On Feb 2 – yes, Groundhog Day – we will observe the Presentation of the Lord, aka Purification of Mary, or in some languages – simply “the Meeting” (e.g., Sretenie). We also call it Candlemas, and bless the candles to use over the coming year, perhaps due to the reference to light we find in old Simeon’s words, or because we are half-way from Solstice to the Equinox; or for both of these reasons. Regardless, 40 days after Christmas, the arc of Jesus’ life story that we tell through the liturgical calendar continues with his first visit to the Temple, which according to a Jewish custom, had to happen 40 days after his birth.
This isn’t a typical church Sunday, so in lieu of a usual reflection, I’ll demonstrate to you my favorite way of praying. Made popular by St Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits in the 1500s, it involves imagining yourself as a participant in a gospel story. As I lead you through this short meditation, let us try to experience this Temple visit as though we ourselves are taking baby Jesus to his first formal meeting with God and people. I invite you to sit comfortably, perhaps even close your eyes and notice your breath, and above all, keep your minds open – remember, this is just one way of praying with this passage, in this instance showing you how my own life experience will meet the scripture (it will be different for you if you take this technique home).
Not everyone here has had an experience of caring for a newborn, so let’s begin with recalling a shared memory: the periods of isolation we’ve gone through over the past 3 years. Remember how you felt. Whether you were lonely or had zero alone-time, it took a toll on you. Now imagine going through something like this for 6 weeks while caring for someone dependent on you, day and night, stuck in a place away from home and support, and recovering from an intense physical experience. That’s where the mother of Jesus was at the start of the story. You’re now her. Imagine Mary’s range of emotions: homesick, lonely, ostracized, ritually impure, physically weak, sleep deprived, unsure if you’re doing things right as a new parent… Your husband has also been unable to return home to his carpentry tools and clients, so resources are tight, emotions are volatile, and relationship is strained despite Joseph’s helpful dream. Your Bethlehem relatives still “have no room” for an unwed couple with a baby, though a few of the nosier ones turned up for his circumcision on the 8th day. Now, it’s time for the next rite dictated by your tradition – more scrutiny, and more traveling.
It’s exhausting to even contemplate the 10-mile trek to the Jerusalem Temple, but it has to be done for you and the baby to return to society. What can you do – it’s an old custom from the days when every firstborn son became a priest, unless a sacrifice freed him for other walks of life; plus perhaps, the mystery of birth requires some kind of a ritual closure. Now, you enter the Temple and walk past the pool of Bethesda, and see the sheep being washed. Does thinking about their fate make you feel queasy? Has childbirth heightened your empathy, or have you always been moved by the struggle, fear, violence, blood — an innocent life taken because of another’s guilt. Just look at the cloth bag in Joseph’s hands: two small turtle doves – a poor man’s sacrifice. Might he be ashamed that he can’t afford a lamb? Well, these creatures’ death will soon make you and your baby free to go home. You shudder as you remember the old story of your ancestors’ escape from slavery, death on every side. You pray that you’ll never have to go through what those Egyptian mothers did.
How does it feel to be out and about after a 6 week-long quarantine with the baby? Strange? Freeing? Terrifying? Overwhelming? What if he gets sick – maybe there’s ancient wisdom in staying in (safe!) for the first little while? Look at all those people: merchants and buyers, paupers and invalids, priests and worshippers. Suddenly, an ancient man emerges from the crows: “Let me hold the child!” Notice Joseph’s move to shield the baby – it fills you with gratitude and relief, for he must have begun to accept the child. But, this is all too much: animals, crowds, strangers, and dirt… not as bad as the manger, but are his hands even clean? Will he hold the baby’s head? He smiles: “You must forgive old Simeon. Your child is safe. It’s just that I’ve been waiting for him for so long.” He looks like a priest and seems harmless, but… what’s he muttering, “Lord, now you are letting your servant die in peace.” Yet, the baby remains content as he gently rocks him, tears streaming down his beard: “The salvation of all! The glory of our people! This child will enable those who die to rise again”. Maybe, that’s what he means by dying in peace – the hope that there’s more to human life than what’s here and now. But how does the baby you nurse, change, bathe and cradle enable this great promise?
Simeon is not done, “A sword will pierce your own soul, too.” As he gently places Jesus back in your arms, feel the weight of his small body. Hold him tighter. You can already tell that hundreds of soul-piercing moments will keep you up at night with each step your child takes towards independence. You might one day lose him in the market or in this Temple; but you hope that until you die, he will always stay in your life. Simeon dries his eyes with a sleeve, and with one last glance, moves away slowly through the crowd. Now, an elderly woman comes towards you, as she too begins to praise the arrival of your child. Of course she would – as all new babies do, he embodies so much potential, and hope, and seems so special to you.
As we exit the meditation, note all that Mary couldn’t and wouldn’t want to know yet about herself and her baby. Some day, we will also experience pain for which nothing can prepare us. But even the deepest wounding may channel the most profound grace. Let us pray for such grace to envelope us now. For Jesus, it meant that these sacrifices never spared him from becoming, paradoxically, both the high priest and sacrificial lamb. Mary, far from merely becoming “clean”, would be regarded as the holiest of all women. As for us, God has expectations of me and you, too, as any parent does; yet, she accomplishes infinitely more in us than anyone, including ourselves, may ever ask or imagine. Thanks be to God.
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