(Malachi 3: 1-4, Psalm 24: 7-10, Hebrews 2: 14-18, Luke 2: 22-40)
St. Ignatius of Loyola taught a method of prayer in which we pray by imaginatively entering a scene from scripture. Doing this enables us to be touched by God in a way that gives us “our daily bread” from God—a meaning from the story that guides, comforts, confronts, or encourages us—a meaning from God particular to us.
Today is the Feast of the Presentation. The Gospel is the story of when Mary and Joseph took the now 40 day old Jesus to the temple in Jerusalem to present him to God, in accordance with Jewish law. This story is also the fourth Joyful Mystery of the Rosary.
It is too easy for me to pray familiar scenes like the Presentation in a way that actually insulates me from the daily bread that God would give me from them. They are familiar, so, as I name the fourth mystery I say, “The Presentation in the Temple,” briefly see Mary and Joseph in a structure that looks like pictures of the temple I have seen, and move on with mind and mouth to “Our Father…” followed by mind disconnected from prayer, off on my own concerns while my mouth or part of my mind says “Hail Mary” and my fingers move the beads.
St. Ignatius’ method applied carefully to one of the Mysteries of the Rosary from time to time enables me to be more present to all the mysteries on a regular basis. My prayer group has been studying St. Ignatius’ “imaginative prayer.” I thought perhaps doing it on paper might be a good way to “present” the presentation to you. Doing it so carefully helped me greatly. Perhaps my writing it here will encourage you to do this with mysteries of the rosary or any story in scripture.
As the story begins I picture Mary and Joseph coming from Bethlehem. Bethlehem was just six miles from Jerusalem (about as far as my office is from my parish church). Mary and Joseph have a baby now, so they probably leave Bethlehem with substantially more stuff than they brought from Nazareth. They plan to go home to Nazareth, so all must come with them. For this reason I imagine Joseph guiding the laden down donkey, while Mary walks and carries Jesus. I imagine the two of them walking with smiles on their faces and a lilt to their step. Today is the day they present their child to God! Today they will “ransom” him from God with two pigeons or turtledoves. In this ritual prescribed for Jews from the days of Moses, God says in effect, “your children are mine, but I give them to you to be yours.”
It is 40 days after his birth, so Jesus has filled out a bit. Mary has fed him well. He has bright, inquisitive eyes. He sleeps through most of the journey, but I imagine him alert, looking all around, once they get to the temple. This is his Father’s house, and surely he must have felt some sense of home there.
Leviticus 12: 6-8 describes what was required: “And when the days of her (the mother’s) purification are fulfilled, she shall bring a lamb of the first year for a burnt-offering, and a young pigeon, or a turtle-dove, for a sin offering, unto the door of the tent of meeting, unto the priest. And he shall offer it before the Lord, and make atonement for her, and she shall be cleansed from the fountain of her blood….And if her means suffice not for a lamb, then she shall take two turtle-doves, or two young pigeons…”
Mary and Joseph took the option for the poor, and offered it as an “act of redemption for the son.” Numbers 18: 15-16 describes this in a bit more detail: “Every living thing that opens the womb, whether of man or of beast, such as are to be offered to the Lord, shall be yours; but you must let the first-born of man, as well as of unclean animals, be redeemed. The ransom shall be…”
These laws, made when the Hebrews were leaving Egypt, were clear about God’s goodness and were in contrast to the cultures of neighboring people. God did not require of the Hebrews that they sacrifice their first-born children to him. “They shall be yours.” But that first-born was, by the standards of the times, God’s. Jewish law and culture ritualized that in the purification of the mother and the redemption of the son. The child did not need to be sacrificed; God accepted as little as two-turtle doves or pigeons as ransom enough to give a child back to his parents. (My mind takes a modern turn here to appreciate how wise that was—to have a ritual for helping all parents understand all human life is a gift from God. I sadly contrast that with our world where abortion kills thousands of children each day.)
I see Joseph purchase the birds and hand them over to the priest. Perhaps Mary and Joseph now turn to go toward Nazareth…or perhaps they pause to pray or visit, as Simeon and Anna come on the scene.
Luke says that Anna was elderly—84 years old. He describes Simeon as having been told he would not taste death until he had seen the Messiah, so I tend to imagine him elderly, too. I see them as two older, righteous people, who loved God much, who pray much, and who yearn for the Messiah. At their age, they won’t be around thirty years later when Jesus begins his public ministry.
So God gives them a special, special gift.
Simeon and Anna see Jesus and recognize him—without benefit of star or angel chorus. Their spiritual eyes who have sought God so much now are joined with their physical eyes to see God’s Salvation in an ordinary, poor child. Their joy is exuberant. Simeon asks Joseph and Mary if he may hold Jesus. They smile a yes, and Mary hands him over. As Simeon’s arms cradle Jesus, the Holy Spirit gives him such beautiful words, “Now, Master, you may let your servant go in peace, according to your word, for my eyes have seen your salvation which you prepared in sight of all the peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and glory for your people Israel.”
But then the Spirit gives Simeon additional prophecy of what being the one to bring God’s Salvation will mean for Jesus and his parents, “Behold, this child is destined for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be contradicted (and you yourself a sword will pierce) so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.”
Just then Anna joins the scene. I become Anna. I feel tears of joy as I see this tiny child and KNOW this child is the answer to my years of prayer. With Anna, I thank God. I see her hold Jesus and carry him over to friends in the temple—Mary and Joseph right at her side. As she gives Jesus back to his parents, I see her going off to tell more people who were also “awaiting the redemption of Jerusalem.”
I finally imagine Mary, Joseph, and Jesus heading now toward home in Nazareth, wondering at the day, at this child whom God this day has given back to them.
Today I encourage you to read Luke 2: 22-40 slowly two or three times. Then let yourself enter the scene. What in the scene as you pray draws you and holds you? That is what God gives you today. For me, today, it was this rich sense of being Anna, of joy of having seen and touched Jesus, of my life (as Anna) having a sense of fulfillment. I’m not quite sure of the meaning of that, but it seems to be encouraging me toward more prayer, or, perhaps, God is saying that it is good for me to be often in church praying, talking with the people who come, seeing and loving the face of God in each of them.
What might God be saying to you today?