Today, February 2 is the Feast of the Presentation, Emmanuel’s Feast of Title. This is one of only three feasts, which if they occur on a Sunday, can replace the lessons of that particular day. So, we probably won’t celebrate this occasion on a Sunday morning again for seven more years. And yet we see today’s gospel story every time we come into this worship space.
A word about feasts of title, for many churches the choice of feast day is easy, St. Matthews in Bloomington is on September 21st, the day throughout the world that the gospel writer, and tax collector, Matthew is remembered. Christ the King in Normal celebrates on the last Sunday of Pentecost, which fittingly enough is also known as Christ the King Sunday. Emmanuel, meaning “God with Us”, could actually have any day of the year as its feast because God is always with us. The Presentation was chosen as our name day, I think, because today’s gospel tells of the first time that Jesus is taken out of his own private setting, his home, his birthplace and shown to the world. God has come into the world for everyone. The Presentation is the story depicted in the stained glass window behind the high altar here. I do not know which came first, selecting the name day, or having the window. Regardless, Feb. 2 is the traditional day for Emmanuel Champaign’s Feast of Title.
I hope you have taken the opportunity to study this particular stained glass window. It is beautiful as are all of our windows, but it is also a scene that is not often used as the topic for a church window. The story being told is this. Jesus was born to a Hebrew mother into a devout Jewish family. By Jewish law a first-born son is to be taken to the Temple by his parents 40 days after his birth. That is to the Temple in Jerusalem, not to the local synagogue or place of prayer. This would have been the first time that Jesus would have been in the Temple but certainly not his last! 40 days is about 6 weeks and at that point mothers and infants have healed from the birth and the child is deemed viable.
As a side-bar, giving thanks to God for a new baby is common in many faiths. In the 1928 Episcopal prayer book there was a service called the “Churching of Women” which would take place at six weeks of age for the infant. The mother would publicly give thanks for the safe birth of her child. Interesting isn’t it that the first outing for a child would be to church? Now we have a shorter set of prayers known as Thanksgiving for the Birth that often takes place at the hospital or home soon after.
But back to today’s gospel. At the Temple, the first-born son is to be presented to God in thanksgiving for his birth. The parents bring an offering with them, in Mary and Joseph’s case a pair of doves or pigeons. Wealthier families would bring larger animals as their gift. These gifts were to redeem their first born son from serving God in the temple for life as commanded in the book of Numbers (8:17). God said “Every first born male among the Israelites, man as well as beast, is mine.” The priest on duty at the Temple would receive the offering and bless the child.
By the way, for modern day Orthodox Jews this blessing still occurs for first born sons though it takes place in a local synagogue and a monetary offering is given rather than animals for sacrifice.
So this is what we see in the window here. Devout Hebrew parents, in accordance with their tradition, Mary and Joseph, bring their first-born son, Jesus, to the Temple. There are two symbols in the window that let us know this is in a Jewish worship space, a Menorah and the Star of David. At the Temple the priest on duty that day happens to be a very old man named Simeon and he receives their offering of the doves and blesses their son.
There is more to this particular presentation though. Simeon recognizes that this baby is special. This is the longed for Messiah, the Christ that he is holding. Simeon speaks to Mary and Joseph giving predictions, or prophesies, about their son’s life.
And then he prays to God giving thanks that he, Simeon, has lived long enough to see that day. His prayer, the Nunc Dimittis, is still used each day as a part of evening prayer. Another older prophet named Anna is also present in the Temple, though not pictured in this window, and she too praises God for seeing this event and speaks about this child to all who are seeking for the redemption of Jerusalem. To me this window reminds us of our Jewish heritage and the importance of scripture, both Old Testament and New.
There is another symbol in the window that I want to point out and it is at the very top. It is a red circle with lettering in it. Those letters are some form of abbreviation for Jesus Christ, either IHS, meaning Iesus Hominum Salvator, or an Iota Chi, or perhaps Chi Rho, my eyes can’t really tell the exact Greek letters from this angle. Having the symbol for Christ at the top, over the picture of Mary and Joseph following the Jewish tradition of presenting Jesus in the Temple, reminds me that Jesus came as the fulfillment of the Old Testament promises. Jesus told us this himself in Matthew 5:17 when he said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.”
We modern day Christians need to study what was called the Law and the Prophets, the Old Testament. Why? It is nearly the same as what Jesus would have read and learned and inwardly digested throughout his life. We learn much and we deepen our understanding of Jesus by studying all of scripture and by remembering that Jesus himself was a practicing devout Jew. This window and this gospel story of the Feast of the Presentation make that very clear. Jesus was a devout Jew. Anti-Semitism is a concept that should be foreign to Christians. Our Lord was a Jew.
There is more to learn from this story shown in this window.
It was not just the luck of the draw that had Simeon and Anna in the Temple on the day that Mary, Joseph and Jesus came. These two had spent their lives preparing for that very moment. They had waited for that day for a very long time. Their lives were spent learning, reading, and praying to God.
They knew the Messiah had been predicted to come and so when the time came they were ready to be able to see that this child was God’s child.
And so, what might we learn from them?
Listen to those words used about Simeon and Anna: they spent their days serving, studying, worshiping, fasting and praying. We know those terms as spiritual practices, or disciplines. Simeon and Anna were God’s followers who learned and listened to God continuously throughout their lives. They then were able to speak and teach others what they had learned and heard. And they were ready to receive the gift God gave them on that particular day at that particular Presentation.
Spiritual disciplines are a little like a gardener who prepares the soil and fertilizes the ground. The gardener is providing the right conditions so that growth may occur. It is not the tilling or the work he does preparing the earth that causes the growth. God is the one who gives the growth; the gardener makes the conditions so that the growth is more likely to occur. Spiritual disciplines are a means to the growth that God provides. We do not will or make our faith deepen. God does that. But what we do in these practices is prepare ourselves for that grace to occur.
These disciplines, modeled by Anna and Simeon, are what allowed them to be able to recognize who this baby was. God gave them the gift, the grace, of being there at that moment but they had spent their lives preparing for that very event.
We can learn much from these two, Simeon and Anna. Through practicing these ancient spiritual disciplines we do not attain redemption, rather we seek to allow God in. These activities do not automatically put us closer to God; rather they allow a space in our lives for God to do his work, His work. These are tools we are given. Through these practices we listen for God’s voice and His direction.
Worship, fasting, prayer, study and service are all life-long spiritual practices of both Simeon and Anna. This lifetime of preparation is what allowed them to understand the infant Jesus being brought to them that day was the Messiah for whom they had waited.
We have much to learn from Simeon and Anna; remember them and what they teach when you come to God’s altar in this place. Their disciplines can help us to love and live with God at our center and find the true peace that they found.
So, two things to remember from this day: Jesus was a Jew raised in a loving devout Hebrew family and Simeon and Anna were able to recognize the promised savior in their presence through a lifetime of spiritual discipline.
From this Feast of the Presentation, our day of title, we know that God is with us as he is with all humanity, for each and every day. Emmanuel: God with us.
Thanks be to God for his glorious gospel and for this place, Emmanuel.