This morning we celebrate the presentation of the infant Christ at the temple in Jerusalem. It’s one of the oldest feasts in the Christian calendar. The first known account of this feast comes from a pilgrim, named Aetheria, who recounts its celebration on her travels to the Holy Land in the 4th century.
She describes a solemn procession of great solemnity, in honor of this biblical event. In the West we often refer to the Feast of the Presentation, as Candlemas, and it’s customary—in this season of light—for the priest to bless all the candles the church will use in the following year. We will be continuing this tradition at Evensong this evening.
St. Luke records the events surrounding the Holy Family’s first trip to Jerusalem. Mary and Joseph are traveling to the temple to observe the ancient Jewish laws of purification and sacrifice, following the birth of a first-born male.
Jesus is now forty days old, and only weeks ago the shepherds visited the manger after receiving the angelic message—that Jesus is the savoir and messiah. In our reading this morning we hear the same joyful proclamation echoing through the temple precincts.
Luke’s wonderful account allows us to glimpse the three persons of the trinity converging in God’s most holy temple. The Holy Spirit, which hovered over the waters in the beginning, and spoke through the mouths of Israel’s prophets, comes to rest on a man named Simeon. This wizened old man, inspired by the Spirit, hurries through Jerusalem’s narrow streets entering the temple right as Jesus arrives. Simeon takes the infant Christ in his arms, holding in his wrinkled hands millennia of expectation— the very one all creation groans after.
Many in the Eastern Church regard Simeon as a greater figure than Moses, because for “Moses God appeared enveloped in darkness on Sinai, while Simeon carried in his arms the eternal light, the incarnate word.”
With Christ in his arms Simeon erupts in Spirit-filled praise, with the words all the prophets longed to exclaim: “For mine eyes have seen thy salvation…a light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel.” In a string of beautiful and timeless words—words the Christian world recites daily—the Spirit, praises the Son, in the Father’s house. The mood in the temple must have been electric, at least for those with eyes to see and ears to hear.
Simeon’s inspired prophecy ends on a dark note. We can imagine him lowering his voice as he turns to Mary and says that her son will be divisive, set for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and utters a somber warning that a sword will pierce her own soul as well. Christ’s later words ring in our ears “Do you think I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.”
As Simeon’s prophesy ends, another enigmatic figure arrives on the scene: Anna the prophetess. In Eastern iconography Anna is often depicted with an expression of serene joy on a face creased with age. She is pictured looking up to heaven as her source for inspiration. Luke provides few details about Anna. We know she’s of the tribe of Asher, and her father’s name was Phanuel, meaning the “face of God,” (which, amazingly, Anna witnesses for herself). We know that she’s acquainted with sorrow, and she lost her husband at a young age.
St. Luke describes the intensity of her devotional life, and it’s deeply admirable. We are told she never departs from the temple, and spends her days and nights, worshiping, fasting, and praying.
On the day Jesus arrives, Anna instantly perceives his significance, and gives “thanks unto the Lord, and spake of him to all them that looked for the redemption of Israel.”
What’s particularly interesting about both Simeon and Anna is their instantaneous recognition of the face of God in an infant. How were they able to sharpen their vision to see God at work in such an unlikely way? How did they live? We are told that Simeon was just and devout, and eagerly awaited the consolation of Israel.
His life of anticipation and devotion to God opened his eyes to see the Christ. His constant seeking was rewarded as he cradled God’s plan for salvation in his arms. Simeon lives out the truth Christ himself would later voice: “seek and you will find, knock and it will be opened to you. For he who seeks finds, and him who knocks it will be opened.”
Anna, like Simeon, trained her eyes to see God through anticipation. She also looked for the redemption of Israel, and lived intensely focused on God. Her life was defined by the disciplines of prayer, worship, and fasting, which are divinely ordained as channels for communication with God. Anna lived her life with these doors of communication flung wide open to God. It’s not surprising that she immediately recognizes Jesus as the Christ.
All Christians must continually work to develop Anna’s keen sense of spiritual sight, and the ability to perceive the mysterious purposes of God unfolding in the world.
With the season of Lent on the horizon, it’s important to remind ourselves that spiritual disciplines, such as fasting, which helped train Anna’s eyes to recognize the face of God, are available to us. Of course, we don’t embrace these ancient practices because they make us better in the sight of God, or give us merit. We fast, pray, and worship, because they sensitize us to the will of God, so that we may merge our lives with God’s will more fully.
Both Anna and Simeon were resolutely loyal to hope. As Christians we should share their unshakable hope that God will act decisively in our lives and in the world. Faith, hope, and love form the great triad of the Christian life. In a culture where it’s fashionable to be pessimistic, the Christian’s orientation towards the world is always fundamentally hopeful.
And what is our hope? Every time we recite the Lord’s Prayer, we restate the Christian hope, when we pray: “thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” We live in anticipation for the time when God will set the world right, as he always promised. When the rule of heaven comes to reign on earth.
And a life of hopeful anticipation is not life of resignation, but a life of active service on behalf Christ’s kingdom. We are the emissaries of this kingdom.
As Simeon longed for the coming of the messiah, so we long for his return. And we pray that our final words may mirror his: “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word: For mine eyes have seen thy salvation, Which thou hast prepared before the face of all people. Amen.
 Lossky, The Meaning of Icons, 168.