Jesus’ Presentation in the Temple was a consequence of the Torah’s prescription regarding women who had recently given birth: forty days after the birth of a male child (and eighty days after the birth of a female child) the mother was to offer a sacrifice through a priest to symbolize her “purification” following birth (Lev 12:1-8; Luke 2:24). In the case of a first-born child it was to be especially dedicated to the Lord, just as first-born livestock were—a reminder of the sovereignty of God as the giver of all life (Exo 13:2, 12; Luke 2:23).
This notion of the total devotion of a person to God is the primary reason why the feast of the Presentation has a special relevance for people in the religious life within the Church. Each year in Rome the Pope invites all the men and women in religious orders living in the city to a mass at Saint Peter’s Basilica on this feast day since it reminds us of our complete commitment to God and of the need to be ever more purified in order to honor that calling. The further element of the presence at the Presentation of Simeon and Anna, two exemplary models of fidelity and prayer, perhaps lends another point of contact between this feast and those living a publicly consecrated life in the Church, given the extraordinary loyalty to the Lord and to his Temple shown by Simeon and Anna over the many years of their lives.
The account of the presentation of the child Jesus in the Temple also gives us the beautiful prayer with which consecrated religious and many Catholic lay faithful close the day, the so-called Canticle of Simeon, also known as the Nunc Dimittis from its opening words in Latin. This brief prayer reads: “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 the sight of all the peoples: a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and glory for your people Israel” (Luke 2:29-32).
The Nunc Dimittis, which is prayed near the end of the Church’s last formal time of prayer for the day—the “office of compline”—expresses Simeon’s peaceful acceptance of whatever may come his way, even death, in the surpassing light of the fulfillment of God’s promise of salvation. Simeon and Anna had long awaited the coming of the Lord’s redemption of Israel and anticipated the spread of that redemption to the nations beyond Israel. Now they had seen with their own eyes the child who would be the source and instrument of that redemption. Their recognition of the Christ child for who he was and is represents the beginning of the public fulfillment of all the prophecies of the Old Testament regarding the long-expected Christ.
Simeon’s role did not stop with his praise of the Christ child witnessed in the Nunc Dimittis, he continued on and made a troubling prophecy, saying to Mary: “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” (Luke 2:34-35). We can only imagine what Mary thought about these words; they must have been part of what is referred to a few verses later, when we hear: “his mother kept all these things in her heart” (Luke 2:51).
This year may the feast of the Presentation of the Lord be an encouragement to us as we seek to show fidelity to Christ our Light in both good times and in times of contradiction, so that our dedication to him may be complete, no matter our vocation in his Church.
Father Edward Mazich, O.S.B.