By Father Casey Shobe
This weekend we will observe one of least known major feasts of the Christian Church: The Presentation of Our Lord in the Temple. It occurs 40 days from Christmas Day, February 2, and in a rare occurrence, this year that date falls on a Sunday.
I want to give you a heads up, because the readings may feel a bit jarring, like you’ve suddenly been pulled back into Christmas – and just when you finally got the last of the decorations put away! But it is a beautiful and important story, and well worth the imaginative effort to go back to the world of the infant Jesus and the events surrounding his birth.
There are many things that I could invite you to pay attention to in the story, but I’ll briefly highlight two. First, you’re going to meet Simeon and Anna, two people who are not particularly familiar to most of us, because this is their only appearance in the gospels. Luke says they are both especially devout, so they were both in the Temple praying when the Holy Family entered. Simeon had been given a “holy hint” that he would live to see the arrival of the Messiah, and amazingly, he recognized the six-week-old Jesus as that Savior (his response is why we also call this Sunday “Candlemas.” As did Anna, the aged widow and prophetess, who also recognized the identity of the baby in Mary’s arms.
It is easy to get the impression, based on the readings we hear in church, that once the shepherds and Magi went home, no one else gave a thought to Jesus being special until he showed up at the Jordan River to be baptized. But there were holy people with remarkable awareness who did not need an angelic choir or a blazing star to see the Savior. And their spiritual vision is all the more remarkable because of the way it contrasts with the human tendency to project leadership potential onto people who look the part. Unlike so many of us who succumb to this temptation to elevate people based on appearances, Simeon and Anna were able to see God’s presence in the tiny, vulnerable baby of poor parents. It’s one more reminder that we should pray for a holier and wiser sort of sight, because God seems to delight in showing up in the least expected faces and places.
The second thing I want to highlight is the background of the story, the reason the Holy Family was there to begin with. We celebrate the Feast of the Presentation 40 days after Christmas, because that’s when Levitical law required new mothers to perform a purification ritual. According to Leviticus 12, women were considered ritually “unclean” for several weeks after the birth of their child: 40 days if the baby was male, and 80 days if the baby was female. As my friend Evan Garner writes, there is misogyny in this distinction and the requirement itself, but I am thankful for this nod to the physiology of motherhood. It is too easy to remember the Nativity at Christmas and leave out the basic practicalities of childbirth, as though Mary barely rumpled her dress delivering her first baby in a cattle shed, and quickly knelt in reverent awe at the manger where she remained, serenely, until the Magi arrived with their gifts. What the Presentation helps us remember is that Mary was a real woman like all other women, and Jesus was a real baby like all other babies. Real human bodies were involved, and they are good and holy things, with inherent functions and processes of which we should never be ashamed. The Gospel is not a spiritual story happening in the clouds of romantic mythology; it is a story about God working out salvation in the lives of real people.
So, I hope to see you this weekend for the Presentation of our Lord. I hope you’ll join in the praises of Simeon and Anna at the “Light who enlightens the nations.” And I hope you’ll thank God for your amazing human body, with all its beautiful intricacies and systems, for God thought it quite good enough to share one, too.
Fr. Casey became the fourth rector of Transfiguration in October 2014 after having served churches in Rhode Island and Houston. He is married to Mtr. Melody Shobe, also an Episcopal priest, and they have two daughters, Isabelle and Adelaide. Fr. Casey grew up in Temple, Texas, and holds a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Texas at Austin. His Master of Divinity was earned at Virginia Theological Seminary and his Doctor of Ministry at the School of Theology at the University of the South (Sewanee). He loves playing golf, road cycling, hiking, brewing beer, and working in his yard. You can contact Father Casey by email.