Today we are diverted from the normal sequence of the Epiphany Season, as we take a giant step backward in the lifetime of our Lord. Once more He is an Infant in the arms of His Mother, being brought to the Temple in Jerusalem, His Father’s House, on this Fortieth Day of the ChristMass.
As throughout Epiphany, so also in the Presentation of our Lord, the Almighty God here reveals Himself and His Glory in the flesh and blood of His incarnate Son, Christ Jesus. In this little Babe, the Son of Mary, the Lord your God has burst upon the scene and confronts you face to face.
Now, if you consider what that entails, you realize that confrontation with God surely ought to be a terrible and frightening encounter for you, a poor, miserable sinner deserving of punishment. If you’ve got your hand in the cookie jar, the last thing you want is to come face to face with your Mom. And if you mess up on the job, you don’t look forward to a confrontation with the boss.
But here the one true God, the Lord Himself, who commands you to be holy and perfect, as He is holy and perfect, but who already knows that you are not — who knows all your sins of thought, word, and deed, past, present, and future — He comes to meet you face to face — the same One who comes to judge the living and the dead. But are you ready to meet your Creator and Judge?
On your own and of yourself, no, you are not ready to face Him, nor would you be able to stand in His presence. No more than Adam and Eve were ready, when they’d eaten the forbidden fruit. Remember how they tried to hide from God among the trees of the Garden? Whatever newfound knowledge of good and evil they might have gained was more than enough to tell our first parents that they had sinned against the Lord. And like yourself, having disobeyed the Word of God, they knew what they deserved. They could not bear to look God in the eye, to see Him face to face.
And yet, when God the Lord confronted them there in the Garden after the Fall — along with the cursing of the serpent and the punishment of pain in childbirth — side-by-side with the cursing of the soil and the decree that man would return to that soil in death — Adam and Eve also received the promise of the Savior. Face to face with God, and they received His mercy and forgiveness.
That’s what happened again when the same Lord God revealed Himself to Abraham and promised that by his Seed the nations would be saved. With Father Abraham God established His Covenant, sealed with the blood of circumcision as a sign of the Lord’s ongoing presence with His People.
Then again, the Lord our God came face to face with Jacob as a Man, and He wrestled with him through the night, thereby teaching him repentance and training him in the prayer and confession of faith. Though putting his hip out of its socket (like the bones of Christ Jesus on His Cross), the Lord blessed Jacob and bestowed on him the name of Israel, that is, “he who strives with God.”
Remember Mt. Sinai, when God spoke face to face with Moses and through him established His Covenant with Israel — the Covenant fulfilled and perfected in the conception and birth of the Blessed Virgin Mary’s Son, Immanuel, who is indeed God-with-us in the Flesh. As we celebrate throughout Christmas and Epiphany, the Lord God has come down from heaven to tabernacle with you and all in His own Flesh and Blood. So is He with you today in this Temple of His Church.
And so it is that we rejoice and give thanks along with St. Simeon and St. Anna, two of God’s holy and righteous people who have gone before us in the one true faith, who came face to face with their Savior in His Holy Temple. In the Face of the Infant Christ Jesus — the promised Seed of the Woman, the Seed of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob — they beheld the Face of God Himself.
In that light, Simeon could not help but sing. And his song of sweet salvation has gone out to all the ends of the earth, to every corner of the Church, and so also to you. For the same Lord God comes to be with you in the Ministry of His Gospel. Not with finger-shaking or scolding, but with tender mercy and forgiveness. By faith you discern His great salvation in water, bread, and wine. And in the Resurrection, with your own two eyes, you shall see Him face to face forevermore.
It was appropriate that Simeon should come face to face with God in the Temple, for he was no stranger to that sacred place. Living in accordance with God’s Word and joining in the liturgical life of the Temple were an exercise of his faith and confidence in the coming Messiah. The same thing is true for you. In the Temple of the Lord, that is, within His Church of Word and Sacrament, Christ Jesus continues to manifest His divine glory in His forgiveness of sins and His gift of life.
The Prophetess Anna likewise clearly understood that blessing and benefit. For St. Luke writes that she did not leave the Temple, but worshiped night and day with fasting and prayers.
It’s not necessarily the case that Anna spent twenty-four hours a day at the Temple and never left, or that she lived in the building. But it is certain that this devout woman of God faithfully took part in the worship life of Israel. She was present for the daily services of the Temple, evening and morning, and for all the festivals and feast days of the Lord’s liturgical year. She no doubt also used the Temple as a place of prayer, calling on the Name of the Lord to redeem His people.
St. Anna’s participation in the Temple’s worship and liturgy greatly increased her faith in the coming Messiah. For there she heard the promises of God repeated daily from the Holy Scriptures. There she sang with all the faithful the Psalms of promise and deliverance. And in the sacrifices offered by the priests of God, St. Anna foresaw the Sacrifice of the Son of God for the forgiveness of all her sins. So do you now hear and receive Christ Jesus in His Word and Sacrament here.
It was thus within the Lord’s Temple in Jerusalem — where they had for so long and so faithfully stood in the presence of God and availed themselves of His Word and promises — that Simeon and Anna were, in the fullness of time, brought face to face with the Word-of-God-made-Flesh, the fulfillment of all those promises, to whom their worship, prayers, and fasting had always pointed.
This little Babe, just forty days old, is the very God who walked with Adam and Eve in the Garden, who spoke to Abraham concerning a son, who wrestled with Jacob through the night and gave to him the blessing of His Name, and who spoke face-to-face with Moses on the Mountain and wrote His Law on tablets of stone. This little Lord Jesus is Immanuel, the God who is with His People.
St. Simeon was thus given the blessed privilege of taking the Christ Child into his arms, thereby cradling the flesh of His Creator to his own sinful flesh. Looking into the eyes of Baby Jesus, he was face to face with God. By this Child he would have life everlasting in body and soul. Seized with joy and the passion of realized hope, that faithful man of God burst into song by inspiration of the Holy Spirit, thus giving to the Church that song or canticle we know as the Nunc Dimittis.
Yet, what Simeon perceived in his Savior was a fearful task. “Behold,” he said to St. Mary, “this Child is destined for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and to be a Sign that is spoken against. A great sword will pierce your own soul, and the secret thoughts of many hearts will be revealed.”
Christ Jesus is the Light of Revelation for the nations and the Glory of His People Israel, but His Peace and Salvation are costly beyond price — purchased not with perishable things like gold or silver, but with His own holy and precious Blood, and with His innocent suffering and death.
It is the Cross and Passion of the Christ that St. Simeon beholds and foretells. For him, the joy that began in the Bethlehem manger would find its fulfillment on Calvary. So do we also recall that the Salvation which first appeared at Christmas in the pains of Mary’s labor would be completed in the pains of her great loss. For the joy of our salvation is found only in the grief of crucifixion — a grief St. Mary also suffered when she stood at the foot of the Cross witnessing her own dear Son die an agonizing death for us all, and the great sword of sorrow went ripping through her soul.
Gazing at the Baby Jesus, St. Simeon did not dwell on the color of His eyes or comment on how much hair He had. He rather saw the shadow of the Cross, standing already above the horizon. Even as an Infant, that cursed tree was the focus and goal of our Lord’s entire life. For it is by the Sacrifice of His Cross that He redeems and liberates His people from sin, death, and hell.
For all that, St. Simeon speaks not only of the Cross, but also of the Resurrection. For the Child, he says, is destined not only for the falling but also for the rising of many in Israel. As He dies and rises for you, so are you put to death and raised to newness of life with Him, by way of Baptism in His Name, and by daily repentance and faith in His forgiveness of sins. As you thus die with Christ Jesus, so do you also rise and live with Him, as well. For Christ Jesus, having risen from the dead, will never die again. And baptized into Christ, even though you die, yet shall you live!
In the meantime, it is true that you do not know the joy of holding Baby Jesus in your arms in the same way as Simeon and Anna. But you do share with them the greater joy of forgiveness in the Cross of Christ. And you join with them and all the saints of God in the Temple of the Church, in the Liturgy of the Gospel, week by week, year after year, awaiting the Resurrection of all flesh.
With St. Anna you gather day and night within the Temple to hear the Word and promises of God, to sing the ancient Psalms and hymns of faith, and to be presented with the Flesh and Blood of your Savior, Jesus — the same Flesh and Blood that St. Mary brought to the Temple in Jerusalem all those years ago, the same Flesh and Blood that were hung upon the Cross for your salvation.
And as surely as St. Simeon received the tiny Body of the Lord from the arms of His Mother, so do you also receive the Body of the same Christ Jesus from the hand of your pastors, and you are strengthened and sustained in peace and joy by that gift of the Word-made-Flesh. Likewise, you drink the Blood of His forgiveness, which cleanses you from all your sins. In the Lord’s Supper you come face to face with God, not for condemnation, but for everlasting life in body and soul.
Like Mary and Joseph, you will soon depart and leave for your own home. But as you go your way, you do so with the Nunc Dimittis on your lips, as you also sing with faithful Simeon, “Lord, now let Your servant go in peace; Your Word has been fulfilled.” For by faith you have seen the Salvation of God in the Light of Revelation which He shines upon you through the Holy Gospel.
You go home from this place as a beloved and well-pleasing child of God, holy and righteous in His sight, enlightened by the Glory of God in the Face of Jesus Christ. And by His grace through faith in Him, you are clothed with compassion and kindness, humility and patience, and above all, clothed with love. It is in your body and life, dear Christian, that God comes face to face with the world around you, as He enables you to be a light to those who yet live in the darkness of unbelief. Above all, you live a life of forgiveness and love, as the Lord loves you and freely forgives you.
If you are married, show the face of God’s mercy and forgiveness to your husband or wife. Be patient and long-suffering, and love your spouse, as Christ Jesus patiently and steadfastly loves you both. If you are a father or mother, show the face of God’s love to your children; forgive them, as the Lord Jesus is daily forgiving your sins. If you are a child, show the face of God’s love to your parents; honor your father and mother, serve and obey them, love and cherish them. And all of you, show the face of God to everyone you meet — at work, at home, at school, and wherever.
Where does the strength to do it come from? It is surely not from yourself. The world comes face to face with God in you, because you come face to face with God in His Word and Sacraments, here within the Temple of the Lord, His Holy Church, which is the very gate of heaven on earth.
Earlier, I recalled how Jacob wrestled through the night with the Lord Himself. Afterwards, he named the place of his confrontation, “Penuel,” which means, “the face of God.” For, as he said, “I have seen God Face to Face, yet my life has been kept safe.” I dare say it is no coincidence that the name of St. Anna’s father is that same word, Phanuel. And so are you also given to approach and depart from the Lord’s Altar in this House of God with the same words of Jacob on your lips. For this is your “Penuel.” Here you come Face to Face with God, and here you are kept safe.
In the Name + of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.