That Luke in his story is confused in his description of what is going on – he confuses two Jewish customs – The purification of Mary and the presentation of a first-born male – is of no real interest to me.
That is all just a preamble anyway whose function is simply to place the infant Jesus in the Temple so that Luke can explain the real thrust of the story. It doesn’t really matter how he got there – it is more the fact that he was in the Temple. So we come to the real meat of the story - the encounters with Simeon and Anna.
This might sound a bit harsh but what we heard read today is actually a marketing strategy that failed. It failed to reach and convince its target audience – the Jews.
Just as the figure of John the Baptist was supposed to be representative of the entire prophetic tradition of Israel that was pointing to Jesus as the Messiah, so the story of Simeon and Anna are, in a similar way supposed to represent the Holy and wise sages of ancient Israel. Their function too was to point to Jesus and say “this child is the one we have been looking for all our lives, the one who is going to redeem Israel.”
The reason for these stories is that the nascent Christian movement was desperately trying to convince their fellow Jews (and Christianity at first was a small sect within Judaism) that Jesus was no bolt from the blue, no wild eyed radical with no back story or provenance. However new and decisive Jesus was, he was essentially, for Jesus’ Jewish supporters, the culmination, the climax of Jewish religion. There was continuity with the past and everything that had gone before. This was essential to establish because human beings distrust new things. They prefer, especially in religion to imagine continuity with what has gone before. The tightrope they were treading was also trying to express the universality of the Jesus way with the closed promises to a “chosen” people.
“A light for revelation to the gentiles and for glory to your people Israel” (V. 32)
But of course this failed in a quite spectacular way. Judaism was not convinced in the slightest. Judaism continued in its own way and developed into the vibrant modern day religion that it is today and within a generation Christianity became an almost entirely separate gentile (non Jewish) religion.
The tragedy is that the relationship between the two faiths became increasingly poisonous and paved the way for two thousand years of hatred, discrimination and pogroms. When we hear people like the new Egyptian leader Mohammed Morsi who was recorded making comments comparing Jews to pigs and monkeys or the rhetoric of Iran, we understandably baulk, but let us not forget that the planned extermination of Jewry did not take place in Islamic lands, but in the heart of Christian Europe just over 70 years ago.
The catholic church’s Good Friday liturgy referred to “Perfidious Jews” until very recently and in a return to Latin rites have reared their head again.
So to return to the story itself; to the audience it was actually aimed at, this story and others like it in the New Testament were dramatic failures. So is there anything we can draw from it at all?
For me, the most striking thing to draw out is the deep seated need in human beings for continuity which provides a kind of solidity. For the majority of Jews, Jesus couldn’t be true in his own right – only in the context of the established religion. We instinctively seem to distrust new things. We get comfort when something is old. It seems to convey comfort and time honoured truth. That is why people are very conservative and traditionally minded, especially in religious terms.
If its old it must be true! We get comfort from tradition, from old buildings, from old hymns. You will hear people wax lyrical about walls steeped in prayer, or lose themselves in ancient mystical sites like Stonehenge.
People get comfort from the Book of Common Prayer, because it is old and uses arcane English, whilst perhaps missing the fact that when it was written it was a radical expression of Protestantism written in the common language of the day. Everything old and venerated was once bold and new!
But there is a deeper spiritual point I want to make here. All of this is a grasping after something that appears permanent or at least has an air of permanence about it (and we all do it), I submit that this is always a search for a deeper reality that is God
Because here’s the rub. Nothing is permanent in the created universe. Everything is in a permanent state of flux. All the things we use to convey an air of permanence are in themselves in a constant state of change. Not only will this church one day not be here, but neither will the earth on which it stands. Our search for permanence, our search for solid ground, is partially sated by “things”, but in reality they are all just substitutes for the search for God.
The problem is that God is indescribable, ineffable, a true mystery that we struggle to comprehend and apprehend. But we can comprehend things like books, wonderful words, ancient buildings, people, so we fix our gaze on them.
There is nothing wrong with that in principle. It is only a problem if we mistake and confuse that which is transient and impermanent with the eternal mystery that we call God – the true depth of all things.
In what is for me the most helpful part of this religion we call Christianity is that impermanent things can be vehicles for communion with God, because the divine indwells all things. That is the underlying logic of all sacraments – that physical things can convey God. Pernickity Western Christianity, true to form, wanting to neatly package God tried to name and list them. Baptism, eucharist etc. As official ways of meeting God through things. Thank goodness for Orthodoxy who saw the madness in that and said – why list them. The whole world is aglow with the glory of God and God can come to you through anything and everything.
When for example we pray and light a candle, that most beautiful image and icon of our prayers , this ancient symbol touches something very deep. As a sign it seeks to bypass all that is transient and join our collective prayers together at a deeper level, the level at which we are all joined together, with each other, with the candle, and with the essence of all those people we are praying for, subsisting in the wholeness that is God.
A mystical communion that joins the physical with the spiritual, the living and the dead, using a beautiful physical symbol to embody a deeper spiritual reality. In that sense tradition is magical. It has the power to move and connect us with the deepest parts of ourselves . All things, ancient churches and liturgies and hymns, ancient mystical sites, symbols like candles or flowing water, dramatic landscapes, or the mundane yet magical miracle of childbirth or the beauty of a tree or a flower can all move us towards the oneness of the divine, so long as we don’t see all of those things as having a power of their own separate from the divine. That, in the Bible is called idolatry. God is the mysterious depth within all the impermanent things that we use to commune with the divine.