From the gospel of St. Luke: “And Simeon blessed them, and said to Mary His mother: Behold this child is set for the fall and for the rising of many in Israel: and for a sign which shall be contradicted.”
The Sunday before Christmas I was in Manhattan for an afternoon concert at Carnegie Hall. After the concert we decided to stop at Rockefeller Center to see the Christmas tree and look at the skaters gliding on that rink that is a most unlikely surface amidst the Art Deco splendor of that peculiar place in New York. The crowds were dense. It was hard to walk at all.
That particular evening was abnormally warm for December. The air was oppressively humid. We finally got to the opening where one walks into the plaza itself. There were those angels with their trumpets, angels made out of some abstract plastic stuff, not ugly but not angelic, if you know what I mean. And in the center of the plaza there stood the giant tree, this year from Shelton, Connecticut.
A huge, impressive tree, bedecked with lights, but with LED lights, light emitting diodes. There were colors in the lights but no warmth. The lights were harsh, cold, just there. An incandescent bulb is nothing like this. We had an energy survey done for our house last year. The energy team came into the house and replaced all of our incandescent bulbs with fluorescent bulbs that save a lot of energy.
The house now looks like a bright morgue. You see, the warmth of the incandescent bulb comes from the burning of the filament that occurs when the electric current is passed through it. It is similar to a candle. Candles are placed on the altar because they sacrifice themselves, they allow themselves to be burned to give light, and so they are a fitting accompaniment to the Sacrifice of the Mass. It is not merely the production of photons. It is how the photons are produced—sacrificially. All this I thought as I stared at the cold lights on the Rockefeller Center tree.
We muscled out our way back to Fifth Avenue, and there in their accustomed place, at the entrance to the plaza was the Salvation Army collecting money in their famous bucket. The Salvation Army and Christmas are fixed together in my memories of Christmas. I remember them in my childhood standing in the cold in their uniforms, the men in their hats, the women in their bonnets, playing and singing Christmas carols, and the smile when I put a quarter into the bucket, a quarter that my mother had given to me. What I saw last week took me aback. Oh, I still gave them money, how could you not, when the word “salvation” is still in their vocabulary. But they were not singing or playing. They were playing a recording of “Santa Claus is coming to town”, and the women were dressed in short skirts and were doing some sort of disco moves to the beat of the music. We walked quickly to the secular beauty of Grand Central Station and so home.
Today’s gospel for the Sunday within the Octave of Christmas comes from the last part of the gospel of St. Luke for the feast of the Purification of the Virgin Mary, otherwise known as Candlemass, which we will celebrate here with great splendor at the beginning of February. But the portion of the gospel we just heard emphasizes not the Presentation of Christ in the temple, but rather the witness of Simeon and Anna to the person of Jesus Christ. This gospel continues the meditation begun with the Third Mass of Christmas on the question: who is this baby born whose name is Jesus?
The meditation began with the prologue to the gospel of St. John on Christmas Day: “In the beginning was the Word….and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” Today the focus is on the words of Simeon, the pious old man who came to the temple daily and who awaited the coming of the Savior, the Messiah. His words: “Behold this child is set for the fall and rising of many in Israel: and for a sign which shall be contradicted.” Simeon adopts a prophetic voice, speaking of Jesus’ ministry that would be embraced by some of the Jews but that would be rejected by many. He prophesies that Jesus would be a sign of contradiction, that he would be a stumbling block to many.
And this pertains not only to the Jews of his time, but also to the people of every age. Jesus will always be a sign of contradiction to every age, certainly including this age, because he will never be able to be made the property of any age, he will never be mainstream, never be part of any culture. He will always challenge the assumptions of any time and place. He will never allow himself to be co-opted either by secular moralists or by pious religionists.
He will always be a sign of contradiction because his Cross will always be a deep problem for every time and place, and this is true not only for the irreligious of every age, true not only for the self-satisfied narcissists of this present age. Jesus and his Cross will always be a problem for those who consider themselves religious and pious and well-meaning, because the Cross is the ultimate sign of contradiction, perhaps especially for religious people, because the Cross can never be part of a religious system to get to heaven, it can never be anything but the shameless shame of God who is Love. And for most of us that is a sign of contradiction that we cannot get over.
But the other major character in this gospel is Anna. She is usually forgotten on Candlemass. She is like the shepherds in my Crèche in my house. Part of the scenery. But the Church gives her a prominent place in today’s gospel, second only to Simeon. For she too contributes her answer to the basic question: who is this child born at this time of the Virgin Mary? Anna’s name means “grace” in Hebrew. Her father is identified as Phanuel, which means in Hebrew “the face of God."
What's in a name? For the Hebrew: everything. This very old woman, a widow for most of her life, lives in the temple precincts. She fasts and prays and is filled with the Jewish longing for the Messiah. This is her life and vocation. And she is blessed to be in the temple when Mary and Joseph bring the child Jesus to be presented and redeemed in the temple. She hears Simeon’s words: “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, for mine eyes have seen thy salvation”. And the words resonate in her mind and heart, a heart and mind prepared by years of fasting and prayer for this moment. And she, like Simeon, recognizes the child as the One for whom she and all Israel have been waiting. She offers God thanksgiving for the child, and she goes out and tells others that the One they have been waiting for has come. She in a way is the first evangelist.
The Epiphany next week is once again an answer to this basic question: who is this child Jesus? And the answer of the Epiphany gospel is not so much in words as in actions. The Magi travel over mountain and moor, through cold and damp, and they come to where Jesus and his mother are. And their answer to the question is not in words. They fell down and worshipped him. That is best and truest answer to the question. That is why worship is always the better and truer answer than words. But so many have forgotten how to worship. They have succumbed to an act that is not worship of the transcendent God but rather an earth bound act that concerns only a particular group of people and a particular time and place, an act that is full of words, so many words that the God who lives in the silence of eternity cannot be heard.
What I should have done last Sunday is to stand in Rockefeller Center, in front of the tree with the ice cold lights, and shouted the question to the skaters and to everyone milling around there: who is this child Jesus? And then I should have read the prologue to the gospel of St. John to them. When I put in my dollar bills in the Salvation Army bucket, I should have asked the two women rocking to secular Christmasy music: who is this child Jesus? And then I should have sung the Nunc Dimittis. But I did not. Because I am not Simeon. I am not Anna. My life has not been spent waiting in prayer. My life has been busy with many things, some good things, some not so good in retrospect, some even--religious.
Simeon and Anna recognized him. I could only be made sad by the light emitting diodes. I could only get sad at the sight of the secularized Salvation Army young women. But the final question is this—and this question is not only my question—it is a question for us all: do you and I recognize him when he comes to us in all his power and glory in a few minutes under the veils of bread and wine? And beyond this, will we recognize him at the hour of our death? Will we recognize Him whom we have said so often in our prayers is our Lord and Savior?