maggi dawn

Candlemas. Presentation. Nunc Dimittis.

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.

Brigid’s Lake of Beer

St. Brigid's Well

St Brigid of Ireland, the Abbess of Kildare (c. 450-52

St Brigid’s day is a time for purification and the rediscovery of creativity–an interesting juxtaposition in itself, as sometimes it’s in the midst of clearing out the clutter that I find new creative ideas begin to gestate.

Most of Brigid’s miracles had a maternal quality, often involving milk.  But she is also known for the poem attributed to her longing for a lake of beer to share with women, men and God. One should, perhaps, bear in mind that ale, in Brigid’s time, was far weaker than it is today, and that as water was not always safe for drinking ale, for those who could afford it, was the drink of choice. So her prayer is not so much a Dionysian dream, more a vision of safe food and nurture for all. Still, an eternal party without a hangover is a pretty nice image of church.

Jest apart, there is something that strikes home this year in Bridgid’s poem: her wish for a united human family is expressed with the recognition that unity can only be achieved when repentance, peace, charity, mercy and cheerfulness are given and received. She envisions these things as gifts of substance, to be given in physical quantity. Not wafty ideas, theories, or orders from on high, but “things”. Vats of peace, vessels of charity, caves of mercy, and drinkable cheerfulness. The current climate is one of the most socially divided I have ever lived through; finding ways to make peace, love, mercy, repentance and joy both tangible and share-able seems to me the best acct of resistance we can engage in.

I wish I had a great lake of ale for the King of kings,
and the family of heaven to drink it through time eternal.

I wish I had the meats of belief and genuine piety,
the flails of repentance, and the men of heaven in my house.
I would like vats of peace to be at their disposal,
vessels of charity for distribution,
caves of mercy for their company,
and cheerfulness to be in their drinking.

I would want Jesus also to be in their midst,
together with the three Marys of illustrious renown,
and the people of heaven from all parts.
I would like to be a tenant to the Lord,
so if I should suffer distress,
he would confer on me a blessing. Amen.