Because of this feast, we miss the gospel of the Beatitudes for 4th Sunday which contain the usual reversals we see in the Scriptures where we are invited to find God’s action/presence/voice in the most unexpected places/people: the poor, the mourners, the persecuted, the peacemakers. However, the readings today show us again how such people hold God’s blessing and transforming power. We go on a journey toward a vision with God at every turn, who upsets our expectations. We are challenged to take deeper steps into the mystery of God’s presence in our world.
In today’s gospel, we see the arrival of God’s messenger who is a baby. We might prefer or expect God to come smashing and overturning, scattering and frightening, for justifiable reasons, but the surprise is that God is revealed in an infant, in poor couple and a vulnerable aged people. The reversal is that God comes as a baby, not in power and strength. This collective of vulnerable and often overlooked witnesses embody, proclaim and demonstrate the hope that had come into the world - a hope that would bring about the rising and falling of many in Israel, a light to the Gentiles and the redemption of Jerusalem.
An economically impoverished couple enter the Temple space that represents the seat of power for the politico-religious authorities of the Jewish people as well as a symbolic reminder of Roman oppression and dominion by Herod. Luke’s account powerfully brings together the witness of unnoticed and overlooked people – then and today. As I write, I am aware of a man who has for many years embraced the cause of the Timorese people for independence. In recent years, he has taken risks to highlight the plight of children in detention. Most people would ignore him because of his appearance, but he is truly inspirational as every Friday he holds a vigil in the city during peak hour to draw attention to the children in so-called ‘cages’. He turns up with or without others beside him. He tries to open our eyes to another reality. I think of Simeon and Anna.
We are reminded today that much of our identity and witness hinge on how we value - in word and action - the most vulnerable among us. It was the early church’s calling card as should be still, especially with so many opportunities to pit ourselves against one another – where even vulnerable groups are pitted against each other, e.g., needs of people in the mining industry against the Earth, in the abortion debate where the rights of one are against the rights of another, the question of so-called ‘legal’ and ‘illegal’ asylum seekers, people in urban areas and rural areas, and, the young and old. How appropriate for the Eastern churches to observe this feast as ‘The Encounter’ or ‘The Meeting.’ Jesus is manifested to his own people. It is a meeting of people. An encounter.
Luke emphasises (5 times) that Jesus’ family was dedicated to observing the law. Jesus’ first entrance was due to his parents’ faith. It began a difficult relationship with the temple and its priesthood. Simeon injects an ominous note as he, and Anna, predict that Jesus’ mission would be at great cost to himself and Mary. Being steeped and nurtured in this tradition, Jesus was able to see through some of its negative aspects, and oppose its flawed and hollow practices. We see that by the time Jesus makes his final visit to the temple, he was clearly at odds with its priesthood and predicted the destruction of the temple.
This feast points to the lights and shadows that form the reality of our lives. Most of us have some story of having lived in shadowy places either by our own choices and actions and/or the result of the actions of others or the circumstances of life. Light and shadow (darkness) have been evident in Australia with raging wild bush-fires. Indonesia has had devastating floods. The Philippines has had hurricanes. Children live in cages at the USA border. China and other countries are threatened by virus. Refugee parents in the UK face separation from their children still in Europe because of Brexit*. Lebanon, Australia, Angola and other countries are not immune to corruption. Many people live with institutional and domestic abuse. Despite these ‘horrors’, can we recognise God’s presence in unexpected people and places, speaking to our hopes and our expectations for change and healing? Clearly, Anna and Simeon show us that it is by showing up, being present despite what is happening around them politically, socially and spiritually, listening with the heart, that God does respond in unexpected ways and fulfils the promise ‘I am always with you’.
In the midst of the shadows or dark, the light, symbolised by candlelight processions around the world, reminds of us this presence. It reminds us that Jesus Christ – ‘a light for revelation’ – is with us. When the candles are extinguished, the light does not go away. It is within us as it always has been but we need different eyes. We need the eyes of people like Simenon and Anna. But who else noticed or even cared. Their pace of life allowed them to notice the subtleties and mysteries of life unfolding around them. They did not belong to the ranks of the Temple officials. They were faithful and keep their focus on God and God’s gracious action on Israel’s behalf and for all people. They represent the best of Israel who recognised God’s ways coming through fidelity and prayerful vigilance. They recognised the One who was to come despite not fitting the various descriptions and expectations of the experts. Two alert seniors recognised this… not the priests or leaders of the people. A Samaritan recognised a stranger in need along the road, not the religious leaders!!!
Anna and Simeon’s prophetic spirits are still with us, opening our ears and eyes to God’s surprising epiphanies among us. They are like the wise and courageous in our communities who have lived their lives that cut through the narrow, the mean, the selfish, the legalistic and call ‘a spade a spade’. Like the very young, the elderly notice, though often unnoticed or overlooked themselves, except by those who take the time to notice. How many elders are desperately lonely; attended to by strangers in institutions where they sit throughout the long day with empty laps and no one to hear their stories? Not only are many of our elders marginalised, so are those who devote their lives to caring for them. The same is true for those who care for little children.
Pope Francis has said, ‘Children and the elderly represent the two poles of life and are also the most vulnerable and often the most forgotten group. A society that abandons its children or marginalises its elderly members not only carries out an act of injustice, but also sanctions the failure of that society.’ He continues, ‘...The great danger in today's world, pervaded as it is by consumerism, is the desolation and anguish born of a complacent yet covetous heart, the feverish pursuit of frivolous pleasures, and a blunted conscience. Whenever our interior life becomes caught up in its own interests and concerns, there is no longer room for others, no place for the poor. God's voice is no longer heard, the quiet joy of his love is no longer felt, and the desire to do good fades....’ (Evangelii Gaudium, #2)
Today’s feast is not just about somebody in the past but about all of us and our communities' abilities to be dedicated to God and one another. This story is an archetypal experience that happens in all times and all places for all people. The truth of this story is happening here and now for you and me. It is as much our story as it is Simeon’s.
We have all sorts of hopes and expectations for what God is doing in our lives and our world. May we trust that God is present and working in our lives even if we cannot see or clearly understand what it might be. So we show up and we wait for the miracle. That’s what Simeon did. Simeon’s miracle was not that he lives to a great age or held the baby or that he was set free to go in peace. The miracle occurred earlier when he continued to show up, to be vigilant and attentive, waited with hope and expectation and not despairing. The miracle for Simeon and for us is in the showing up. This is the most difficult work we do. Will we continue to show up so that God’s promises are fulfilled through us. The presentation does not happen in the Jerusalem temple but in the temple of our lives, every moment of every day, day after day, month after month, year after year. It happens in the midst of waiting and every time we show up to the reality of our lives. So show up and claim what is already ours.
*Asylum seeker children in Europe unable to join their parents in Britain as new laws are being promulgated to prevent this happening.
For Compiled by Claude Mostowik msc,
Director of Missionaries of the Sacred Heart Justice and Peace Centre, Enmore, NSW
President, Pax Christi Australia
Convenor, Pax Christi Australia (NSW)