In Jewish tradition women had to wait forty days after giving birth before they were allowed to enter the temple. So today, forty days after Christmas, we hear in the Gospel that Mary and Joseph travel to Jerusalem to make a sacrifice for her purification and to present the baby Jesus to the temple Priests. After paying for an offering of two turtledoves, Mary would have presented herself to a temple priest. The priest would then sprinkled her with the blood of her sacrifice, and declare her to be clean. Then Mary and Joseph were required to present the baby Jesus to the priest.
All of the first and best things were given to God, and the first born son of every woman belonged to God unless that son was redeemed. The parents of the child were required to hand over the baby to the Temple priest and then pay him 5 silver shekels to have the child returned to them again, thus redeeming the son from service in the temple. But as they were about to do this ritual, Simeon stopped them. He took Jesus into his arms and started to praise God. In that moment Simeon’s life was complete. Simeon held in his arms the fulfillment of God’s promise. And then Simeon turns to Mary and Joseph and he blesses them and prophesies to them. "This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed.”
Then suddenly an old woman named Anna showed up and started praising God and pointing the child out to everyone who would listen to her.
This must have been quite bewildering to Mary and Joseph, they of course new Jesus was special, but he was still a human baby who didn’t seem to look or act any different from other babies.
So what did Simeon and Anna see that day when they looked at the child in Mary’s arms?
Perhaps, in the middle of all the rituals and sacrifices that could be purchased for purification and redemption, Jesus stood out. In the little baby Jesus was the true redemption given to the world, and the face of what purity truly looked like. In that little human child was the truest and purest of all sacrifices, the sacrifice of a God who would do anything for the creation that he loves.
I imagine that for Simeon and Ana it would have been like spending your whole life only looking at paintings of the sun and then one day seeing the sun itself. In the midst of all that flat lifeless imitation of the truth they saw truth itself.
Both Simeon and Ana were pious people looking for God to appear in their lives. Their eyes and their hearts were open to see God shining through the face of that little child. But why didn’t anyone else see it? Why didn’t the priest in the Temple see who Jesus was?
Perhaps no one else was really looking. Sometimes it is hard for us to see what we do not expect to see. It is hard to see those things we are not looking for, and it can be truly impossible to see the things that we don’t actually want to see.
The temple rituals were part of a very large and profitable business that included animal vendors and money changers. The temple courtyard would have been bustling with people buying and selling what was needed to fulfill the requirements of the mosaic laws.
The vendors, the money changers and the Temple priests would not have been interested in having true redemption shine a light into their hearts or their flourishing business. Presented in Jesus was not the kind of redemption or purification that could be bought or sold; it was far too real for that. Like true and honest love it could only be freely given.
Wrapped up in profits and power and maintaining the status quo, they would not have been interested in what Jesus was offering.
Simeon’s prophecy made it clear that Jesus would challenge many people in Israel, exposing their true thoughts and desires to the world. And we know what happens. We know that during Jesus’ ministry he challenged and changed everyone he met. Years later Jesus as an adult would enter the same courtyard to drive the vendors and the money changers out of the Temple.
But there were other people there that day and they couldn’t see either. Perhaps some of them had given up hope. Perhaps they were blinded by despair, or were so distracted by their many problems that they felt abandoned by God. So they stopped searching for those places where God breaks through that mundane façade that called itself ‘reality.’
And suddenly there was Anna telling them “look! Our true redemption is at hand” “look up and see, God is with us!” And maybe that was all it took for them to really see the reality in front of them, or maybe they would need to be reminded again and again.
Of course we are not so different, are we? We get so distracted with our lives that we forget to look up; we forget to see the hope and love that came to the world in the form of a little child. Sometimes we are not able to see what is really important versus what is merely a construction of our own making. Or maybe we are comfortable with how things are and fear the changes that God’s reality will bring.
The terrifying and amazing truth is that we are all loved by God so much. God came in human flesh to show us God’s love. But God loves us too much to let us stay the way we are. Malachi tells us that God is like a refiners fire, like a refiner of silver. God wants us to see the truth so badly that he became human, he came into this world to show us the truly important things in our midst. He came to “free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death.” We have nothing to fear, but we need to open our eyes to the things that God is telling us in the Gospels.
Today we celebrate Candlemas. We bless the candles that will be used throughout the year. It is a celebration of light, Christ is that light that is with us, even in the darkest places. What we do here every Sunday points to a deeper truth about God’s love for us and God’s desire for us to put our burden’s at his feet and join together in celebration of his Grace. God works on us, not for his sake, but for our own sake. And though it may be difficult, even painful at times, it is the pain that comes from seeing the brightness of the sun for the very first time. The challenge for us is to open our eyes and see all of reality illuminated by Christ the true sun.