Unlike some recent passages, the Presentation of Our Lord is one that only comes up once in a blue moon. Well, it comes up every year on February 2, but that doesn’t often fall on a Sunday. Sometimes I struggle to find something fresh to say about familiar passages, but this week I struggled not to try to pack everything I had to say about this often overlooked reading into one sermon.
As much as the reading is overlooked, sometimes I feel that Anna is overlooked within it. She doesn’t get a fancy song like Simeon, and we don’t have her words recorded. It just says that she “spoke about the child to all who would listen.” So I decided to focus on Anna and others like her who might get overlooked.
Lectionary Texts: Presentation of Our Lord
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Sister Monica Joan was one of the first people to qualify as a nurse-midwife in Britain. In 1904, she joined the order of St. Raymond Nonnatus, the patron saint of expectant mothers and midwives, and was shunned by her wealthy family as a result. Sister Monica Joan helped found the order’s mission in the East End of London, taking care of the poorest of the poor. Helping women deliver babies and care for themselves when they had no access to doctors or hospitals.
She worked there, amongst these women through World War One, the Great Depression, and the Blitz of World War Two. The East End, housing most of London’s docks, was hit particularly hard during the bombings. Through it all, Sister Monica Joan was there, delivering babies and providing care.
Now, though, as the world moves into the 1960s, they tell her that she’s too old. She’s in her eighties, she knows she’s old. But they take her off the nursing rotation. They tell her that her body can’t do what it used to. They don’t have to tell her that. She feels that every morning when she gets up. They tell her that she shouldn’t answer the phone anymore, because she gets confused. She’s doesn’t think they’re right about that one, but maybe they are, she’s not sure. She does know that she desperately misses the times when she felt she had a purpose.
She still lives at the convent, she prays and goes to worship, she knits clothes and blankets for those in need. But all her life, she’s been busy, active, needed. And suddenly they say they don’t need her anymore. They tell her that she has earned her rest.
Anna has lived by the Temple for many, many years now. Close to sixty in fact. She was married for only seven, when her husband died too soon. And instead of going to live with her brother’s family, and being a burden, she decided to devote herself to the Lord. She worshipped at the Temple, day and night, with fasting and prayer. Some called her a prophet. Some took notice and were impressed by her dedication and devotion. Most just passed by at this point, though. She was just an old woman, and most people took no notice of her at all. The people in the Temple were busy, they were there for prayers and offerings, and had other things to get back to. Their lives moved on, but Anna’s stayed still. It had stayed still for quite some time.
The Presentation of Our Lord is kind of an odd festival. We don’t really celebrate it, unless it falls on a Sunday, like it does this year. It’s the fortieth day after Christmas, and in some ways marks the end of the Christmas season. It’s sometimes called Candlemas, because this is when all the candles to be used in church for the year would be blessed. That’s because Simeon sings about Jesus being a “light to the nations.” And it’s come to be associated with all kinds of folk traditions that don’t have much actual foundation in the biblical story: in Mexico it’s good luck to eat tamales, in France it’s crepes, and the Germans (and German immigrants to Pennsylvania) had a theory that if it was sunny on Candlemas, it meant a longer winter.
But amid all of the traditions and folklore, we get introduced to these two elders in the temple, Anna and Simeon, who are present for Jesus’ presentation. The presentation included a sacrifice, because all firstborn sons belonged to God, and the sacrifice was a way of redeeming them from the Lord. So Mary and Joseph, being observant Jews, have gone to the Temple to present their son.
This would all be rather routine, forgettable even, if Simeon hadn’t swooped in and taken the baby Jesus in his arms. We don’t know much about Simeon, just that he is very old, and had been promised by God that before he died, he would see God’s salvation. He takes Jesus, and he declares: Master, you are dismissing your servant in peace, your word has been fulfilled. Mine own eyes have seen your salvation, a light to reveal you to the nations.
It’s couched in fancy, poetic words, but Simeon is declaring that he is ready to die now that he has seen, has held, the fulfillment of God’s promises in his hands. Since at least 1531, Lutherans have sung Simeon’s song, called the Nunc Dimittis in Latin, after receiving communion. For in communion, we too hold the very promises of God in our hands. We are reviving that practice at St. Paul’s today, so don’t be surprised when there’s an extra song after communion.
And Anna follows Simeon, seeing the child and prophesying about him to all in the Temple who would listen. I’m sure the Temple was crowded that day, there were probably a lot of young people with young children. But Anna and Simeon realize that Mary and Joseph, and especially Jesus, are the ones that they’ve been waiting for. These two elders see something that the others are missing—they see the fulfillment of God’s promises in their midst. They see God making real mercy, and love, and justice, right here in this tiny human. It’s just a start, but they see it happening right in front of them. Something small, something insignificant, not fully formed in the grand scheme of things can be life-fulfilling and transformative to people who are dying for good news.
I wonder what the other people in the Temple that day thought. If they even noticed at all. Did they stop and consider these words of Simeon, the prophecy of Anna? Or did they dismiss it as merely a couple of eccentric old people and a poor young family?
Sister Monica Joan isn’t a real person, although she is based on one. She’s a character in Call the Midwife, a series of books and a TV show. She is constantly dismissed as merely an eccentric old woman, losing touch with reality. In some ways it’s true: she is eccentric, and she does seem to be forgetting things more and more. But she has a way of seeing what others miss. The same way Simeon and Anna did. Perhaps she, too, is guided by the Holy Spirit to see God active in ordinary things. She is able to remind the other nuns and midwives, so caught up in the busy-ness of their work, that small moments are meaningful, too. Small things are beautiful and holy.
What about you? If you were in the Temple that day, would you have noticed Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus? Would you have stopped to revel in the presence of God in your midst? Do you do it now?
I think that sometimes the very old and the very young have a special gift at seeing the holy in our world. It’s a gift that all of us can cultivate, but it does seem to come naturally to small children, amazed and wondering at every new thing they encounter. It does seem to come more naturally to our elders, shaped by experience and understanding where true meaning is found.
God is present in our lives every day, often in tiny, unexpected ways. Moments that we sometimes miss because we’re not paying attention. But God is there. God is there in waking up each morning, in a friend reaching out in a time of need. God is there in acts of love and kindness, no matter how small. God is there shepherding us, reminding us of God’s promises. Guided by the Spirit like Simeon and Anna, may we be awakened to the ways that God is present in our lives. And may we also not hesitate to share those moments, with our thanks and praise. Amen.