Today is the mid-point, the end of the beginning and the beginning of the end. Which is to say, today is the Feast of the Presentation, a perfect microcosm of both/and. The official Christmas Season ended a couple weeks ago on the Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord, but the Presentation of the baby Jesus in the Temple forty days after his birth as prescribed in Jewish law is the concluding celebratory event of the scriptural nativity narrative. My wife’s forebears in Poland always extended their Christmas celebration until the Feast of the Presentation on February 2nd, a practice followed in other places as well (including, since the pontificate of John Paul II, the Vatican).
At the same time, Lent is bearing down on us. The connection is clear in the traditional liturgical calendar, where Pre-Lent starts on Septuagesima Sunday, three-and-one-half weeks before Ash Wednesday. The Church just observed Septuagesima Sunday this past weekend, which you would have seen if you attended the TLM. While Pre-Lent is not formally part of the Ordinary Calendar anymore, it’s still there in the readings. You might have noticed that the response to the Psalm at the Ordinary Form mass this past Sunday was the Lenten verse: “If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts”. So, this year post-Christmas and Pre-Lent actually overlap by several days.
The both/and, Christmas/Lent aspect of the Presentation is personified in Simeon, the prophetic old man who has God’s promise that he will see the Messiah before he dies. Simeon takes baby Jesus in his arms, and first intones the prayer of thanks and praise known as the Nunc Dimittis (from its open words in Latin): “Now, Lord, you let your servant go in peace . . .” (Luke 2:29-32).
That, however, is not the end of it. He next turns to Mary and says:
Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising of many in Israel,
and for a sign that is spoken against
(and a sword will pierce through your own soul also),
that thoughts out of many hearts may be revealed. (Luke 2:34-35)
Small wonder that the Presentation/Prophecy of Simeon provides both one of the Joyful Mysteries of the Rosary and one of the Seven Sorrows of Mary. You can see the whole scene wonderfully played out in Caravaggio’s characteristically dramatic painting of the Presentation (which I also used as the back drop to yesterday’s video of Holst’s choral setting to the Nunc Dimittis). When we first look at the painting the brightest figure in picture, the baby Jesus in the middle of the left half of the composition, catches our eye first. We then take in the shadowy image of Simeon holding the child, along with the prophetess Anna, who had also been awaiting the Messiah in the Temple. Our gaze then moves right, where we notice a befuddled looking Joseph at the margin, but comes to rest on Mary; the blood-red of her tunic is the deepest color in the picture. Ours eyes finally settle on her hands, clutching the heart that Simeon has just told her will be pierced by a sword.
The Presentation is not the only place where we see this unexpected (to us) combination of joy and sorrow, nor even the only presentation in which we see it. Let’s look back a little earlier in Luke’s Gospel, where Mary sings the canticle we know as The Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55) when she greets her cousin Elizabeth (who is herself pregnant with John the Baptist). The Magnificat is closely modeled on an Old Testament canticle sung by Hannah, the mother of Samuel (1 Samuel 2:1-10), and given the close resemblance of the two songs, we are clearly expected to see Hannah as a type, or prefigurement, of Mary. Hannah’s is not simply a ritual presentation of her son to The Lord, however: she brings little two-year-old Samuel to the temple and leaves him there, to be raised by Eli the priest. This was the child for whom she wept and prayed, but she only received him after she promised to give him back to God, which she does, literally.
There is something here that is true to motherhood in general, that mothers receive their children only to give them up in the end, that the joy comes at the price of the sorrow. There is something deeper going on as well, something about the nature of Christian discipleship . . . but before we get to that, I’d like to take another look at the liturgical calendar. It’s interesting that the liturgical year, through which we “live out” the story of Salvation, doesn’t unfold in the order we might expect with beginning, then middle, then end. We have the beginning and the end, Christmas and Easter, with all their drama, in the first half of the year; in the last six months we have what seems like it should be the middle, but it feels like one long denouement until it all starts up again on the first Sunday of advent.
This is not how you or I would have planned it, but God’s ways are not our ways, and his thoughts are not out thoughts (see Isaiah 55:8). We could point out that the dates of Easter and Christmas were established independently, at different times and for different reasons. The date of Easter isn’t arbitrary, it’s historically based on the fact that the Crucifixion and Resurrection happened at the time of the Jewish Passover, which is a movable feast, but always happens around the same time in Spring. Easter, which has been observed since the very beginning of the Church, is likewise a movable feast, falling somewhere between March 22nd and April 25th. The celebration of Christmas, on the other hand, didn’t become common until several centuries later, with several different dates at different times of year (since no date is mentioned in scripture); the current date of December 25th seems to have become the agreed upon date some time in the 4th century.
There is no clear record of how the final determination for the date of Christmas was made, but there was, as it happens, an earlier consensus on the date of the Annunciation; logically Christmas should follow nine months later, shouldn’t it? That agreed upon date for the Annunciation, by the way, was the one we still observe: March 25th. As it happens, it was very widely believed in the early church that, whatever the liturgical date of the Easter celebration, the actual date of the Resurrection was also March 25th . . . so maybe the dates are not so independent after all. Whatever factors went into it and however the liturgical calendar was shaped, it seems that by putting Christmas and Lent so close together, we’re given little time to forget that our savior came into this world for the explicit purpose of following the Way of the Cross.
We might want to give some thought to how the baby Jesus presented in the temple grows up to tell his disciples “If any man would come after me, let him pick up his cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24). We who have heard of the crucifixion so often that it’s become an abstraction, or have seen it so many times in tidy, pious pictures, can’t understand how viscerally shocking that image was to the disciples. They had seen before their eyes the reality of wrenching, tortuous death inflicted by the hideous instrument, the cross, crux in Latin, that gives us our word excruciating. One does not lightly or casually pick up one’s cross.
There really is a lot going on in this one feast day. We see the two-edged prophecy of Simeon, linking Salvation and Sorrow; we see the placement of the feast day at the intersection of Christmas joy and the penitential season of Lent; finally, we find ourselves wondering at the departure from chronological order that puts those two seasons right next to each other, when we would expect to find them at opposite ends of the year. All those things come together in the Presentation to remind us that Christ is our Savior, but he has not come to save us from sorrow or suffering in this world, he’s come to save us from sin; he doesn’t save us from the cross, he saves us through the cross.