Why did Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher, never leave the temple? Why did sparrows find a home and swallows make their nests near the temple's altar? Why are we spending so much money to conserve Nevelson's sculptures and restore our Chapel of the Good Shepherd? And while we're asking questions, why are all these poinsettias and the Epiphany star still in our Sanctuary 6 weeks after Christmas? All of these questions and more arise because today we are celebrating the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, also known as Candlemas.
Not every Lutheran church observes this day. As a matter of fact, we couldn't observe it last year because, by this time last year, we were in Lent already. But over the past thirty years or so, we've more often than not observed this feast day as it was meant to be celebrated as a fitting conclusion to the Christmas cycle -- and given all that is happening, let's face it, we need a little Christmas right this very minute -- and because Simeon's words to Mary that "a sword will pierce your own soul," also pre-figure Lent, Holy Week and Easter. And so the last question, about the poinsettias and the star is the easiest to answer:
After our Christmas -- Epiphany celebration today, they will disappear and the church will looks like we're getting closer and closer to Lent. But today, we're still celebrating Christmas.
Today reminds us, first and foremost, that Jesus, Mary and Joseph were observant Jews and as observant Jewish parents with a firstborn son, certain rituals needed to be observed. Forty days after his birth, the child was to be dedicated to the Lord and forty days was the minimum time Mary had to stay away so that she could return "clean" to the Temple. Ritual law, that's what brought them to the Temple with the appropriate sacrifice on this day. Simeon and Anna, however, were in the Temple with a different purpose.
Simeon was looking for relief; not just spiritual or religious relief but relief of a social, political and economic kind. Simeon had endured the indignities of the Roman Imperial domination with their goose-stepping army, trickle-down economic system and narcissistic and a sociopathic emperor for his whole life. Simeon believed that the way his country was being governed and the way the people were being exploited was not God's way. In fact, Simeon believed God was going to show up and change
things any day now. So Simeon came to temple every day so that he would be ready when things finally changed. Some of us are exactly like that.
Anna is a different story although, I must admit, I didn't see it until just now. Why would an 84 year old widow be in the Temple "night and day"? The answer is deceptively simple: Anna had nowhere else to go. Probably childless but certainly son-less, once Anna's husband died, she had no visible means of support and no other safe place to go. Anna didn't stay in the temple because she was especially devout, but rather because there in the temple she was safe. Anna didn't stay in the Temple for the same reasons Simeon did, which is the same reason may of us go to Church, but rather, she stayed in the Temple because she felt safe there; because for her it was sanctuary. Sad to say, but there are way too many of us who come to this sanctuary for the same reasons today. I won't name them, but they are all around us. They are seeking, and God is providing, Sanctuary because that is exactly what God and God's people -- what we -- do. "Irregardless" of the cost.
That brings us to the business about the sparrows and the swallows and their nests by the altar; and, in a strange way, gets us to the question of our chapel and its art.
For most of us for a very long time, the image of the sparrow making the temple her house and the swallow laying her young by its altars has been a happy, comforting image immortalized for many by the old Gospel song, "His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me." It's a beautiful, comforting image but when applied to this particular psalm, it's the perfect example of a pious "alternative fact."
Do you know why these birds made their home near the Temple's altar? Because it has no roof. It's been burned and looted and utterly destroyed. This psalm is a song of returning exiles, most of whom had never seen the Temple but who were told stories of its loveliness -- its beauty -- by their parents and grandparents who had seen it before its destruction and who remembered it while the sat in exile "by the waters of Babylon." Imagine them coming back, singing as only returning exiles can sing, only to find their city in ruins -- "the haunt of jackals" as one of their prophets describes it; and their
temple -- in 2 Chronicles we're told that the Babylonians had "burned the house of God" and taken to Babylon "all the vessels of the house of God, large and small and the treasures of the house of the Lord" and left it that way, desolate, until these psalm-singing exiles returned. The first thing these exiles did when they returned to Jerusalem was to rebuild the Temple, swoosh away the sparrows and swallows and probably some unmentionable pigeons so that 400 years later it would be a Sanctuary -- a magnificent one, a wonder of the world according to imperial Roman historians -- not just for the worship of God, but as a place where the hopeful faithful like Simeon and the desolate discarded like Anna, and the pious but impoverished Joseph, Mary with their infant Jesus could find safe, inviolable sanctuary. I repeat, before they built their own homes, before they built Jerusalem's defensive walls, before they did anything, these exiles rebuilt God's Temple and made it as magnificent as they could, which is exactly what we are doing with our Chapel, which brings us to this day.
Difficult as it is, we are committed that Saint Peter's be a place of beauty and of great and irreplaceable art as well as a Sanctuary for those
who over time are cast aside. In the 80s that meant persons with AIDS and the discarded homeless. Today it means Muslim neighbors who may need a safe place to pray un-surveilled, and it means undocumented children, grandparents and families who fear our own homegrown version of a narcissistic, sociopathic, "trickle down" economic/power system. That's what God's Temple was for Simeon, Anna, Joseph, Mary and Jesus and that's what this house of God must strive to be.
A marvelous thing happened when Mary and Joseph carried the infant Jesus into that Temple. God held heaven and earth in a single peace and that earthly Temple became the dwelling place of God most high "on earth as it is in heaven." The same thing happens every time each of us carries in our own bodies the Christ who has come to us in water, bread and wine.
That is the point of it all, you see. For this place of Sanctuary, of art and music and beauty, of the hopeful faithful and the displaced and discarded to be at home here "on earth as in heaven." We all have a place here, because Christ has a place here. That's what makes us and this place "holy."
Amandus J. Derr
Saint Peter's Church