|Woodcut of Anna, Simeon, and the Holy Family|
Today we celebrate the feast of the Presentation of the Lord, which rarely falls on a Sunday but when it does it trumps the Sunday celebration. This feast is one that the Church has celebrated since her earliest days. In the Latin Rite of the Catholic Church, it was known up until the reforms of Vatican II not as the feast of the Presentation but rather the feast of the Purification. The latter emphasizes the ritual purification of Mary that was required by the Jewish Law after having given birth to her child. The former emphasizes the coming of the Lord to the Temple and His revelation to the people of Israel through the great canticle of Simeon and the words of Anna. In that proclamation we hear the infant Lord described as the ‘Light for revelation to the Gentiles’. That description of the Lord, built up by many Old Testament images, is also commemorated in the procession and blessing of candles used at home and in the church parish. Just as Jesus was brought to the Temple in the arms of Mary, so we also entrust our prayers to these candles and pray that they might be brought before God and found pleasing in His sight.
I say all of those things rather quickly because I don’t want to talk about candles today. I don’t want to talk about Mary and her purification. And, God forgive me, I don’t really even want to talk about Jesus’ presentation in the Temple specifically. As I was praying about this homily what continued to strike me again and again were the presence and words of those two great symbols of faith today: Anna and Simeon.
Some of you may know that I had the privilege a week and a half ago to join some 400 youth from our diocese for the annual March for Life Pilgrimage to Washington, D.C. to march for an end to abortion in our country. While the March is mainly about ending abortion, our particular group though doesn’t limit ourselves to that focus but instead emphasize human dignity and the value of all life. Our trip schedule helps to highlight this fact. We go to the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial and the various war memorials near the Washington Monument and speak about the fight for human rights and freedoms. We visit Arlington Cemetery and witness the changing of the guards, which is an impressive ritual at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. We pray before an abortion clinic and listen to several talks on respect for life in general and against abortion in particular. But the thing that always strikes me the most is our visit to the Holocaust Museum. This Museum, set up to commemorate and honor those lost in the Holocaust of World War II, shows to what depths the human heart can go in its rejection of others’ dignity. Every time I go I am reminded of the many whose dignity was not seen and that the fight in our world continues on for human dignity, rights, and freedom. And while the child in the womb is in such danger today, there is another group of people in need of our respect and remembrance of their dignity and that group is the elderly.
Each month the Holy Father asks the Church and the world to join in prayer for two particular intentions, the Monthly Papal Intentions, and this month the first intention is “That the Church and society may respect the wisdom and experience of older people.” In the Gospel account we just heard it was not the young zealous priest who recognized the Christ, as much as I would kind of like it to be. It was the older wisdom of Simeon and the prayerful presence of Anna. Their age permitted them to see something different that others could not. Think about it. If every woman who gave birth had to come for their purification after giving birth and each firstborn male had to be ‘redeemed’ as they called it, then the Temple wasn’t a nice quiet place waiting for that one special couple to come with their little boy. Quite the opposite! There were probably hundreds of families daily coming to the Temple to make their offerings to God. Simeon and Anna, being in the temple day after day for so many years, had likely seen tens of thousands of families come through, all looking the same; a bit disheveled from travel, maybe tired or overwhelmed at the occasion or lack of sleep from a crying baby. There wasn’t any special radiance about the Holy Family as they came humbly to the Temple for the presentation of Christ and purification of Mary, but Anna and Simeon recognized them for who they were and pointed it out to the people gathered. They were able to do this because their many years following the Lord God gave them wisdom, an openness to the Holy Spirit, a grasp of the story of Israel, a story of their own journey of faith, and a willingness to share of those blessings with the community of faith. In the Letter to the Hebrews we heard it spoken of Christ that He was tested in the flesh so that He could lift us up when we ourselves are tested. In other words, Christ walked the journey already and would be able to strengthen us afterward because He already knew the path. He had run the race, as St. Paul elsewhere alludes. And the same goes for our elders in the faith.
One thing we all know is that as we age our definition of ‘old changes’. As a little kid I though 30 was old; but as a 29 year old, my view has changed. And I always have to laugh when I visit with some of those who are in their early 90’s and they still refer to some other group as the ‘old people’. I guess to them ‘old’ is the 100+ category. Who knows? But the fact is that all of us are called to value those who have the grace of many years in this life.
So a little invitation for us to consider: spend time with one another sharing your stories and your faith. If you are a younger person, turn to your elders and ask them questions. Listen to their journey, soak up their wisdom, and appreciate the gift they are to you. If you are an older person, don’t be afraid to share your story, your wisdom, your faith and the gift you are with others. If Anna and Simeon had simply rejoiced quietly in their heart at the coming of the Lord to the Temple, we wouldn’t have this beautiful account of the transformation of hearts that day in the Temple and if the younger people had not listened, it would not have been recorded. So let us rejoice in the gift of life and the gift of faith on this feast of the Presentation of the Lord. And let us pray with our Holy Father that the Church and society would always respect the wisdom and experience of older people. And let it begin in our hearts today.