In the 15th century, a young Italian priest named Leon Battista Alberti wrote several books about art; one of them was dedicated to what he called the “highest” art: painting. He argues that the painter imitates God most closely, “creating” whole worlds out of nothing, bestowing life where none had existed, etc. Yet Alberti’s greatest concern is not just the “output” of the artist, but rather what he puts into his efforts. A true artist is an instrument in the hand of God, whose natural and spiritual virtues imbue his work with genuine grace and beauty. Whatever pleasing elements make up a work of art, the artist must ensure their concinnity, or “perfect arrangement.” It isn’t enough that the work is accurately drawn; no, the viewer must come away thinking that the object is so perfect that it could not possibly have been presented any other way than as it is. This is true, even if the scene is supposed to be a “random” event!
Our artwork for this week is “The Presentation at the Temple,” painted by the German artist Stefan Lochner in 1447. It requires little explanation, for clearly the scene speaks for itself. We see that the Holy Family is impoverished, if only because Mary and Joseph offer a sacrifice of two pigeons. Likewise, the figure of Moses holding the Ten Commandments implies that the Holy Family remained subject to the Mosaic Law, even though Christ himself would bring it to its conclusion. Daniel Levine even points out the poignant symbol of the tear in Simeon’s eye. He suggests that perhaps the old man is overcome by the Holy Spirit’s revelation to him that Our Lord would later have to suffer his Passion in order to save us from our sins.
The Gospel story, like the Lochner painting, has for the reader the same kind of perfection, yet it is a harmony, not of images, but of ideas, both linguistic and numerical. Jewish couples are required to “redeem” their firstborn sons from God by making an offering, but instead of taking Jesus “back” with them from God, Joseph and Mary present him to God in the temple, that is, to his rightful home. Simeon, whose name implies that he has been “listening to” God all of his life, is not surprised at the arrival of Jesus, but expects to behold the Messiah before his death. So too does the 84-year-old prophetess Anna (7 [days of the week/ages of man] X 12 [tribes of Israel; apostles]=84). Her name means “favored,” and why not, for she is from the tribe of Asher (the “blessed”) and the daughter of Phanuel (the one who beholds the face of God [=i.e. an angel]). She immediately spots Jesus as though their appointment had been scheduled for decades. St. Bede even compares Anna to the Church, the “widow” of Christ who devotes herself to prayer and charity. And so, is this a chance meeting, or a divinely arranged event? The answer lies, not in the details of the story, but in the listener: the element of faith.
We Christians do well to consider prayerfully how faith helps us interpret the story of our lives. Are they merely the sum total of events that occur from one day to the next? Or do we appreciate the way in which almighty God places each one of our experiences—good or bad, happy or tragic—in just the right order that, reflecting on our lives, we discern his grace at every moment.