As a little boy growing up in Amityville, I attended St. Martin of Tours Church, having been baptized there before the beautiful Church was completed. One year, our second grade class put on a play depicting the Presentation of Jesus; guess who got to play Simeon? Doing due diligence for the role, I was inspired by the stained-glass window of our new Church, where Simeon blesses the Baby Jesus as Mary and Joseph look on. The wardrobe of the character consisted of an old bathrobe; you can imagine the quality of the performance. Granted, Simeon was a “holy man,” not a cleric, but whenever anyone asks me when I first thought of becoming a priest, I return in my mind’s eye to that stained-glass window.
Today the Church celebrates the Presentation of the Lord (hypapante tou kyriou). The Law of Moses established the practice of dedicating the firstborn son forty days after his birth. Since by the 4th-5th century the Western Church came to celebrate Christmas on December 25, the date for the Presentation was fixed on February 2.
The beautiful story from St. Luke’s Gospel (2:22-40) is the subject of the fourth Joyful Mystery of the Rosary, and emphasizes the theme of light. Jesus is the “light of the Gentiles,” who reveals the Kingdom of God to the nations. We today are the beneficiaries of that light. Still, there is a kind of bittersweet paradox to the Feast of the Presentation: the new era only begins with the close of the old. Simeon symbolizes the Chosen People, to whom God originally promised deliverance. This pledge comes to fulfillment with the arrival of the Anointed One, the “the glory of your people Israel.” Yet Jesus’ appearance indicates a fresh chapter in history, when salvation—or friendship with God—extends to all humanity. As Simeon grows old, he is reassured by the Holy Spirit that he would not die until he should see the Messiah. He is therefore released from his duty just as humanity is released from its sin.
This week’s cover art featuring the “Presentation of Jesus in the Temple” (c. 1306, located in Padua’s Arena Chapel), comes from the hand of the Florentine master, Giotto di Bondone. As with only a handful of great artists, Giotto was referred to by his first name only. The Chapel was erected by a wealthy patron, Enrico Scrovegni, and is dedicated to Our Lady of Charity. The fresco itself is part of a series depicting the life of Mary and the passion of Jesus. We behold the imposing figure of Simeon (whose name means “obedient,” or “one who listens to God”) and the dignified Anna, daughter of Phanuel (the “face of God). Simeon informs Our Lady as to the joyful, sorrowful, and glorious moments that are yet to be. Likewise Anna, whose years of faithful worship give her mystic vision, immediately recognizes Jesus as though they had made an appointment.
St. Mary’s, I have found, has its share of Simeons and Annas: prayerful people who, by years of experience—and indeed suffering—discern and respond to the voice of God. We “younger” members of the parish do well to emulate their holiness and seek out their wisdom.