our presentation

Biblea biblical reflection, based on Luke 2.22-40, for this day, February 2, in some Christian calendars, known as the Feast of the Presentation.

Presentation in the Temple, Gerbrand van den Eeckhout, 1671

Parents fulfill “the law of the Lord”, bringing their newborn son to Jerusalem, presenting him at the temple. For them, a reminder of Israel’s history of the exodus of their forebears from Egyptian captivity and the 40-year journey to a new land, during which, in thanksgiving for God’s deliverance, firstborn sons were sanctified, set apart for divine service. They also bring an offering for the mother’s purification following the birth, thereby restoring her as a participant in the ceremonial life of the community.

Whatever we think of these, doubtless for many, unfamiliar, perhaps strange customs, Mary and Joseph, in their obedience,[1] offered no mere passive attention, but rather active affection for their tradition. Thereby, in their day and time, they contemporized, gave fresh meaning to ancient practice.

This age, specifically in western, American culture, is characterized by increasing, accelerating individualization and secularization, and, since the end of the modern era, the disestablishment of institutions. In church-terms, this has meant the erosion of denominationalism. In all this, dedication to inherited, sacred practices has waned. We’ve beheld the rise of the spiritual, but not religious (SBNR), “the nones” who claim no religious affiliation, and “the dones” who once were active, but no more. All three are positive self-descriptions of those who reject conventional organized religion as a primary path of personal growth.

All this despite an undeniable dimension of our humanity. We are born into time and space. We, therefore, are innately intergenerational. There is much behind us called “the past.” In the story, this is symbolized by the aged Simeon and Anna who, seeing in the baby Jesus the fulfillment of historic hope and present destiny, sing God’s praise. As we age, we become Simeon and Anna, looking with longing eyes to the next generation to enhance the legacy we leave behind. This intergenerationality of the past, our present, and the future, which we at our life’s end cannot know, as an irrefutable aspect of our ontology, makes us inherently ritualistic creatures. We, recognizing movements and moments of transition, chiefly birth and death, memorialize our passages with acts of commemoration and celebration.

This leads me to reconsider religion.[2] To be religious is to know and name one’s values; those organizing principles by which one perceives one’s place and part in life and within the vast cosmos and through which one is responsible,[3] acting ethically, virtuously in relation to every other living thing.

Reflecting on the story of the presentation, I wonder about myself. I, born and raised in American culture, am as individual, as secular (my vocation notwithstanding), and as questioning of institutions, even the church, as the next person. How do I fulfill “the law of the Lord”? I think of my priestly vows, reflecting on the words of The Examination in the ordination rite, which, centuries old, can be considered ancient. It reads in part: As a priest, it will be your task to proclaim by word and deed the Gospel of Jesus Christ…You are to love and serve the people among whom you work, caring alike for young and old, strong and weak, rich and poor.

I try to do this, every day, though without certainty of the result. At times, I’m unsure of anything, except my inadequacy. Thus, I trust, I hope that my aim to fulfill my vow will satisfy some standard of faithfulness; even if my intention, in and of itself, cannot guarantee fruitfulness, which always lies within others’ perceptions.

Yet this was at the heart of Mary and Joseph’s presentation – their offering of life, Jesus’ life, their lives in commitment to an ancient vow. Their faith-filled conviction and intention and faithful action all without knowing the outcome. Though, with Simeon’s oracle, “this child is destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel,” and, speaking to Mary, “a sword will pierce your soul”, they had to be painfully aware of sorrow to come.

I wonder. If they had known their child would follow a path that would lead to his murder would they have made the presentation? I don’t know. I do believe that the impossibility of knowing the future consequence of present action, even with the wisdom that comes through contemplating the past, also is an inescapable element of our intergenerationality.

Hence, the question daily is before me and you: When, where, how do we, with conviction, intention, and action, make our presentation, thereby, contemporizing, making fresh meaning of ancient practice?


Illustration: Presentation in the Temple, Gerbrand van den Eeckhout, 1671


[1] Obedience, from the Latin obedire, meaning, yes, to obey, but literally “to listen”.

[2] Religion, from the Latin religare, literally, “to bind”, also being the root of the word “rely.”

[3] Another way to think of the word “responsible” is “response-able”, that is, the ability to respond to others and the circumstances and chances of life.