The Rev. Jeremiah Williamson
Believing is Seeing
What did they see? In the crowded chaos of the Temple, what did these prophets see that made them notice this family with this baby? Day after day the Temple square filled up with pilgrims and pray-ers – throngs of people. Some of the families brought babies. Babies are miraculous but they are also incredibly common. Every person is at one time a baby. And most babies look pretty similar – especially newborn babies. So what did they see in this baby with this family?
The family was just a common family from the north country, from the hill country. They were not at all remarkable. In fact, they were poor; in our Gospel text, Mary and Joseph offer the peasants' offering in the Temple – no sheep, apparently they could not afford a sheep; instead they offered just a couple of small birds. They paid the reduced rate – a merciful provision allowed in the book of Exodus. It was the offering required for the purification of the mother after childbirth. For the dedication of the son who “opened her womb”.
It was written in the Law. Every good Jewish family did the same thing. Go to the Temple. Offer a lamb and a bird. Poor Jews, like Mary and Joseph, would offer a couple of birds. For purification after childbirth. It was normal and they were normal. So what did Simeon see?
It was written in the Law. Every good Jewish family brought their first born male child to the Temple. And they presented the child to the God of the Exodus – an offering to the same God who long ago, in Egypt, passed over their homes and spared their little boys. It was what good Jews did. It was normal and they were normal. So what did Anna see?
Today we celebrate in the Church, the Feast of the Presentation. The feast takes precedent today over Epiphany 4 and Groundhog Day and even the Super Bowl – at least in the Church. Today we remember that Jesus was presented to God – as an offering – by his parents. And we remember, that on that day, two prophets saw in the tiny baby of two Jewish peasants the answer to all of their prayers.
The Gospel lesson assigned for this feast never shows up in the Sunday lectionary – just today, just the Feast of the Presentation. And I'm glad. I'm glad because it is one of my favorite Gospel stories. I am glad because it is, just on its own, so emotional and lovely, that I don't really want to talk about it too much or over-explain it. I feel like I can't really add to its simple beauty.
Instead, I just imagine it in my head or in my heart, maybe both. I imagine two young parents – nervous and a little overwhelmed – carrying their new baby proudly into the awesome shadow of the Temple – that place in which the presence of God is its strongest. I imagine them shyly offering two birds – while every other proud couple around them offers a lamb. And, I am a parent, I image them feeling disappointed that their son will not have the opportunities that the other baby boys might have – coming from wealthier families, sheep-offering families. I wonder if they wish they could offer God more.
And I imagine Simeon, righteous and devout. Also old. Still alive because he was not dying until he saw the Lord's Messiah – there was no way. Maybe it was that thing that was keeping him alive.
He probably imagined that moment all the time. He probably scanned the Temple crowd each day. If I was him, I would have pictured an adult – doing miracles, preaching amazing homilies, you know, changing the world, acting like a Messiah. That's what I would look for. I would be like Samuel L. Jackson in the movie Unbreakable; I would be checking news reports for miraculous survivors and super heroes.
And I imagine what it might have been like when Simeon saw that family of three. And I imagine what it might have been like for the family as the old man approached them and then took their baby from them. And whatever he saw in that tiny baby, it compelled him to burst forth in song. All of his years of waiting poured into this short canticle. All of the hope of the ages just came out. He saw all of salvation history, he saw the kingdom of God, he saw the future in a poor, little baby.
And I imagine Anna, she of a great age. She lived as a widow in a world without social safety nets. She lived as a widow for decades. And she dedicated those years to her God. And she trusted her God was listening. She trusted that the kingdom of God was coming. And so as she waited, she also watched.
I don't know what they saw. Jesus was just a baby; he looked like other babies. His parents were common. They stood out only as much as a family from rural West Virginia stands out in New York, New York – just another tourist visiting the big city. Hundreds of people probably passed the Holy Family that day and thought nothing of them. But two prophets looked out over a sea of pilgrims and saw the Messiah cradled in his mommy's arms.
What did they see? What was it about this child? This was before the miracles. This was before Jesus ever spoke a word – before the sermons and before the parables. Before the Cross and before the Resurrection, Simeon and Anna recognized the Messiah. In that tiny face they saw the salvation of the world. They saw that baby and knew he was everything that God had promised.
And I stand here in awe of them. Because too often I miss it. I fail to see Jesus all the time – even when he is looking right at me through the eyes of a friend or stranger, even when I am holding him in my hands, even though the light of Christ is burning within me. Sometimes I am distracted. Sometimes I'm just not looking.
Anna and Simeon saw it; they could see the Christ in a most unexpected package – despite a complete lack of evidence. I think they saw him because they never stopped looking. They waited and they watched. They waited through the years of absence. They watched though nothing came. And so they were ready to see what they had always believed.
St. Augustine once wrote, “Faith is to believe what you do not see; the reward of this faith is to see what you believe.” Jesus came. And the ones who could see were the ones who believed. Who believed enough to never stop looking.
It's not always easy to spot him in the crowd. If you can't seem to see Jesus right now, keep looking. Keep waiting through the absence. Keep watching when nothing comes. Keep believing; it is the only way to see.