A moment of grace

Daily Reading for February 2 • The Presentation of Our Lord Jesus Christ in the Temple

The religious and liturgical events that provided the setting for this song were the traditional Jewish ceremonies that followed a baby’s birth. Though they aren’t clearly defined by Luke, who was not a Jew himself, three key Jewish ceremonies were taking place in the life of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus. The first ceremony was the Circumcision, which took place on the eighth day after birth. This was the time when the baby was named. It was considered such a sacred event that it could even be done on the Sabbath. The second ceremony was the Redemption of the Firstborn, where the baby was presented to God one month after birth. This ceremony entailed the “buying back” or “redeeming” of the child from God through an offering. This symbolic action was an acknowledgment that the child belonged to God, and the parents were required to pay five shekels. Incidentally, according to Jewish law, this could only be done when the child was free of any physical deformation.

The third religious ceremony following a baby’s birth was for the Purification of the Mother. This ceremony took place forty days after the birth of a son, or eighty days after a daughter. Prior to this event, the mother was considered ceremonially unclean and wasn’t permitted to enter the temple. At the end of the “unclean period,” the parents were to bring a lamb for a burnt offering and a dove or pigeon for a sin offering. If the lamb was too expensive for the parents’ economic status, they were permitted to bring a second dove or pigeon, and this was most probably the case with Mary and Joseph. It is for this third ceremony that they were at the temple and encountered Simeon in the temple courts. At this time the temple was approaching completion, standing as a gleaming white jewel wedged into the northeastern corner of the city, and to all pious Jews this temple was the very center of the world. The sprawling enclave was rimmed with a labyrinth of colonnaded porticoes and gates. It was here, as Mary and Joseph with their baby stood in the Court of the Women, that an old man named Simeon, among the most pious of all, came up to them. After taking the baby in his arms, he sings a song that is like Hebrew poetry, filled with scriptural language that closely paralleled the words found in the book of Isaiah.

Who was Simeon? He is often written about in literature, and is frequently referred to in the poetry of the Middle Ages. Artists throughout history have never tired of trying to catch the sacred fire in Simeon’s eyes as he sings his song. Perhaps the most striking effort is by the Dutch artist Rembrandt, who painted this scene four times during his lifetime. Simeon is usually presumed to be a priest since it is in the temple that he presents himself and takes the baby in his arms, which could perhaps be seen as a priestly function. He is also often thought to be elderly, as we are told that he waited so long for the arrival of the Messiah. Augustine, while preaching in Carthage in North Africa in the early fifth century, referred to Simeon as “aged” and “long-lived.” Furthermore, together with Simeon we are introduced to Anna, a woman we are told is eighty-four years old. It is a marvelous scene, with all the depth and mystery one could ever hope for. We can almost feel the chemistry of the moment as this old, gentle, saintly, bent-over man takes this baby boy into his arms and blesses him. And in so doing not only is the baby boy blessed, but so also is the old saint. Simeon clearly experiences something wonderful. It is a moment of grace in that great temple, when the child Messiah is laid right into his arms and into his heart. In response, he sings a song that has never stopped being sung throughout Christendom.

From Songs in Waiting: Spiritual Reflections on the Middle Eastern Songs Surrounding Christ’s Birth by Paul-Gordon Chandler. Copyright © 2009. Used by permission of Church Publishing Incorporated, New York, NY. www.churchpublishing.org

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