'd like to encourage us, particularly in this time of transition in our community, to speak what is in our hearts, especially those things that have the flavour or fragrance of God about them for you. That doesn't mean that everyone will agree with you, but some aspect of what you say may just be the thing that we need to hear. Especially, be free with those words that are encouraging, that offer praise and acknowledgement, that build up, that foster love, that call out each other's gifts, and that recognise the Christ in each other, and in what is happening among us. And remember that spoken words are not the only or the most helpful medium for some of us to express our truth – some will write, some will paint, some will dance, or sing. God give us eyes and ears to recognise the Holy in whatever way that revelation comes to us.