The Rev. Jimmy Abbott
Feast of the Presentation
February 2, 2020
This evening, 100 million Americans will settle into their sofas with their bowls of potato chips. Super Bowl Sunday. It holds a mythic place in the American psyche, right up there with Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July. The Feast of Super Bowl Sunday conjures images of football, questionable half time shows, overpriced commercials, and mountains of guacamole.
Of course, being good church people, we are choosing to first celebrate another feast; the Presentation of our Lord Jesus Christ in the Temple. Also known as Candlemas. Forty days after Christmas we remember and celebrate that Mary and Joseph presented Jesus in the temple as their firstborn son, dedicating him to God. We have all the same elements as the Super Bowl. Music. Drama. Food. If only we could get a flyover.
As the Gospel of Luke says, Mary and Joseph come to the temple with the baby Jesus. This isn’t just about Jesus, though. This visit is for Mary’s ritual of purification after childbirth. After having made the appointed sacrifices of a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons, Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus run into a man named Simeon. The scriptures say Simeon was a righteous and devout man, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. Simeon takes the baby Jesus in his arms and starts thanking and praising God. Simeon breaks out into song, a song how he can now die in peace because he lived long enough to see this child. A song about this child who is the light for all people. Look, the Super Bowl got J. Lo. to sing, we got Simeon.
Then the song takes a darker turn. Simeon turns to Mary and says, “this child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed – and a sword will pierce your own soul too.” And a sword will pierce your own soul too.
A sword will pierce your own soul too. This is often read as a preparation for the anguish Mary will face when she sees Jesus dying upon the cross. Don’t get me wrong. That is rightfully, tragically, Mary’s anguish. But I do not think that’s what Simeon is talking about when he says that a sword will pierce her own soul too.
The New Testament commentator Joseph Fitzmeyer puts it this way: “In these difficult verses the child’s destiny is set forth: he will be a source of division in Israel. He will cause many in it to fall (by rejecting him); he will cause many in it to rise (by accepting him)…Mary will also be caught up in this critical aspect of her child’s mission, for a discriminating sword will pierce her soul” (“Luke the Theologian,” 70). So, this is not a sword that inflicts pain. This is a sword of judgment, a symbol of the decisions that Mary will have to make. We see this throughout the New Testament. In some places, Mary is portrayed with the rest of her family, wondering why Jesus is off preaching and teaching and doing such strange things. In other places, Mary is portrayed as a follower of Jesus, even standing at the foot of the cross. That sword cleaves Mary’s soul in two and she has a decision to make. Is she simply the mother of Jesus, or will she be a follower of Jesus? Because they are not exactly the same thing.
And so the question is turned to us – are we admirers of Jesus or as we followers of Jesus? Because we can admire Jesus. How he was such a nice guy who helped and said nice things. Or we can be a follower, by picking up the cross. The sword is piercing our souls, demanding an answer. Jesus’ very presence in the world sets up this inflection point – causing some of us to fall and some of us to rise.
Even think back on last week – I am sure there were moments in which that sword pierced your soul, and sometimes you made the decision for Jesus and sometimes you didn’t. I am not here to judge, to condemn, or to criticize. But only to point out that sometimes we accept the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and sometimes we reject him. I am here to confess that the sword has pierced my soul too. And that sometimes I make the decision for Jesus, and sometimes I don’t. In my life, at my core, I know that Simeon is holding the baby Jesus and is speaking to me – “Jimmy, this sword will pierce your own soul too. Will you admire Jesus or will you follow him?”
The sword that is Jesus Christ is piercing our souls, asking questions of our motives, our desires, our intentions. Our very souls are at stake. Because today is not just about the baby Jesus being presented in the Temple. Today is about our presentation before the Lord God Almighty. Our whole lives – what we do, what we say, how we spend our money – that is what we are presenting to the Lord God. We cannot hide anything from God, because that sword will pierce our souls and lay bare all that we have done and left undone. This is not Luke’s version of a halftime show between Jesus’ birth and his adult ministry. This is a story that cuts to the heart of who we are and how we follow Jesus.
I’m telling you, Candlemas is a doozy.
As time has gone on, the Church has venerated Mary for her role in this grand story. But I think it actually diminishes her status, her faithfulness, if all we say about her is that she carried the baby Jesus in her womb. That is a sort of warped utilitarianism. Like, because she was a woman, her only usefulness to God was to bear this child. Mary is more than that. We venerate Mary because that sword pierced her soul and she followed Jesus. She followed him, even to the cross. Not as a mother only, but as a disciple. Even after the death and resurrection she is numbered along with the other apostles, not only as the Lord’s mother, but as a follower. Yes, she presented the baby Jesus in the temple, but more importantly, she presented herself. Her soul, her body, her life was an offering and a sacrifice to God.
Later tonight, if you make it to the end of the Super Bowl, you will see another presentation. The presentation of the trophy to the winning team. There will be a lot of hoopla, and confetti, and champagne shower in the locker room. In a sense, that discriminating sword will have pierced through the Chiefs and the 49ers. At the end of the night, that trophy will be the marker, the sign, of who rose to the occasion and who fell flat.
So I pray, that at the end of your days, you look back on your life, praising God for how the Spirit helped you rise to the occasion; that you receive more than a trophy. In your last moments in this life and in your first moments in the life to come, I pray you accept and rejoice in “the crown of glory that never fades away (1 Peter 5:4).” I pray that every day, in every moment, that sword pierces your heart, cutting open your soul, creating that inflection point in which you choose Jesus. And like Mary, I hope that you see that you are more than a teacher, an accountant, an engineer, a student, a school bus driver, a doctor, a lawyer, a veteran, a priest, a father, a mother. I hope you see that you are disciple. And that your whole life is an offering and a sacrifice to God.