Readings for the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord: MALACHI 3: 1-4; PSALM 24: 7-10; HEBREWS 2: 14-18; LUKE 2: 22-48.
Today is the feast of the Presentation of the Lord. It recalls the day when the infant Jesus entered Jerusalem’s temple for the first time. Jesus’ presentation began a relationship with the temple and its priesthood that was difficult at best.
This first entrance however was dominated by the simple faith of his impoverished parents. They came offering the sacrifice of the poor — two pigeons or turtle doves.
However all was not smooth even that day. In effect, two elderly fortune tellers, Simeon and Anna, confront Jesus’ parents and predict that trouble lay ahead for Jesus and them.
But that would be long in the future — after (as today’s gospel selection concludes) Jesus matured and grew up. Some even say he traveled to India, absorbed the sub-continent’s ancient wisdom, and came back Enlightened.
In any case, by the time of Jesus’ final visit to the temple, he was fully at odds with its priesthood and talked openly about the temple’s destruction — almost as if he relished the thought.
All of this might be reminiscent of our own relationships with the church. Many of us were baptized as infants — introduced to the faith by simple parents.
But then we too advanced in age and wisdom — even to the point where today we might find ourselves at odds with the church and its priests.
Could it be that this is the human vocation — to be loyal church members until (like Jesus) we realize our religion’s hypocrisy, its cooperation with oppression and its need of reform? Where does it leave us vis-a-vis the church? Are we called to step outside its boundaries and embrace mystical enlightenment? Or is our vocation to remain within as outspoken critics? Can the two options be combined?
I try to capture those thoughts and questions in the following attempt at poetic reflection of today’s readings from Malachi, I Corinthians, and Luke’s Gospel.
I The prophet Malachi said this day would come! The Lord would send his messenger to scorch the Temple and its worthless priests. It would hurt, Malachi warned. In the presence of God's anointed, Those faithless "holy men" would feel their world was melting -- As if they were melting like gold or silver in a refiner's cauldron, As if caustic lye were thrown in their hypocritical faces. Ha! Then those unworthy priests Would finally be forced to do Something pleasing to God. Let them all go to hell! II The prophet Malachi said this day would come! And here it is at last. Or so it seems. But what's this? The promised messenger is a poor child Wrapped in a blanket patched and smelling of baby urine. His parents with simple uncomprehending faith Offer the bored priest Two pigeons or a pair of doves (I forget which). The priest hardly notices either. But he performs his magic rite And rattles by rote the hackneyed phrases. He would find the notion laughable that he or his temple Might have anything to fear from . . . "What's this child's name?" he asks. "Yeshua ben Joseph," his father stutters In tones of humble deference. III You see, That's the trouble with priests. Their fulsome selves cannot see What's before their eyes, And clear to everyone else: Their days are numbered. And so are the Temple's -- and mosques' and churches'. Malachi predicted it. Yeshua would see to it. (More below.) IV Nonetheless, the Elders, Simeon and Anna see. Ah, yes! They are Seers. Gaunt and bony from years of prayer and long fasts These elders, recognize in Yeshua The one Malachi had foretold. "Now is not the time," the hoary Simeon intones. "But the day will surely arrive When this child will polarize everyone in Israel Including these wicked priests." The prophet's words startle the rough peasant woman from Nazareth. "He'll be a matricide," the fortune teller warns her. "He'll cut you to the quick." Anna the widowed prophetess Echoes Simeon's threatening words. Yeshua's parents tremble with fear. V What kind of child have you sired? Miryam later asks her husband (half joking) On the highway home from Jerusalem. Joseph smiles. He simply shrugs And shakes his shaggy peasant's head. They walk on in silence. But Yeshua bides his time Learning justice from his father And patience from Miryam. Some say he journeyed to Egypt Or India To study Wakefulness And Light. "You have a nice boy," The village matrons say to Miryam, While she ponders Simeon's words And waits for the other shoe to drop. VI And drop it does -- more than a quarter century later! Jesus returns to the Temple This time with whip in calloused hand. He realizes (as the psalmist says today) That even Herod's Magnificent Shrine Is too small for God -- or for him. "All churches are robbers' dens!" Jesus shouts. So the workman lashes out left and right At those who exploit Simple peasants like the pair who raised him. Yeshua despises the priests. "This Temple," he says, "will be reduced to rubble. And good riddance! These charlatans traffic in your fear of death? Free yourselves from their superstition And temple! Dare to live With your own thoughts!" Miryam's spirit sinks as she hears such words. Simeon's sword has begun to cleave her mother's heart. "My son has lost his faith," She fears. The priests know Yeshua has lost their faith And corrupts the crowds Who hang on his every word. They conspire to destroy him As an atheist and blasphemer. VII Perhaps that's our vocation too, Don't you see? As followers of Jesus To come to the temple (Or not !) To present ourselves there As fullers and refiners As atheists, blasphemers In the eyes of a too credulous world Scared out of its wits By pretentious ignorant priests and televangelists Who (as the author of "Hebrews" says) Traffic in our fear of death. Instead, Believe the psalmist's words: God's bigger than that And so is Jesus. So must we be!