The Prelate’s Sermon, February 14
Today, on the fortieth day of the Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Armenian Apostolic Church celebrates the presentation of the Infant Jesus by His parents, Mary and Joseph, to the Temple in Jerusalem, according to the Laws of Moses (see Lev 12:1-4). Our Gospel reading is from Saint Luke 2:41-50, narrating an episode from Jesus’ life in the Temple, at an early age when He was only 12 years old. The passage that describes the presentation of Jesus to the Temple (Lk 2:22-40) is read in the Armenian Church on the eve and in the morning of the Feast. I will focus mainly on the latter reading. The evangelist narrates the following. Now, a righteous, elderly and pious man named Simeon, to whom a heavenly promise was given that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah, guided by the Holy Spirit, comes into the Temple. When the parents bring in the Infant Jesus, to fulfill the Law, Simeon takes Him into his hands, draws the Infant into warm embrace, and praises God, saying, “Now, O Lord, dismiss your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation.” While the parents were amazed at what was being said about him, Simeon blesses them and says to His mother Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel…and a sword will pierce your own soul too.” Just after Simeon makes this prophecy, Anna, another prophet, draws near to the Infant Jesus and to Mary and Joseph, praises God, and prophesies about the child.
This is one of magnificent passages recorded by Saint Luke, where we witness the three cycles of time—past, present, and future—as one realty from God’s perspective. Let us enjoy this reading by diving into the Divine mystery once again revealed in the Baby Jesus.
- First, let us acquaint ourselves with Simeon whose identity is veiled by tradition. According to the tradition of the Apostolic Churches, Simeon was the name of one of the seventy biblical scholars invited by King Ptolemy of Alexandria in the 2nd century BC to translate the Jewish Scriptures into the Greek language (what has subsequently been known as the “Septuagint”). In the course of his assignment. Simeon faced a challenge when asked to translate Isaiah 7.14: “Behold, a virgin will bear a son, and shall call his name Emmanuel”; this was historically a promise given to King Ahaz. Simeon found himself in a true dilemma. Of course he was familiar with this verse, but how he could present such a difficult verse to the Hellenic world? On the other hand, he could not allow for the Scriptural verse to be omitted. Apparently, he excused himself from this work. Meanwhile, the Holy Spirit revealed to him that he will not see death, until he personally witnesses the fulfillment of this prophecy. If this tradition is accurate, then the Evangelist Luke may have been aware of the events, and incorporated parts of the history into the Gospel narrative.
There are pros and cons in regard to this tradition. Regardless of its historic background, we cannot deny the fact, attested by Simeon himself, that a promise was given to him that before passing from this world, he would see with his own eyes the Salvation of God. In Simeon’s declaration and prophecy the three dimensions of Time become one within the Providential care of the heavenly Father. The omniscient Creator, having this Matrix of Salvation since the Creation, then revealed to the Prophet Isaiah, and further challenged and accepted by Simeon (who was first led by intellect, and then by faith), provides the necessary knowledge and truth to all those who approach Him in Faith, as Saint Paul says: “While we look not at the things which are seen but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal but the things which are not seen are eternal” (2 Cor 4:18).
What we learn from Simeon’s earlier and later behavior is very clear. The reason, with all its incredible potentials, has its limit. Just as a space shuttle, when it leaves the earth for a mission, needs a boost in order to get into orbit, likewise God has provided us with Faith – which is unintelligible reasoning – to explore the mysteries of universal wisdom, splendor and majesty prepared for us, and to have access to Him, the Most High.
- After the unexpected experience of the visit by the Magi with their royal offerings, the baby of a humble couple being welcomed by a prestigious person in the Temple was another stunning event. To acknowledge a forty-day old baby, without any biography, as the Savior, literally was incredible and stupefying. Mary and Joseph were humbled upon hearing this solemn statement predicting the future of their child. Step by step, Mary was penetrating into the depth of the Archangel Gabriel’s message: “You shall conceive and bring forth a son, and will call his name Jesus. He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest” (Lk 1:31-32). Yet, it was just the beginning.
The Evangelist’s remark that Simeon blessed the parents and then specifically addressed Mary is very peculiar. Throughout the three years of His earthly mission of our Lord Jesus Christ, we do not encounter Joseph again, while Mary and the brothers and sisters of Jesus—whether they were Joseph’s children, or within biblical understanding were Jesus’ cousins—are mentioned in the Gospels (see Mark 6:3). Was this a prediction also that Joseph would pass earlier? It is a possibility.
- Simeon’s prophecy which followed his thanksgiving is perplexing. As much as the parents were impressed by the welcoming words of Simeon, they were embarrassed at the statement, that “this child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel.” For Mary, by recollecting the Archangel’s words, these were very positive words (see Lk 1:51-52, then Lk 2:32), yet what did Simeon mean by saying that the child is destined for the falling of many in Israel? Moreover, the words addressed directly to Mary that “a sword will pierce your own soul too” was ominous. It was only at the Cross and after the Resurrection that she would fully understand and experience the essence of both the Archangel’s annunciation and Simeon’s prophecy.
I believe that it would not be mere rhetoric to say that Saint Mary was not a suffering mother only during her earthly life. But, by definition of her motherhood of Jesus, she is a suffering mother of all, especially those who confess Jesus Christ as their Lord. It had to have been so very painful, like a sword piercing into her heart, to see that after receiving the abundant blessings of God, human beings denied the Divinity of her son and His redemptive sacrifice. Through the centuries and even to this day, those who deny the Lordship of Jesus Christ bring condemnation upon themselves.
- In the Old Testament, there are only a few, though important, women who are known as prophets: Miriam, the older sister of Moses (Ex 15:20); Deborah (Judg 4:4); Huldah (2 King 22:14); Noadiah (Neh 6:14), and the unnamed prophetess (Isa 8:3). It is interesting that following Simeon’s blessing, Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, enters into the story. We have brief yet precious details about her: “She had lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She had never left the temple, but worshiped there with fasting and prayer day and night” (Lk 2:36-37). She comes and praises God, and then speaks about the child throughout Jerusalem. The reference to such a dedicated and pious woman who echoes Simeon’s prophecy is the best testimony that God’s grace is poured upon all, and with the dawning of the new era in Jesus, as Saint Paul says, “there is no longer male or female, for all of you are one in Christ” (Gal 3:27).
This feast, in English and in Armenian, is known as the Presentation of our Lord to the Temple. Yet, in Armenian another nuance also is used “Dyarnuntarach” which means “to go forward and meet the Lord.” What a wonderful description. It reminds us to joyfully welcome Him who does not need a physical temple, but who dwells in living temples (1 Cor 3:16), which carry the very image of God. With Simeon, led by the Holy Spirit, let us all welcome Him who is praised by the Celestials as “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord of Hosts” (Is 6:3), and thankfully embrace Him in our hearts, praising Him for ever and ever. Amen.