(Delivered as a guest celebrant and preacher at St Paul's, K Street, Washington, DC)
I have learned over time that one of my chronic disabilities is that it is that, when I meet somebody new, it is sometimes difficult for me to remember what he or she looks like apart from the physical surroundings in which I normally see that person. So if I first meet you, say, on the way out of church tonight, and run into you tomorrow at the airport when I’m on my way out of town, there’s a good chance I won’t recognize you. The same would be the case if a the person who bags my groceries where I usually shop in Springfield showed up on at the cathedral the next time I’m there on a Sunday. This is embarrassing sometimes, but I do eventually learn what the regular characters in my life look like.
Fortunately, there are enough people in the world who are good at remembering names and faces to compensate for those, like me, who aren’t. But all of us, nevertheless, are conditioned by what we expect, by what our experience sets us up to see or hear. When I’m in a particularly jovial mood, one of the tricks I like to play on people—kids, usually—is this: spell “pots” (like in “pots and pans”). Go ahead and spell it out mentally to yourself.
Now spell “post”.
Now spell “spot”.
Now spell what you do when you come to a green light.
A good many of you just mentally spelled out s-t-o-p. If you did, you’re a hazard to the rest of us, because we go at green lights and stop at red ones!
We see what we’re conditioned to see, what we’re set up for. This tendency has a much more serious significance than as the foundation of a corny practical joke. As children of this age of science and technology, you and I are conditioned to assume that if something can be touched or seen or heard or measured or otherwise accounted for scientifically, then it has a certain status as credible reality. Conversely, if someone makes a merely rational or intellectual assertion, or testifies to a purely spiritual experience, then we tend to be skeptical. We withhold judgement until there’s...what?
Until there’s proof; that is until some objective, properly controlled experiment can verify what’s been said. We see what we’re conditioned to see, and we’re conditioned to see that which can be scientifically verified.
Yet, there are those people who claim that there are other ways of seeing, other ways of experiencing reality. These other ways of seeing don’t contradict science so much as they simply lie beyond its reach. The two elderly characters in tonight’s gospel—Simeon and Anna—are among those who testify to an alternative way of seeing, a way of seeing that is developed and cultivated by long years of waiting, and thousands of hours of praying. A way of seeing that is practiced quietly and privately by people in every country on every continent. For some, it’s a well-worn habit. For millions of others, it’s an occasional blessing, sometimes an unwelcome one, which soon fades and returns them to the “normal” scientific way of experiencing reality—that is, a way of experiencing reality in which we see and understand the events of our lives, and the events of all our lives—that is, life in general—as just a random chain of cause and effect relationships. We’re born with a particular set of genes that determine our looks, our talents, and, in a large measure, our health. We grow up in a particular environment: parents, siblings, money—or lack of it, education—or lack of it. We meet certain people, develop certain relationships. Sometimes we’re at the right place at the right time and on other occasions we’re at the wrong place at the wrong time, and the sum of all these random shufflings and re-dealings of life’s deck of cards, when all is said and done, constitutes our biography. That’s the way we see it, or, that’s the way we’re conditioned to see it, at any rate.
There were those, no doubt, who were present at the temple in Jerusalem on that day 40 days after Jesus’s birth who saw nothing out of the ordinary. Jewish law required women to come to the temple forty days after giving birth to be ritually cleansed; in effect, to mark the conclusion of the mysterious, dangerous condition of pregnancy and new motherhood. And since long-standing tradition was that God had a special claim on firstborn males, if the child was a firstborn male, he had to be “redeemed”. If the parents couldn’t afford a lamb, the price of this redemption was the sacrifice of two pigeons or turtledoves, which is what Mary and Joseph brought with them to the temple on this day. There were probably other sets of parents and children there at the same time to do the same thing. The great majority of them saw nothing out of the ordinary about the man and woman and child who are the focus of our attention.
We see what we’re set up to see. We can see life as a series of chance encounters, or we can see life as the medium of God’s presence and God’s activity. This was the way Simeon and Anna were able to see it, and they were the ones who didn’t just look right through Jesus that day in the temple. Simeon and Anna were conditioned, by years of waiting and praying and believing, to recognize “the consolation of Israel”, the Messiah, the Christ. And when they laid eyes on Jesus, they saw what they were conditioned to see. They recognized the long-expected Jesus, the one who is the light of the world—the one whose life and ministry and death would be a scandal, a sign of contradiction to the religious milieu, and which would inflict bitter suffering on his mother.
St Luke the Evangelist also had the gift of sight which Simeon and Anna shared. He was able to see the Holy Spirit as active in the story: first revealing to Simeon that he would not die before seeing the Messiah, and then revealing to Luke that this visit to the temple by the infant Jesus was the foreshadowing of his eventual return to Jerusalem to claim authority over the temple, and then to suffer and die. Luke rescues this story from being merely “cute” by placing it in the shadow of the cross.
This gift of sight has also been given to the Church as a whole, who, in her collective wisdom, has seen the connection between this gospel narrative and, on one hand, Malachi’s Old Testament prophecy about the Lord visiting and purifying his temple, and, on the other hand, the image from the Epistle to the Hebrews of Jesus our great high priest, flesh of our flesh and bone of our bone, continually making intercession for us in the heavenly temple of which the Jerusalem temple was only a pale reflection. This is a grand vision, if we have the eyes to see it!
Without these eyes of faith, we see our lives, not only as a random chain of cause-and-effect relationships, but as a chain that we are trapped in and God is absent from. Life is cruel and absurd, and then you die. But if we can allow God to set us free from our conditioning, if we can let Jesus teach us to see with the eyes of faith that Anna and Simeon saw with, then what a glorious vision awaits us! Life is no longer a roll of the dice but is the medium through which God touches us and cares for us and showers his mercy upon us. A friend of mine once expressed this in an almost mathematical way: the difference between coincidence and providence is faith.
Let that sink in.
Or, if you are more comfortable with addition than subtraction: Coincidence—the seemingly random events of our lives, plus faith—seeing with the eyes of Simeon and Anna, equals providence—God’s care for us through and in everyday events. When we make this equation a reality, sadness will turn to joy, despair will turn to hope, and we will be able to sing along with Simeon: “Lord, you now have set your servant free to go in peace as you have promised, for these eyes of mine have seen the Savior whom you have prepared for all the world to see; a light to enlighten the nations, and the glory of your people Israel.”