Eyes wide open

The Presentation of Christ in the Temple

Luke 2:22-40

Marian Free

In the name of God who opens our eyes to the wonders around us. Amen.

It sometimes seems that we live in a world of Botox, facelifts, diets and exercise programmes designed to delay aging. No one wants to grow old or to face the consequences of growing old. Youth and beauty are ideals that people want to hold onto forever. This is understandable of course. We would all like to retain our strength and vitality as long as possible and to avoid the gradual descent into dependence on others. Youth has more than good health to recommend it. Where would we be without the confidence, enthusiasm, vision and impetuousness of youth – the idealism that has yet to be dampened by the realities of the world.

This adoration of and hanging onto youth does however have a number of drawbacks the most significant of which is a failure to come face-to-face with mortality. Accepting that death is inevitable, however unpalatable that may be, has the effect of encouraging us to make the most of life. Knowing that our time is finite enables us to live more fully in the present, to accept life for what it is rather than living in constant denial and fear, focussed on putting off the inevitable rather than relaxing into the reality of our existence.

A desire to hold onto our youth may mean a failure to take on the responsibility of adulthood. We may find ourselves locked forever into a kind of teenage limbo-land, never moving forward, refusing to allow life to mould and shape us into wiser and stronger people.

In his book, Falling Upwards, Richard Rohr suggests that, spiritually speaking there are two stages of life. He makes the claim that in the first half of life we are egocentric focussed on ourselves and our own needs. At this stage of our spiritual life we are bound by external rules and regulations – only able to think in terms of black and white, right and wrong. In the second stage of our spiritual life we are able to see beyond ourselves and better able to understand that between black and white there are vast stretches of grey. Rohr argues that many people never grow beyond the first stage no matter what age they are in worldly terms. Many, he suggests, continue to put their own needs first and their ideas of right and wrong, good and evil continue to be determined by outside forces. They never manage to internalise the principles behind the rules that they learnt as a child. They are never so secure in themselves that they can let go of the need to be reassured.

Simeon and Anna are wonderful characters, and I think, examples of people in the second stage of their spiritual life. Both, in different ways, exhibit the wisdom of age, the confidence of knowing who they are, the freedom to trust in God and the willingness to see things in ways that differed from their expectations. Luke’s account is quite extraordinary. Mary and Joseph are doing something that is quite routine  – taking Jesus to the Temple in order to present him to God and make the appropriate offerings. Externally, there would have been nothing to distinguish them from the hundreds of other parents who came on a daily basis to do the very same thing. From the point of view of the average onlooker, Jesus is just another baby. Yet both Simeon and Anna recognise the infant Jesus as God’s anointed, the one who was to redeem Israel.

Unlike many others of their era, Anna and Simeon, being outward (God) focussed are not limited to one way of seeing. They expect God to send a Saviour, but they are open to God’s doing something unexpected. Neither of them is locked into one or other particular idea. They are not committed to a belief that God will send someone out of the ordinary – a king or a soldier – to lead the people to freedom. They are not taken aback by the fact that God has chosen to send a Redeemer in the form of a tiny infant – just the opposite. Their years of prayer have ensured that they are no longer self-absorbed, and they have no need for absolutes. With the wisdom of age, they know that things are not always what they seem. This is why they are able to see Jesus for who he is, even though he looks like an ordinary child of ordinary parents.

Simeon and Anna have the wisdom and patience of age. Anna has lived in the Temple for at least sixty years, Simeon seems to be aware that his end might be near.  They expect God to act, but know that God will act in God’s way and in God’s time.  Year after year, they have continued to wait and to pray, confident that God will act, content even though they do not know when.

That said, when they do see the child – God’s anointed – they demonstrate that age and wisdom have not dampened their youthful passions. They respond to the infant Jesus with all the impetuousness and enthusiasm of youth. Simeon sweeps the child away from his mother and Anna throws caution to the wind as she tells all and sundry about the child.

Anna and Simeon are among my favourite New Testament characters. They remind us that age is not something to be feared and denied but in the case of a life lived well age is liberating and ennobling – they no longer have to worry about what others might think of them and they have the wisdom and experience that can only be gained by being open to all that life has to offer. As Luke describes them, they are two people who have grown and matured in their faith to a point that their own egos and needs are unimportant, they have abandoned any need for certainty and security and have placed their trust completely in God. Lives of prayer have enabled them to allow the Holy Spirit to work through them, to make them, at the end of their lives prophets and messengers of God who announce the Saviour to the world and in so-doing have earned themselves a place in history.

Life is a progression from birth to death, certainty to uncertainty. If we hold on too tightly to youth, to security, if we try to avoid suffering and pain, we may never grow in faith and may never allow ourselves to be in-dwelt by the Holy Spirit. God will be more of an idea than a reality and we will miss the  wonders and revelations that God has in store for us.

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