Celebrate the Feast of the Presentation with Simeon and Anna

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Mary and Joseph come to the temple, the center of Israel’s faith, to carry out two Jewish customs: the mother’s purification on the fortieth day after childbirth (Leviticus 12:1-8) and the consecration of the first-born son (Exodus 13:1-2, 11-16). Jesus’ parents are observant Jews who greatly respect the Mosaic law and conscientiously fulfill its requirements (Luke 2:22, 23, 24, 27, 39).

During the time of Israel’s slavery in Egypt, more than a millennium before the birth of Christ, the angel of death spared the first-born sons of the Hebrews while he slew all the first-born sons of the Egyptians (Exodus 12:12-13, 23, 29). Consequently, every first-born male Israelite was considered holy, that is, “set apart,” and was dedicated to the Lord’s service. Once the duties of offering worship and sacrifices on behalf of all the Israelites were reserved to the tribe of Levi (Numbers 3:5-13), first-born who did not belong to that tribe were exempted from performing these ritual services. However, to show that they continued to be God’s special property, a rite of redemption was to be performed to free them from the requirement of serving all their lives in the temple as the consecrated of Yahweh: Mosaic law decreed that the Israelites offer a sacrifice as a symbolic form of ransom. Mary and Joseph fulfill this decree to “redeem” Jesus as they now bring him to the temple.

Consecrating Jesus in the temple, the site of Jewish ritual sacrifice, foreshadows the offering that Mary will repeatedly make of her son throughout her life by giving him over to God’s will and plan. Many artists who have depicted the Presentation portray Mary holding the child out to Simeon over an altar, thus anticipating the redeeming sacrifice of Jesus’ death on the cross: The “salvation” Simeon proclaims (Luke 2:30) will be accomplished by Christ’s atoning sacrifice for our sins.

Simeon, like John the Baptist, stands as a link between the old covenant and the new. The eager longing of generations of devout Jews who awaited the Messiah begins to be satisfied as he takes the child Jesus in his arms: “For mine eyes have seen thy salvation … a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to thy people Israel” (Luke 2:30, 32).

God’s assurance to Simeon that he would live long enough to see the Lord’s Christ (Luke 2:26)—the “Anointed One”—must have heightened his expectancy and comforted him as he grew older. He studied the ancient prophecies to deepen his understanding of God’s plan of salvation and, as a consequence, he was not daunted or disheartened by its paradoxes or incongruities. Nor is he caught unawares when Mary and Joseph bring their son to the temple to fulfill the law: Constantly alert and sensitive to the Holy Spirit, he is poised to welcome the child whom God points out to him through the Spirit’s inspiration (2:27). Thus, while others expected a richly born warrior king, Simeon recognizes as savior the baby brought by a humble couple from Galilee. His long years of faithfulness and unflagging faith in the promise of God are rewarded as he holds the Messiah—the one sent not only to redeem Israel but the Gentiles as well (2:31-32).

Simeon prophesies that Mary’s child will be accepted by some but rejected by many—a sign “spoken against,” a sign through who hearts will be laid bare to God’s scrutiny and judgment. With prophetic insight, the aged priest comprehends something of the mysterious mission and destiny of this child and warns the mother that she, too, will be pierced through with pain (Luke 2:34-35). As Pope John Paul II wrote of this encounter:

Simeon’s words seem like a second Annunciation to Mary, for they tell her of the actual historical situation in which the Son is to accomplish his mission, namely, in misunderstanding and sorrow. While this announcement on the one hand confirms her faith in the accomplishment of the divine promises of salvation, on the other hand it also reveals to her that she will have to live her obedience of faith in suffering, at the side of the suffering Savior, and that her motherhood will be mysterious and sorrowful. (Redemptoris Mater, 16)

Anna, too, has been prepared by her long vigil of prayer. Like a sentry at the post waiting through the night for the coming dawn, she keeps watch for the coming of the Messiah. Neither her vision nor her hope has been dimmed as she patiently remains on the lookout. Rather, it is her eagerness and readiness to catch sight of him that keeps her in tune with the Holy Spirit. When she finally sees the child in Simeon’s arms, her gratitude cannot be contained but spills over. What joy to finally lay eyes on the one she had already spent her long life worshiping! Anna eagerly shares this joy, becoming one of God’s first messengers to publicly proclaim the coming of the Lord to all who looked forward to his salvation (Luke 2:38).

Through the years that lie ahead, Mary and Joseph will marvel over what they have been told about their son as he grows in strength and wisdom, the favor of God upon him (Luke 2:33, 40).

Anna’s Heir

I stand, Lord, keeping eager watch
as Anna did in distant times before me,
filling the full measure of her years
secluded in the temple
in adoring expectation.

Now I am heir to her post,
a sentinel
still waiting through the long darkness
for the dawn of your return.

All my longing is for you, O Lord,
as I stand poised on tiptoe,
straining with my whole being
to catch that first glimpse of you.

Shatter the darkness
(oft times threatening to close in and surround us)
with that fierce and burning brightness
of your splendor and your beauty.

Then I shall follow Anna’s suit
and raise my voice to you in glad thanks
and tell of your redemption
to all who’ve yearned so long for you.

This reflection and poem are selections from Jeanne Kun’s book My Soul Magnifies the Lord: A Scriptural Journey with Mary (The Word Among Us Press, 2003). Available at wau.org/books