Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple
As I read the opening chapters of Luke’s gospel, I often imagine seeing an enormous tent being painstakingly erected, like those that are used for outdoor weddings. With the introduction of each significant character – Elizabeth, Zechariah, Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, Simeon, and Anna – another stake or peg is fixed in the earth, with its own cord attached. These cords begin to cross and intersect at just the right angles, as if by the arrangement of some mysterious, divine geometry, held taut by the weight of poles and the canvas now unfurling from the ground into a recognizable structure. Into the particularity of time and space there unfolds a tabernacle, a tent or dwelling for Christ Emmanuel, God-with-Us. A web of divinely inspired, interpersonal encounters prepares the ground and provides a sheltering roof.
Today’s Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple is a rich and multifaceted solemnity, observed by the Church in Jerusalem at least as early as the fourth century. In the Eastern Church, the icon for this Feast depicts today’s gospel lesson and communicates its significance in liturgical terms. The Temple in which the figures stand has taken on the visible architecture of the Church. The tent or tabernacle of my own praying imagination is, in the icon, a four-pillared kivorion or ciborium, a fixed canopy erected over the altar in the earliest Christian churches. It looks a lot like the baldacchino over our high altar. Around this structure and the altar beneath it are the four major characters of the story, with Jesus in their midst. In some icons Joseph and Anna are placed on the left, with the Virgin Mary and Simeon on the right; in others, Joseph and Mary are on the left. Joseph bears the two doves for the offering, and Mary bears Jesus, just beginning to hand him over the altar to Simeon and Anna, who seem to stand behind the altar, to the right. I think of this arrangement often when I see two people bearing the gifts of bread and wine up the center of our nave to the high altar and into the hands of the Presider and the acolyte, a silent, liturgical expression of our interdependence and mutual participation in the divine mystery of the Eucharist. But at least to my eye there is also a delightful ambiguity in the icon. The viewer is right to ask, “Is Simeon acting as ‘priest,’ or is Mary?” In this solemn exchange, is Simeon receiving the precious offering, or is Mary communicating the sacrament to Simeon?
In Luke’s account of this event, we encounter an icon of complementarity and genuine synergy. There is a complementary role and a complementary witness that shifts kaleidoscopically as we consider the characters as individuals, as pairs, and as an entire unit. We behold men alongside women, an elder generation alongside a younger generation, a widow alongside a virgin mother, a public ritual fulfilling the obligation of Jewish religious law alongside the secret revelation of God’s Messiah, the giver of that Law himself. And then there is the invisible character of the Holy Spirit, moving and pulsing in the space between, inspiring and propelling these significant encounters, like an artist creating astonishing new, secondary hues from a palette of primary colors.
We need partners in the fulfillment of our baptismal ministry, and the greatest synergy may be found in partnership with those whose life and circumstances, perspective and worldview, vocation or spirituality are quite different from our own. Men need women, elders need youngsters, carpenters need temple widows and righteous prophets need virgin mothers to bring to fulfillment God’s work in the world.
I received a most astonishing reminder of this last summer, when a small group of us brothers stayed in England a few weeks longer after our community’s 150th anniversary pilgrimage. Several of us visited Walsingham, a reconstructed pilgrimage place near the site of a medieval shrine to the Virgin. In Walsingham, two groups of people most caught my attention: male clerics in black cassocks, maintaining the shrine church as a public hive of official ritual, and faithful women, often elderly, lighting candles and caressing rosaries. Now, as a man in a black cassock, I have to say that – in my very personal and subjective experience as a pilgrim – I felt that these faithful women were the ones whose prayers measured out the living, beating heartbeat of that place. It was a blessing to be silent and listen to that heartbeat. In one of those silences, following our own small Eucharist at the shrine’s main altar, an Orthodox nun in a white apron came up the side aisle, sweeping the floor. We later learned that she was a solitary living in Walsingham, sent there by her home community. She must have been led by a prompting of the Holy Spirit, because she invited the five of us to come to her flat later that day to pray Vespers! A makeshift room served as a Temple, complete with a modest iconostasis. She prepared her prayer books and donned her magnificent liturgical garments. We stood with her and prayed silently while she intoned a little eternity of prayers in complex melodies: plaintive, urgent, quietly meditative and exuberantly joyful. We were humbled and honored to witness this one-woman show performed for the delight of God alone, though at various points she would hand one of us a book and invite us to recite a prayer, as if to remind us that, at least for that evening, we were simply monastic siblings at prayer together. There were no small parts, only small worshippers, and centuries of schism between East and West were gently and gracefully bracketed. Complementarity of witness and communion in Christian love were the gifts that lightened our pilgrim’s footsteps as we said goodbye that evening.
May the Spirit tune our ears and open our eyes with the sensitivity of blessed Simeon and the faithful exuberance of Anna, that we too may look for unlikely partners and providential encounters to serve one another in the service of God’s kingdom.
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