Today if you go to a church that celebrates seasonally you are likely to come across some mention of the infant Jesus being presented in the Temple. It was, I suppose, the first century equivalent of a baby dedication. The configuration was different, but the same themes were there: something – animals, poultry or other food – got prepared and taken to the celebrations, gifts were brought and presented, and at the center of it all is the baby, focusing the attention on thanksgiving for the wonder of new life, relief that life has prevailed through the trauma of birth, and good wishes for the future life of the child.
In a suprisingly egalitarian clip in the gospels, two elderly prophets were present. One woman and one man: Anna, and Simeon. We don’t really know much about these two, except that they spent their lives contemplatively watching and waiting, paying attention to the signs of the times, seeing people come and go. People watchers often become astute readers of faces. All those times observing the wrinkling of a nose, the furrowing of a brow, the cracking of a smile, the shedding of tears. Like learning to read words on a page, you have to pay attention to faces to learn to read them.
Anna and Simeon read the three faces of mother, father, child. They looked into the hazy gaze of those infant eyes that as yet could hardly focus, and his unlined, unknowing baby face. They saw the meagre gifts the couple brought, and read the narrative of poverty; they looked at the gnarled and scarred hands of the man who carried the gifts, and read the story of hard physical work. And they looked at the young, spirited mother, so recently over the threshold of womanhood, and in her face they read a half-written poem of joy and wonder, a good measure of defiance, and a little apprehension. She knew, yet she didn’t quite know, the significance of the child in her arms.
And they knew too. They saw something. Was it the baby’s face, the untold story in his mother’s eyes, or the unpronounceable secrets that his father had seen in his dreams? Or was it all three of their faces that spoke of potential, promise, prophecy?
Thank God, said Anna. Thank God. This is what we’ve waited to see.
Now, Lord, said Simeon. Now I can die a happy man, for mine eyes have seen.
First published February 2nd 2014
Added note: The story ends with Anna immediately turning around and speaking publicly to those gathered in the Temple. On this day, the prophet and preacher in the Temple was a woman. People often say that Mary Magdalene was the first evangelist, and if you are counting from the resurrection, I guess that’s true. But don’t forget that Jesus’ mother had already pronounced the Magnificat, a poetic praise-prophecy any preacher would be glad to deliver. And here, although we don’t know what she said, it was Anna, not Simeon, who took the platform. Worth thinking about.