February 1, 2009
Presentation at the Temple
“Do you see him?”
Do you see that old man, sitting in the corner? He’s easy to miss. Shuffles into the temple most every day. Shrunken, bent with age. Wandering awkwardly among the crowds until the weariness overcomes him and he settles into some dark corner. He would melt right into the shadows if it weren’t for his startlingly white beard and the gleam in his cloudy eyes.
Do you see her in the shadows by the entrance? Wrinkled skin clinging tightly to her bones—nearly emaciated from years of fasting. Countenance tilted slightly upward from years of prayer. Eyes scanning, peering at the faces, all the faces that stream by. She is there every day. Maybe a couple of the priests know her name.
We often hear this story of Simeon and Anna within—or just on the heels of—the season of Advent. When our minds are in waiting mode. This story reflects the ethos of Advent, and so we often take for granted the waiting of this old man and woman at the temple. Mary is waiting, we are waiting, Simeon and Anna are waiting.
Yet the quality of the waiting seems very, very different.
Our waiting, Mary’s waiting has structure.
Mary knew, roughly, when the birth would occur. The swelling of her body, the new pains and discomforts, the phases of the moon all marked the time of her waiting.
During our Advent waiting, we light a new candle each week until finally the center candle—the Christ candle—is lit. And it is Christmas!
We write special days on the calendar and mentally—or even physically–check off each little square as the days progress until finally, it is our birthday! or graduation! or vacation! or even surgery.
You see, the quality of the waiting is so different. Simeon and Anna have no candles to light. Their aged bodies do not tell them when their waiting will be completed. No squares to mark off as they go.
Their waiting is fueled only by the Holy Spirit; by the Spirit’s promise that they will see the Messiah. But when? Where? And how will they even know?
It seems to me that this kind of open-ended waiting could eat away a person’s life. This kind of waiting where all hopes, all decisions, are focused on some vague future event.
Aren’t we supposed to live for today? Countless movies and books urge us to “seize the day”! Carpe diem! We hear it today. Anna and Simeon had heard it. The first readers of Luke’s Gospel had heard it.
Proverbs says, “Do not boast about tomorrow, for you do not know what a day may bring forth.” (Proverbs 27:1)
And James echoes: “Now listen, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.’ Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow.” (James 4:13-14)
Even Jesus says, “Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself.” (Matthew 6:34)
And there sit Simeon and Anna in the temple—looking to, longing for, the future. Seemingly made useless by age and grandiose visions.
What, really, is the point of their waiting? The Messiah will come, or not. The people will be saved—or not. Surely God’s plan of redemption is not dependent upon these two old people and their long, long, waiting.
I am sure that God’s redeeming work in the world did not depend on Simeon and Anna. Jesus would have come, would have eventually been recognized, would have carried out his ministry, without this brief scene in the temple. A scene that went, I imagine, mostly unobserved; a scene likely disregarded by those who did observe it.
I am fairly sure that God’s work of redeeming the world is never dependent upon a single individual. Not to say that individuals are not important, that one person, one small group, can not make a big difference in carrying out God’s work of justice and mercy.
But to say that the redemption of the world is God’s work. Not mine. Not yours. Not Simeon’s and Anna’s.
So why the waiting? Why would the Holy Spirit ask of these two that they sacrifice their lives to this nebulous time of waiting? “Do not worry about tomorrow”? Their lives revolve around tomorrow—and if not tomorrow, then the next day, or the next.
Why the waiting? Not for the redemption of the world. But maybe, just maybe, the waiting is an important part of the redemption of Simeon; of Anna; of those who receive their eager gazes in the temple courts.
At first, probably, it is the priests who catch their eye. Holy men. Surely the Messiah was one of them. And each priest is considered, whatever is of God in him is appreciated, and yet . . .
Simeon and Anna eventually turn their gaze toward the strong, young men. If not a priest, then the Messiah will come with an entourage, walking proudly, bringing a rich sacrifice. And each handsome face is looked upon with expectation; rich brown eyes are explored as some spark of the Holy One is found, and yet . . .
Maybe a man not quite so strong, or so young. Someone unassuming, yet respectable. The Savior of the people need not stand out in a crowd.
Or could it possibly be one of the poor, wearing rags, begging for money rather than offering it? Or, oh my, surely not . . . a woman?
The long, long waiting leads Anna and Simeon to consider them all. To look into the faces of the poor, the powerless. To look with expectation at those who were never looked upon with anything but disdain.
In their long waiting, Simeon learned, Anna learned: he could be the one; she might be our Savior. And in so many, so many faces they did not find the Messiah, but they surely found God.
Do you see her today? Flailing her arms; going on and on about some baby. About the “redemption of Jerusalem.” Seeming, to most, a little senile in her old, old age, in the loneliness of her widowhood.
Do you see the old man today? He’s holding a baby in his arms. His billowy beard resting on the infant’s tummy. His gnarled fingers caressing the soft brown face. His eyes staring into the child; his thin lips moving to the rhythm of his nodding head.
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.