The story of the Lord’s Encounter in the Temple (Luke 2.22-40) is familiar to us all, and much loved. There is the Holy Family; there is a lovely old gentleman, who is just like the wise old monks and priests we know. There, too, is the wonderful old lady whom we all recognise – always faithfully at Church, praying; never putting herself forward, she will do anything for anyone; and the rest of the Church relies on her, because, when other people come in and want to catch up on the stream of gossip that yet they instantly forget, here she is saying her prayers even though she has lived just as long and suffered much – we will never know and she will never say – her presence among the others is patient, her demeanour constant, her face ever so slightly illuminated, her intercessions concentrated, her humanity deep. It is a scene that could have happened a few moments ago, as an exhilarated and exhausted mother brings her first child to Church for the first time and people come up to see and bathe in the delight of a new baby and quietly congratulate the exultant new parents.
Except to say, it was not quite like that. In the West, one of the names for today’s feast is the Presentation of the Lord, and in the East it is known as the Encounter of Our Lord. But who is really being presented; who is encountering whom?
We have to remember that, when this was all taking place, in the Temple’s Holy of Holies it was dark. In the first Temple, before the exile in Babylon, the sanctuary had famously been a place of flashing brilliance: here was where the high priestly King had sat upon the Throne surrounded by the splendours of the court and the royal rites. It had seemed in those days that God Himself was present (Psalm 46.7); and the clouding incense, the gleaming light and the sonorous music told the people that their God was still with them (Matthew 1.23), just as he had gone before them in the wilderness as they made their forty-year pilgrimage to the Promised Land –a Pillar of Cloud by night and a Pillar of Fire by night. Then it all changed. The Holy of Holies was cleared of its sacred objects and ceremonies; the Throne and the Tablets of the Law were destroyed when the people were taken off to Exile and Babylon; and in the new Temple some of the old ones, who could remember what had gone before, observed that the Glory of the Lord never came back. But half a millennium later, a Child whom we know, but they did not, to be a Son of King David’s line, enters the Temple and is spotted by the last in a long line of prophets who had spent decades and then centuries waiting for usurper kings and false priests to fall and in their stead the departed Presence of God in glory to return. Thus to Herod’s Holy of Holies, where nothing happens but in hiding once a year, to the Temple where all the rites have to take place in the open air or subdued lighting, approaches the Light of the World, that long expected Glory of the People of God.
Now Mary and Joseph present their Child in fulfilment of His own Law. But then it is Simeon who presents himself in turn to the Messiah, the Anointed King and Divine Son. Likewise it is Anna (who bears the same name as the mother of the Mother of God) who presents herself to Him and announces Him as the longed for Redeemer. They encounter Him in the Temple, but more truly it is He who encounters them. Through them He encounters the whole of the People, their kings and priests who for age after age concealed the brightness of God’s worship and service. Through them, too, He encounters the entire world, and our preference for lurking in shadows and working in darkness, we who live and think as though the last thing we need is a Redeemer.
Yet look at the story again. The same Child will make the same journey again; and so we will understand what the Light is truly to reveal and the glory is clearly to show. In thirty years’ time it will not be the Mother of God who carries Him to the Temple to fulfil God’s will, but a donkey. Instead of a pair of turtledoves offered in loving pride and generosity, there will be money-changers whose entire profits will amount to no more than thirty pieces of silver. Instead of a holy man consumed by the Spirit with a heart brimming with love and hope at the keeping of God’s age-long promise, a High Priest convicts the Lord for breaking His own Law. Instead of an old lady with a beautiful soul praising God, the superstitious wife of the Roman governor is frightened of bad luck if any harm should come to Him.
So today it is a story leading up to the Passion that we are being told. The Lord is entering his Temple not to reign as a King like Herod, but to undermine the falsehood to self-serving government that darkens the people’s vision of God: “My Kingdom,” He will say, “is not of this world.” (John 18.36) The Lord is entering His Temple not to grab at authority (Philippians 2.6), but to turn it round into something more potent; “My house,” He will say, “shall be a House of Prayer for all.” (Matthew 21.13) The Lord is entering His Temple not to reclaim His old Throne but to mount a new one: “I, when I, am lifted up,” He will say, “shall draw all people to Me.” (John 12.32) The Lord is entering His Temple not to offer doves on the altar, but to offer Himself in sacrifice on the Cross.
Nor does the inner meaning of the Encounter end here. The Apostle tells us that according to the old Law of God, you are guaranteed to know a priest is a priest, with the power to offer sacrifice and take away the darkness in which we hides ourselves away from God, because we know his father was a priest before him and his father before him all the way back to Aaron the brother of Moses. But Jesus is not of this tribe and yet has become a priest. How can we know? The Apostle (Hebrews 7.11-17) says that this is not by a time-honoured legal stipulation, but by a new order – not descent, but through the power of an indestructible life. In other words, we know that the sacrifice in His own Blood that Jesus offered on the Cross was accepted, because He was vindicated when he was raised from the dead. In other words, the life that Jesus gave could not be destroyed, but destroyed its own destroyer. So what Simeon saw in the Child Who encountered him in the Temple was the Lord Whose glory would rise again. The Redeemer recognised by Anna was the Light of the World, Whose Resurrection casts all the darkness to behind the Cross.
So, what of us? The Apostle tells us to have the same mind in us as was in Christ Jesus (Philippians 2.5). In other words, he wants us to be beings who come into the world from a different dimension, to be the people who do not now look for the Light, but who embody it and bring it to others. We are to be the Lord in His people; we, too, are to be the Light of the World (Matthew 5.14-16): not part of its dark story, but endlessly and indisputably the glory of humanity. Je ne suis pas Charlie: je suis Siméon. I am Simeon guided by the Spirit, bringing consolation, courage and strength in a world of woe where dark purposes need exposure to the Light; you too. Je ne suis pas Charlie: je suis Anna. I am Anna – you too - who never leaves the Temple of the heart, where there is always prayer and praise; where there is always looking to be as Christ; and always there is redemption to get back what is abandoned, hopeless, “unrealistic”, irrelevant, “past history”. Not so with God! “He became the first-born of the dead to save us from the Abyss”, (Troparion of the Resurrection, Tone 3)” the Liberator of our souls, who grants us resurrection.” (Troparion of the Encounter)
In a matter of days Great Lent begins. Our Church gradually prepares us for its coming – first we feast, then we forego meat, then dairy foods, and also the oil and wine of gladness. We are helped to concentrate on what matters, with nothing in our minds or bodies to stand between us and the Light. Subduing our bodies a little helps to strip away our darkness, not so that we can be diminished, but so we can be free; not so that we can be preoccupied with our appetites and scruples, but so we can live to God; not so that we can serve our selfish wishes, but instead meet the needs of others that have been consigned to darkness and, if only they could see, would be thrilled at seeing the Sun of Righteousness (cf. Troparion of the Encounter). So towards Easter, this Lent may you reflect the dawn of Christ in His Kingdom, and be His Light in the world.