Dedicating these temples of the living God, ourselves and the youth we have baptized to God and Community.
While the Scriptures are full of the faith of our fathers, today also speaks to the faith of our mothers and grandmothers and that calls for a wonderful celebration. We focus today on who Jesus is and on who his mother Mary is, and the prophet Anna as well. We also note the power of elderly Simeon and Anna who in their eighties heralded the Christ.
The feast of the presentation of Jesus at the Temple is also the feast of the purification of Mary. Mary is an observant Jew of her times. She is presenting herself for ritual purification after childbirth as is the Law, even as Mary and Joseph are presenting Jesus as their firstborn child, an act of thanking God for the gift of Jesus and, as it were, giving him back to God but redeeming him from a life of Temple service (really done by Levites) with their offering. Exodus 13:1 instructs on the consecration of the firstborn. Leviticus 23: 9-14 discusses the law of offering first fruits to God. This is similar to Hannah giving the much longed for Samuel back to God although Samuel was to be raised in the Temple. The Law says that a firstborn must be dedicated to God. The dedication of a firstborn son is still practiced today among Orthodox and Conservative Jews and is a wonderfully happy family and communal event (Pidyon haben). There is also a Pidyon ha-Bat/ha-Ben developed by the Leifer’s, a reconstructionist/ reformed Jewish couple in the 1970’s to assure that either a girl or a boy could be dedicated to God. Other ceremonies such as a naming event are practiced for firstborn girls in all branches of Judaism today. In some of these ceremonies the baby girl is placed in water, somewhat similar to our infant baptism. It is a joyous occasion where the parents are dedicating their child and connecting her to the covenantal faith. Jesus’ presentation was also symbolic of this covenantal connection.
Mary and Joseph followed the Law, at eight days Jesus was circumcised and at 40 days Jesus was presented at the Temple (Luke 2:22-40). The first reading of the day from Malachi (3:1-4) is the prophecy: “the Sovereign One you are seeking will suddenly enter the Temple….” Simeon and Anna were waiting. The old, strong and wise were waiting.
On that day God’s Spirit guided the elderly devout man, Simeon, to the Temple. When he saw the baby Jesus he knew right away that his eyes had seen God’s salvation and a light of revelation to all. He said he could then die in peace. Anna the prophet who is 84 years old, was there as well, at that moment she gave thanks to God and then talked about the child to all who anticipated the deliverance of Jerusalem. Here we note the strength and importance of these elderly people in the prophetic role of welcoming Jesus and spreading the word. This respect for the wise and prophetic words of the elderly is refreshing in a time where “youth culture” is totally glorified. The ads for Super Bowl Sunday are said to make billions for companies, let us see how many mature people are featured positively in these ads?
The Gospel of Luke is known to have included women far more than the other Gospels and there has even been speculation that it may have been written by a woman or at least influenced by women (Loretta Dornisch, A Woman Reads The Gospel of Luke: 5; 1996). The writer of Luke is making Mary, and Anna as well, central figures in this pericope (brief story) of Jesus’ presentation at the Temple. Simeon blesses the couple, talks of Jesus’ destiny and addresses Mary directly and foretells her pain at the rejection of Jesus and the related events- “And a sword will pierce your heart as well”. Indeed every mother and all mothering persons can identify with Mary’s pain. When a teenager that I had fostered, loved and cared for left my home and got into trouble with the police he was brought before the judge in shackles. His head was down and he was clearly broken. Seeing him like that broke my heart. How much more was Mary’s heart broken?
Anna who is described as a prophet who “never left the temple” gave thanks and shared the good news about the child with all who had hopes of the deliverance of Jerusalem. Both Simeon and Anna have a prophetic belief in Jesus as the expected Messiah. This is noteworthy as the writer of Luke is speaking to a varied, mainly Gentile Christian community and is usually more concerned with Jesus’ inclusion of all people in God’s kin-dom than with Messianic prophecy. Yet as we look carefully, Luke is consistent as Simeon is describing Jesus as “a light of revelation to the Gentiles AND the glory of your people Israel”. Luke has a both/and approach to seeing the Christ– deliverance and the light of revelation is for the Jews and for the whole world. Luke is giving women and the elderly a central role in this presentation of Christ.
As he later shows Jesus to be growing in wisdom (sofia) and the grace of God (charis), feminine words in Greek that also show feminine aspects of God, the writer of Luke seems to be embracing Christ as a feminine aspect of God and beyond all notions of gender. Schussler-Fiorenza (1994) develops extensive thinking on Christ as Wisdom Sofia. Mary remains central as the teacher of the faith for Jesus. When Jesus, at 12, gets left behind and is found in the temple, (Luke 1:41-52) it is Mary, not Joseph that he dialogues with. It is reasonable to think that Mary was his primary faith teacher (Dornisch, 1996). Reflecting on Mary’s Song- Magnificat- (Luke 1:46-55), we see Mary’s knowledge of the Scriptures and her sense of identification with the compassion and justice that the Law represents with the poor and outcast.
The non-canonical Gospels of The Birth of Mary ascribed to Matthew and the Protoevangelion ascribed to James say that Mary was a much longed for child who was presented to the Temple by her parents Anna and Joachim at age 3 and remained there until she was 14 and betrothed to Joseph. She was given back to God in thanksgiving for her birth and also to be educated. There is historical evidence that “Temple Virgins” lived in a separate building behind the Temple walls and that they recited prayers and sewed the Temple veil and took care of vestments and other liturgical items. This was the only way a girl could become educated as well. Older women, usually widows like the prophet Anna in the Presentation pericope lived with them and cared for them. It is reasonable to think that Mary was a temple servant and that she was now dedicating her son Jesus, even as she was dedicated although he would become the new Temple, “to be torn down and rebuilt in three days”, and not live in the Temple. The Christ presented in the Gospel of Luke could have indeed been educated for his first twelve years by a woman, Mary his mother.
As Mary and Joseph present Jesus, as Anna and Simeon recognize and present Jesus, may we not lose hold of our faith and its roots in the depth of the beautiful Jewish faith. May we embrace our sisters in the Scriptures and revere our elderly. May we realize that like Jesus, we are all temples of the living God and act accordingly. May we also learn to present Jesus to the world, and to present ourselves and our own children and faith communities to be dedicated to God and to all of God’s people, especially to those in most need of inclusion.