Presentation Lorenzetti
Ambrogio Lorenzetti, Presentation of Jesus in the Temple, 1342

 

And his father and his mother marveled at what was said about him; and Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, “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 2:33-35)

     How would you like to be pierced by sword? That sounds like a pretty painful image, does it not?  And yet, despite that, the Presentation, which is today’s feast day and the occasion of the exchange above, is included in the Joyful Mysteries of the Rosary.  How can that make sense?

     Yes, the Presentation of the Lord shows us a paradox, or maybe a series of paradoxes, which can lead us deeper into the mystery of Christ.  On the one hand, it is our last fleeting look back at the recently concluded Christmas Season, and we experience some of the joy and wonder of that season, particularly in the prophetic utterances of Simeon. Simeon proclaims the infant Jesus “a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to thy people Israel” (Luke 2:32). His final words, however, foretell that Christ will be “a sign that is spoken against,” and he warns the Blessed Mother that “a sword will pierce through your own soul also.” His words here redirect us toward the quickly approaching Season of Lent, and beyond to the sorrow and suffering of the Triduum.  The last thing we see in Luke’s account of the Presentation is the prophetess Anna, who hints at the solution to the apparent contraries in Simeon’s prophecy: she “spoke of him to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem” (Luke 2:38).  In the end, the glory of Christmas and the sword of Good Friday come together on Easter Sunday: Redemption comes only from the light shining through the darkness of suffering, and we catch a glimpse of that Paradox of Pain in the Feast of Presentation.

Stephen Fry, left, as Jeeves and Hugh Laurie as Bertie Wooster (from thetimes.co.uk)

     I once ran across an interview with English actor and comedian Stephen Fry (on the Feast of the Presentation, as it happens), that provides a good illustration of what happens when we take Jesus Christ out of the Paradox of Pain. You may know Fry from Jeeves and Wooster, the British television series from the early 90s.  Fry puts in an outstanding performance as Jeeves, the unflappable valet whose clever stratagems always manage to extract his employer, Bertie Wooster, from the ridiculous difficulties he creates for himself.

      It turns out that Fry, in addition to being an accomplished comic actor, is an “outspoken atheist” (ironic, given how often he played the part of deus ex machina as Jeeves). In light of his public witness for unbelief, his interviewer asked him what he would say if he found himself, contrary to his expectation, face to face with his Creator in the afterlife. Fry’s answer is instructive:

“I’d say, ‘Bone cancer in children? What’s that about?’” he began.

“’How dare you? How dare you create a world to which there is such misery that is not our fault . . .It’s not right, it’s utterly, utterly evil. Why should I respect a capricious, mean-minded, stupid God who creates a world which is so full of injustice and pain?’ That’s what I would say.”

     There are a lot of unspoken premises in that statement.  The largest is the assumption that physical suffering is the worst thing that can happen to you. And it does make sense that if all reality is reducible to matter, and that this present world is all there is, then what else could possibly be worse than suffering? This stance, however, leads to some paradoxes of its own.  Fry goes on to assert, for instance, that eradicating belief in God would render our lives “simpler, purer, cleaner, more worth living, in my opinion.”  Doing away with belief in God, however, really only makes Fry’s problem worse: instead of leading to redemption, suffering is now simply random and pointless pain.  Not only that, but it is something we all must experience, it’s inescapable.  The only way to eliminate suffering for an unbelieving materialist like Steven Fry is not to eliminate God, but to do away with humanity.

     Fry’s fellow atheist, the philosopher David Benatar, states Fry’s unspoken premise explicitly, and openly arrives at the logical conclusion.  In fact, he makes it the title of his best-known book: Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming Into Existence. No people, no suffering: that’s the best the atheist can hope for.

     Faith in Jesus Christ offers us something infinitely better.  Most of us probably know people whose faith brought them joy, sometimes in the face of intense suffering, sometimes even through their suffering, so that they could say along with St. Paul ” in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body” (Colossians 1:24). In my post “Death and Human Dignity” I discuss one such person, an aunt whose faith allowed her to be a support to everyone else as she lay dying of cancer.

Crucifixion, by Jacopo Tintoretto, 1568

     But that’s not all.  The God we worship is not a God who is indifferent to our suffering, as Stephen Fry suggests.  On the contrary, he willingly took our form and underwent the most horrendous suffering, and not just physical suffering but the sometimes more bitter pain of rejection and humiliation, all for our sake.  In the process he shows us that suffering does not need to be pointless misery: it can be our path to the infinite joy of the beatific vision.

     There is an episode of Jeeves and Wooster in which Bertie Wooster gets himself into a hopelessly tangled and embarrassing situation.  Just as it looks like there is no escape for him, Jeeves (played, of course, by Stephen Fry) comes on the scene disguised as a Scotland Yard detective, and announces that he is arresting Bertie for “possession of an illegal golf club.” He whisks him off the premises, and the two merrily depart, free of consequences and no wiser than they were before.  Jesus isn’t Jeeves.  It’s true that he wants to save us from final damnation, but he doesn’t shield us from the wisdom gained from experiencing the consequences of our own, or even other peoples’, actions.  As St. Paul explains to the Christians in Rome:

. . . we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us. (Romans 5:3-5)

Yes, he allows us to suffer, but he accompanies us in our suffering, so that we may accompany him to the Throne of the Father where we will experience joy unlike any pleasure this world can offer.

    Small wonder, then, that The Presentation is included in the Joyful Mysteries of the Rosary, despite Simeon’s ominous (and alarming, no doubt, to Mary and Joseph) utterance.  We are reminded that, through his Incarnation, Death, and Resurrection, Christ has sanctified suffering: it is no longer a random, meaningless evil, but instead a path to Heaven.  

That is, indeed, Good News.

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