Forming a Messiah
Present arms! Demonstrate your loyalty. If not to the State, to the Spirit of the people of the Land.
Breath-taking. Leaving, again. This child had first been born in a trip to Bethlehem. And now a trip to Jerusalem. Leaving, like Abram, only in response to another Call. Per the Law of the Land, every first-born male must be consecrated to the Lord. What did it look like to the neighbors, if you did not present your son to the Temple? After the first Call had been from, ironically, the State. To go to Bethlehem. Behold the connection of leaving to the sacrificial. The next Call was to the Church/Temple. With all of this suddenness, from a perspective of an infant. “Let’s go!” Move. Let go! Sacrifice. Get to Jerusalem . . . with The Urgency, as background. Like another due date. So within a certain number of days, did Joseph and Mary invite any relatives? Like the ones back in Bethlehem? Or did they tell their parents? That they were going?
THE ART is “Simeon’s Song of Praise” by Rembrandt
The PRESENTATION. According to the Law – the Supreme Law – with the concern about purity, and the portals, to let a son in. The barriers were erected with 613 laws. To prove your worth, observing the law of Moses. Within a certain number of days. And so the story as the parents take Jesus to the Temple, to present Him to the Lord, according to the Gospel of Luke. But clearly Jesus would not be an Orthodox Jew, at least in the perspective of all these Gentiles accepted into the Church of the Apostles. So had this been on the 8th day, or the 40th day? What do Christians know about the tradition about the arrival as the day came to purify? What do Roman Catholics know about the significance of the 4th Joyful Mystery, of their rosary? Because hadn’t it been their flight to Egypt, which followed the visit by the Magi? But it is said that even though Herod was looking for the Messiah, according to the Gospel of Matthew, the parents took Jesus to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord. And according to the Gospel of Matthew, Joseph kept his family in Egypt until Herod the Great had died – which was in 4 BCE at the age of seventy. And one of these Evangelist had to be like a second cousin once removed, because both stories could not be right.
Note the TWO in the story, of The PRESENTATION. Simeon was named for the second born son of Jacob and Leah. And to offer a sacrifice, per the Law of the LAND, there were a pair of young pigeons. Now this guy named Simeon – whatever his name had come to mean – was in Jerusalem, waiting. It had been Simeon that the prophet Joseph took hostage so that his brother might return with Benjamin. To Egypt. As if Mary and Joseph had not already had enough displacement if not disruption since the conception of this child, in their lives, behold the mystery connected to the Law and to Simeon who takes the baby into his arms, and shares his God! In his tradition, Simeon felt CALLED to the Second Temple that day. So the old man whose name means “he has heard” disrupts Mary and Joseph, as they tried to fulfill all the prescriptions of the Law. The real meaning in the story is about Jesus’ first time in the Temple, before their RETURN home. From Bethlehem, from Jerusalem. Maybe from Egypt. Until he set eyes on the Messiah, Simeon would not die, he believed, saying: “Now, Master, you can let ‘your servant’ go in peace.” So the significance of this birth is related to his own death? Somehow. Joseph with Simeon who had tried to destroy his brother Joseph, before the first born son of Jacob had saved Joseph. In a family that had obsessed over if not purity, the obsession to the birth right, which becomes somehow connected to “saving.” So Simeon’s presence was to point out to the parents how they would be so personally threatened, from having been immersed into a culture at the end of this gestation period, when purity became, in the conflict of private and public lives, an obsession greater than life itself? Behold the purification? For the Authorities at the Temple. Behold the Temple. And did you ever think of the wisdom of Solomon who built the First Temple, suggesting to resolve an argument over a child, a baby might be split? Locate Abraham in the story of two women who lived in the same house, both of whom had an infant son but one woman claimed that the other, as both claimed to be the mother of the living son, coming to Solomon for a judgment. After accidentally smothering her own son while sleeping, one had exchanged the two children to make it appear that the living child was hers. After some deliberation, the King called for a SWORD to be brought, to him.
Behold this joyful mystery, connected to the Fear of the Lord – a fear at this point of life, in creating, for each parent! With all the concerns over purity? So had Simeon been a Pharisee or a Sadducee who did not believe in Resurrection? What had become obsessive to the Pharisees, when there was only one way to think, to worship, would become the threat of the very same human condition, over purity, as Church and State now co-existed uneasily, within the Roman Empire. Behold Simeon who felt that he could take the baby into his arms? And did you think back to in the story of two women who lived in the same house, both of whom had an infant son but one woman claimed that the other, after accidentally smothering her own son while sleeping, claimed this infant? Though the event had occurred in the First Temple. How did Joseph respond to this Simeon whose name also is connected with the idea of ‘miscegenation’? How exactly was this Simeon God’s servant, telling Mary, “And you yourself a SWORD will pierce,” which left most readers gasping? In this incredible story of The Presentation, there is her companion, Joseph, wondering in the conflict over to whom Your son would belong, over who would be saved, with involvement – some kind of personal involvement – as the formation process of – a “given,” based upon what you don’t know or think that you do, about the MYSTERY – the Messiah begins. So from where did Jesus originate? How do you form a Messiah? As one of us! And what would your child look like to your neighbors, as you returned home?
Consider that first day back home on the job as the parent of a Messiah. With the entire tradition resting upon purity, washing, dinnerware, bloodlines, in this great unsettling Presence … in The Spirit of the Lord. With what you had grown up.
Narrative tension is primarily about withholding information. In any relationship, as your place of birth blinds you to the outside world, with language directed at intimations of attachment, This Spirit from where you come … founded on the back of sacrifice. There is the issue of undivided support as Joseph seems forced to take a vow of chastity, living in the house with Mary and the Son of Man. This theology of Purity, ever since the time of Abraham, with Sarah, his half-sister, passing on something to your first born son. Born into a tradition, of mostly the Sacrifice in the story, with the same kind of dreams as Abraham, as Joseph the prophet. Being somehow saved by giving up something like your own son, with a certain amount of this protected status … in the beginning, closest to home somewhere in Israel. In a story when both Mary and Joseph had the tradition, what has become of the command given to Adam to cleave? “Therefore, a man shall leave his father and his mother, and cleave to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” Though Joseph had, in his calling, representing the entire tradition of the House of David, here he is still cleaving to his perfect wife perhaps out of the prejudice that he had about the outside world. Like Abram.
When you left home for a census, in a certain Call, when your God is not restricted to one place, one land, with borders. And then, from this tradition of a nomad, passing on SAVING, after being saved, uncovering the mystery, through story. Mary and Joseph meeting Magi, and strangers in the Temple who have come looking for their son. In their return to the Promise Land, behold the sacrifice to come, with the fear in the story, as doubt always is at the center of either mystery or faith which moves THESE STORIES beyond the power of imagination.
Locate the personal boundaries in the story, with violations of individual if not communal boundaries in the story of the Presentation. By Simeon, for one. Note the conflict over power in the story, when surrounded by so many of your kinsmen, the very same human condition, whether as the last person on earth — or the first — and feeling so all alone? Behold the need for a coverup, living with exception to these kinsmen, with Mary and all the strangeness of her Virgin birth, through the things not physically shared – the torture of her ability to carry the Living God of Abraham to the next generation through this child.
Behold the Lamb of God, identified by the shepherds, in the beginning of! Behold all the human interest in times of trouble, between Church and State, at about the time Herod the Great has died, after the split in the two kingdoms as the Romans had moved in. Living with the invisible loss of your own language, as PLACE is used against you, after PLACE claims you again as its slave? In the eyes of the Romans, with their Latin, like the English brought their language to Ireland? So how old were, how blind were, how oppressed were the eyes of all? Behold the human meaning in the story about a Messiah in the RETURN home after the first time in the Temple. If you get the small details wrong, with all the fear in the story about power over me involving splits, in the LAND, the bond which came not from suffering but from the sacrifice, you will get the big picture wrong – affecting if not your land and your own displacement, from your place of origin, then at least the life of your son.
Breath-taking! The PRESENTATION. Note the TWO in the story, of The PRESENTATION with a sacrifice of a pair of young pigeons. To offer a sacrifice, per the Law of the LAND, with this sense of urgency, within a certain number of days. There is reference to Egypt in the sacrifice for the redemption of the first born son. “Every firstborn of man among your sons, you shall redeem. And it will come to pass that if your son asks you in the future, saying, ‘What is this?’ you shall say to him, ‘With a mighty hand did God take us out of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. And it came to pass when Pharaoh was too stubborn to let us out, God slew every firstborn in the land of Egypt.’”
Passover. Why does understanding, about Jesus, Mary and Joseph look so inevitable? Why do you steal the mystery, about the lingering conflict over power and shared dominion, in another story with mystery? Before these young parents finally returned home. Did you ever behold the System Substitutions, by Abraham, by Moses? Note the circumcision, only after Abraham went and fathered a child through his wife’s handmaid. So in the science of consequences, his first born son was a slave. If you did Algebra I. And that led to stories of generations of servants and handmaids and slaves in Egypt. In an apparition, there is suddenly the unexpected, like a banishment, or like an attempt at genuine sacrifice. And with all the unexpected, these stories just seem to be repeating themselves, however with the hovering ghosts of ingratitude toward Hagar, as Sarah at least banished her handmaid and her half-Egyptian son.
What is apparent to me in my religious tradition somehow acquired through Abraham is that every tradition of the Abrahamaic religions – Judaism, Christianity, Islam – has a need for both a story and a real living human body, in order to pass on the method of prayer. Hagar had conceded forever not only her status but that of her son, but with the far off hope that something would one day change? About her servitude? To connect the dots about Hagar, about intimacy, about unconditional love, to Mary and Joseph, like Abraham has sacrificed his purity in the same way Adam had, to appease Eve. Would Mary sacrifice her purity, like Hagar had her own, to Abraham? For her Masters.
“Mostly they are the same lives. The same stories, over and over,” wrote David Remnick, the editor of The New Yorker. When we endow our lives with stories. Mostly the same stories, generation after generation. When your relationships at their foundation were so alive, but with a great restlessness. When you prayers were so alive….and you wanted others to then have the same experience. Even sometimes you had to be looking for a place to escape. In a start?
There is always the unknown in the present age about all the “givens” a child had been born into, like the suspense lost when you knew the end of a story. “The givens,” lost like a first born son might think that his inheritance could be. If you ever spent the time to try and see, did you notice a greater suffering as the living VICTIM went missing, for over a number of years, like in the case of Joseph the prophet? With so much emotional attachment … did you note the missing part, like the long-forgotten first born son, Ishmael? When he left the home of Sarah and Abraham. And wasn’t there the fair degree of Fear of the Lord whenever a child went missing? Who could ever forget the firstborn son? In the stories of missing it is the ultimate VICTIM of hood-winking who goes missing. Like first Jacob, from the perspective of Isaac, and then Jacob’s son, Joseph. Behold this birth right, connected to the invisible if not to the missing. With all the Spirituality connected to what first seems missing, for a while – like in response to “Where is the Lamb” question. In these stories of the missing behold Jesus, like the prophet renamed Israel, surrounded by people who he could never really trust – even his eldest son by Leah, who he thought betrayed him. And did you witness in the stories of Jacob & Sons, all of the violence over trying to be One? Again. And so the invisible fear connected to the God of Jacob, so distinct from the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, as Jesus grew up.
“The story begins with Creation which, as we have seen, is the story of the acts of distinguishing one thing from another. It ends by alluding to the most crucial distinction of all …” wrote Daniel Mendelsohn in THE LOST. It was hard enough to be the Son of Man the first time – only the perfect son this time.
Hadn’t it been fear of something that moved people here in the first place? For a place to worship freely? What is most true about the law of Moses and Jewish theology but the portals of life and death – over who belongs. Who is one of us? With all of Abraham’s walking. Using purity as a means to an end. The importance of Movement. Toward a goal. But sacrificing purity one day. But underneath it all, there was still the basic fear. At the portals, with still a concern about purity, and the theology of purity, as you tried to create a normal life, with the blood of the lamb on your thresh-hold that provided a sense of identity, that was connected to having been saved. And now living with all of this purity. Trying to laugh and be normal. After demonstrating your fidelity to your God.
“And at the center of all that drama – for Rashi goes to no little trouble to explain that it does indeed stand in the center – the mysterious and somehow moving symbol in the garden, a tree that represents, I have come to think, both the pleasure and the pain that comes from knowing things. -from Daniel Mendelsohn’s The Lost
Or is it both the pleasure and the pain that comes from knowing God? This is, after all, a love story. Ever since the time of Abraham, the center of all of this drama is love and the children of Abraham dealing with love and sex and fertility. With, according to the Book of Genesis or the Qoran, these relationship stories. And in all of human history, no one has ever told a story without having some kind of agenda — like passing a relationship on, with all of the pleasure and the pain from knowing God or just each other, when love divides. There is the Jewish prayer about survival in the shared belief since Abraham about the sacrifice called The Akedah, involving his son and the future of the world. Were the words heard that day of the Unetaneh Tokef, the prayer about the perils of the year to come – the perils which are all around us, with the perils in my land and the values in this land, as the value of all currency, of the things that help sustain illusion, are threatened? Like Jews in so many places, Christians in Iraq, or Muslims in the United States:
How many shall pass away and how many shall be born,
Who shall live and who shall die…
Who shall be at peace and who shall be pursued,
Who shall be exalted and who shall be brought low…
Like at the symbolic sacrifice at The Presentation – the Abrahamic concession is that love divides. Joseph and Mary conceded forever not only her status but that affect of sacrifice on her son, like ever since the time of Sarah and her half-brother Abraham. Like what the message about the affect of sacrifice is in The Warning, of Simeon or like heard at the conclusion in the Beautitudes.
This joyful mystery after all is called a love story, about existence. The mystery, like Sarah’s. Like Elizabeth’s. Like Mary’s. These Alumni who feel compelled to demonstrate their love, like Abraham. In the sacrifice. With birth instead of death. On a different end of a sacrifice.
As they left Jerusalem, with an equivalent fear to an over-forty year old Jacob stealing a birthright, did you hear the “piercing” in the cryptic words of the prophet Zachariah: “….and they shall look on him whom they have pierced, and they shall mourn for him as one mourns for an only son, and they shall grieve over him as one grieves over a firstborn.”
How would you reach or teach a child the story of Isaac, with all the waiting by Sarah, with then the sacrifice on Mount Moriah? With the covert sacrifice that the father Abraham would have told no one? Real people wondering, puzzled, with if not doubt, perplexed? Dealing with the Everlasting, since the beginning … and all of the past.
Love? Sacrificing me? In the relationships, in stories about unconditional love, behold the boy Jesus – so much like once the boy Isaac! After the long wait, as seen in the cousin named Elizabeth.
“Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you….” An 89-year old woman pregnant? Then a virgin birth! Who would believe, when it would come to pass — like THE TRADITION on — that if your son asks you in the future, saying, ‘What is this?’ With speechless hearts and waiting minds,there is this Simeon guy reaching for your infant. . . in the Temple, of all places. After this virgin birth had come between the betrothed couple, what did this man named Simeon represent, to anyone named Joseph? And living in this land, did you ever get the sense, maybe like a newly emancipated adult, about the burden of tradition that so many were giving up, like the separation between Israel and Judah, or between a father and a son? And for those who tried to keep hold of something, there was a feeling that you really could not afford to move, but you could not afford to stay. And who would ever believe a kid whose parents one day told him of his own virgin birth? If he dare tell anyone.
“If anyone wishes to come after me – like I came after Ishmael, as I came after Isaac – he must deny himself … daily. And follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it; whoever gives life, sacrifices their life [by giving life], will save it.”
It is all in The Presentation, like my sister once said while reading a book by Martha Stewart. With a certain amount of joy. And in Rembrandt’s “Simeon Song of Praise,” doesn’t the Temple look to be the main character, in The Presentation? Or is it the Light?
Copyright © 2016.
Paying the highest price possible.
Larry Gillick, SJ