Old age and hardship had deteriorated what was once a strong and capable body. And now her mind was following suit. The old woman still had more good days than bad when it came to her mental function, but she knew that soon that would no longer be true. She might have been, probably should have been, more scared or anxious about the loss of her physical and mental capacity, but instead she had an inner peace. She was so old at this point that she didn’t mind telling people her mind, pointing out to them the hard truths of the world around her. Some people called her crazy others said she had a deep wisdom. But she didn’t think she was crazy or wise—she simply thought of herself as honest. She had been made a promise as a young girl and had spent her life looking for its fulfillment. She didn’t have much longer so there was no time to play silly games or walkabout a subject with unnecessary words. She preferred the direct approach and the clock was ticking.
They were heading to the Temple to present their newborn. Only forty days old and he was already a strength and a joy to them. Joseph had been a rock, a solid foundation for her these many months. Even under the wretched conditions of birth in a manger amidst the smelly beasts, he had been calm and concerned for her and the child. Mary remembered that night and smiled as they entered the courts of the Temple. It was busy in the Temple—lots of people coming and going. She had expected quiet—she didn’t know why. She just knew that there had been a peace beyond all understanding that had evaded their little family since Jesus was born. Now, as they arrive at the Temple and enter in amongst the hustle and bustle of people exchanging money and purchasing animals for sacrifice, she begins to feel a layer of excitement invade her peace. She notices an old man and the widow that
never leaves the Temple. They are both elderly and seem to possess a deep wisdom and piety, though the woman seems just a little off sometimes. The old man, Simeon, approaches and then Anna—both seem to be making some claim on her baby.
Anna spent her days in the Temple now—praying and fasting, dedicating her life to the Lord. She had once been young and filled with a zest for the world, married to a man who had been faithful and true. Yet seven years into their marriage, her husband had died and now she was a widow. She spent her days in prayer because that was what she thought the Lord was calling her to do. She didn’t leave the Temple anymore because she always had a nagging feeling that if she did, she would miss something, something big. So she prayed and fasted and watched.
She had always had a nack for noticing things others did not or, at least, if they did notice them they didn’t find them interesting enough to take time with or pay too much attention. But she noticed things, especially people. She knew the regulars at the Temple, like that ole fool Simeon, who kept telling people that he would see the Messiah before he died. People were always claiming to be the Messiah these days—it was down right indecent. And here was Simeon, just egging them on.
The Messiah had been promised for years—the Prophet Isaiah could be blamed for getting everyone’s hopes up. He had promised a deliverer—and how long ago was that? Since then it had been one empire after another that had conquered her people—first the Assyrians, then the Persians, the Greeks, and now the Romans. And the Romans were the worst. Taxation was at an all time high and there was tension on the ground—everyone was afraid of the Romans. If there was ever a time for a Messiah, it was now. And there is ole Simeon accosting someone else, a young mother bringing her child to be presented at the Temple, but something seems different this time—what’s he saying?
Mary’s heart fluttered at Simeon’s words. They seemed encouraging and yet difficult, prophetic but also full of gloom; an old man, uttering a prayer that prophesied the redemption of the world by their baby boy, by Jesus. He called him “a light to enlighten the nations and the glory of your people Israel.” The old man seems to be saying something else in this prayer—the belief that he was promised he “would not see death until he had seen the Lord’s Messiah,” the belief that he had now seen the salvation of God. This prayer, this Nunc Dimittis, seems to be Simeon’s homily—his time has passed and his life has come to its fruition and now he will die having revealed the glory of this child to all—“for all the world to see.” And now he turns to her, to Mary, and offers her words to ponder that a sword will pierce her own soul too. The amazement and joy she has felt is accompanied by a lingering dread—what can that mean?
That old fool! Anna thinks. He was right—he had seen the messiah. She isn’t sure why she knows this truth or how Simeon knew it—but she cannot deny the feeling of hope and expectation bubbling up inside of her and the whispered knowledge that God seems to be offering her that this is indeed the messiah. In her eighty-four years she had seen so many young mothers on this day—the day of presentation and purification, not simply of their child but of themselves—their husbands beaming proudly as they made the sacrifice, their babies at times crying or cooing or sleeping peacefully in their arms. So many young mothers had come and gone in the Temple all hopeful and expectant for their child’s future but this day, this family, is different.
Mary was amazed. Joseph seemed to be so too. Sure their had been shepherds who had told them of angels in a field and the glory of the Lord shining upon them. And she would never forget the three kings who had brought such expensive gifts and paid homage to her son in the manger. Of course that had been nothing compared to the angel who told her she would give birth to the messiah, to Emmanuel. The past ten months had seemed to be a dream—it had all happened so quickly, she wasn’t even sure how it had happened if she were being honest with herself. From the moment she had said yes, had declared herself a servant of the Lord, the pieces kept falling in place. She should have been stoned, turned out by her family, refused by her betrothed. But Joseph hadn’t left her, her relative, Elizabeth, had not only invited her in but honored her with the title “Mother of my Lord”, she had been protected and saved over and over again even and especially in the face of the hardships and struggles.
Now this old man, Simeon, was prophesying redemption of the world by her son, by her baby boy. His words seem so hopeful, so righteous, so pure. And then he turns to her. His prophecy is not complete, he will not leave them to contemplate the joy of salvation, but will add a note of gloom—a sword will pierce her soul too. What can that mean? Was it not enough to go through the scandal of these past ten months, the gawking stares and whispered words behind hands that cannot conceal the contempt others have felt for her? She ponders those words: a sword will pierce your soul, too. Does this mean that her baby boy, her Jesus will die by the sword? By the Romans? Does this mean that they too will kill her? In all the amazement she has felt in the past forty days—in all the joy and mystery that has been revealed to her—there now lingers a touch of doubt, a touch of anxiety.
Anna hears Simeon’s words. She sees the look that clouds Mary’s eyes and she knows there is only one thing to do—she embraces the crazy, old lady personae that people have identified her with. She feels new life and vitality pouring into her old bones and jumps, flinging her arms wide and catching the people around her off guard. She begins to shout the praises of the Lord at the top of her lungs, “Rejoice! The kingdom of God has come near! This child is the messiah! The salvation of our Lord. Look upon him in wonder and amazement and tell your children and your children’s children of this day when Simeon revealed the salvation of our Lord and crazy Anna praised God for it! We can expect great things from this child, great things indeed. We can expect the redemption of Jerusalem.
And Mary—who had doubted just for a moment—found the fire of her love rekindled, her faith restored. Maybe a sword would pierce her soul, but she had said yes to God, she had declared herself in his service, and she must trust that just as he had carried her through the last ten months so he would not leave her in the years to come whatever hardship and sorrow she might face. She, with Joseph, made their sacrifices and said their prayers, doing all that was required by the Torah—the Law of the Lord. And they returned home where Jesus grew and became strong and filled with wisdom, and the favor of the Lord was upon him.
Presentation of Our Lord: Malachi 3:1-4; Hebrews 2:14-18; Psalm 84; Luke 2:22-40
Church of the Ascension, Montgomery, AL
Sunday, February 2, 2020
Rev. Candice B. Frazer