Given at All Saints Episcopal Church, Ashmont, Massachusetts
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
The bright and joyous feast we are celebrating today is rooted in the Old Covenant. In the Book of Exodus the Lord commands Moses to “consecrate to me… all the first-born: whatever is the first to open the womb among the people of Israel, both of man and of beast, is mine.” (13:2) The commandment to offer the first-born is associated with Israel’s Passover from Egyptian slavery to freedom. “Remember this day, in which you came out from Egypt, out of the house of bondage, for by strength of hand the Lord brought you out from this place…” (13:3)
The Old Testament roots of our Feast are also found in the Book of Leviticus in which is outlined the completion of the purification rites for a woman who has given birth: “she shall bring to the priest a year old lamb for a burnt offering, and a young pigeon or a turtle dove for a sin offering and he shall offer it to the Lord and make atonement for her…” (Lev. 12:6-7)
The Old Testament themes of slavery and freedom, consecration and purification along with priesthood and law are woven into the fabric of the Feast. From a historical perspective the Feast draws our attention to the past. Yet at the same time the Feast reveals the events of the past as pointing beyond themselves. In other terms, the Feast that we are now celebrating in the present draws us also into the future where slavery and freedom, consecration and purification, priesthood and law undergo a change in as much as they acquire new and fuller meaning through Jesus Christ. Here and now, in the context of celebrating the Mass, we are being led into the mystery of the eschaton. We are being led into that which is yet to come. Here and now the events of the past i.e. the events of the Exodus, the giving of the Law, the vision of the prophets and all the great works of God of the Old Testament are being fulfilled and perfected in God’s inaugurated Kingdom.
In the lectionary of the Orthodox Church a portion of chapter 7 from the letter to the Hebrews is prescribed for this Feast. We hear “for when there is a change in the priesthood there is necessarily a change in the law.” (vs.12) Five verses later we hear a quote from Psalm 110: “You are priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.” (vs.17)
“Where there is a change in the priesthood there is necessarily a change in the law” affirms that history is not static. History has a beginning and an end. What is performed in the temple on behalf of the child Jesus and his mother marks a turning point in history. The old is drawing to an end and the new is beginning to dawn. This is so because the child Jesus – He who is both God and Man – is the new priest. He is the archetype of Melchizedek the king of Righteousness and Peace. The child received by Simeon is the Lord Almighty. His existence before the ages cannot be traced through any genealogy. Brought to the temple by Joseph and Mary, Jesus processes into his temple so as to fulfill his law. The Lord of the temple and author of the law is received by Simeon as the one who has come to establish a new temple, a new priesthood, a new sacrifice, a new Exodus and a new law. He who is proclaimed by Simeon to be the light to the Gentiles and the glory of Israel is simultaneously being acknowledged by the venerable elder as the universal Lord and Savior. Embraced by Simeon, the vulnerable child – God before the ages - bears our humanity poisoned by sin and death.
In the liturgical texts originating in the East Simeon is seen as the greatest of the prophets. He is greater than Moses for while Moses saw God wrapped in darkness Simeon carried in his arms the incarnate Word of God who by his cross and resurrection ushered in the one new day – the day without evening.
He who is the new priest surpasses the priesthood of Levi and his sacrifices. He who is the new priest is both offerer and offering. He who is the new priest is the new Passover making possible our exodus from death to life. He who is the new priest reveals himself as the new Torah – the new Law – surpassing and replacing the law of Sinai. He who is the new priest is the never setting Sun who now grants us redemption and transfiguration. He who is the new priest sends his Spirit upon Anna and all the prophets who are entrusted to prepare the world for the Lord’s second and glorious coming. He who is the new priest commissions us who are incorporated into the new temple of his body and blood to feed the world with his very body and life giving, saving and transfiguring word.
Finally, we must remember that to enter the mystery of the new creation requires us, like the Virgin, to engage in spiritual struggle and to exert ascetical effort. Simeon the Elder tells the Virgin Mary that a sword will pierce her soul. Certainly, this is a reference to her witnessing the passion and death of her son. But it is also more. It is a reference to Mary’s doubt and confusion that ironically springs from having an intimate relationship with God who also happens to be her son. A 4th century bishop, St. Basil of Caesarea, comments on Simeon’s prophecy. He calls attention to the perplexity that stirs within the Virgin’s soul. Like us, Mary, while seeking to embrace God must also wrestle with him. In one of his letters, Saint Basil writes of the doubt that envelopes Mary on Golgotha in spite of her past encounters with the archangel Gabriel, in spite of her seedless conception, in spite of the many miracles performed by her son. (Letters 186-368, p.231) Like Mary we are prone to temptations that would undermine our past experiences of encountering the living God.
Intimacy with God does not preclude crises of faith. On the contrary, intimacy with the God who leads us into the mystery of new life is bound to cause many swords to pierce our souls. Each piercing beckons us towards spiritual awakening which in turn drives us to enter the new and unknown. Like the Virgin we are to assume a posture of humility so as to be corrected, instructed, enlightened and perfected. For like the Virgin we are being called to be bearers of the one who is more spacious than the heavens – God before the ages.
In the midst of the Feast we are called to ascetical purification and consecration so that with the Virgin we – personally and corporately as the Church – may with love and humility bring into the world the one who frees all from the slavery of sin and death. Like the Virgin we are to maintain the integrity of our royal priesthood given through baptism for the building up of the new Temple – the Church that is Christ’s living body. From this Temple we who are the nation of priests are commissioned to proclaim the new Law – the new Torah – Jesus Christ who is the full measure and stature of humanity. (Cf. Ephesians 4:13). Amen.