Thursday, September 8, 2011
On the Fortieth Day
Between new blogs I like to post old blogs in order to accommodate newcomers to Sky View. This post includes three blogs that were previously posted in January of 2011. But today the Catholic Church celebrates the birthday of a great Woman, the Blessed Virgin. This repost is in honor of her.
“Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon. This man was righteous and devout, awaiting the consolation of Israel, and the holy Spirit was upon him. It had been revealed to him by the holy Spirit that he should not see death before he had seen the Messiah of the Lord. He came in the Spirit into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus to perform the custom of the law in regard to him, he took him into his arms…When they had fulfilled all the prescriptions of the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth.” (Luke 2:25-39)
On the fortieth day of our Lord’s life, the prayers and longings of St. Simeon’s soul were finally realized. In Psalm 40 seems to have reflected the thoughts of St. Simeon as he beheld the Messiah in the form of an infant for the first time: “I waited, waited for the LORD; who bent down and heard my cry… Though I am afflicted and poor, the Lord keeps me in mind.” People for centuries have wondered how he recognized the Lord. There seem to be no marks of distinction; nor any supernatural aura which illumined the little body of Jesus. However, the Gospel of Luke said he did not come to the temple alone. In fact, St. Simeon “came in the Spirit into the temple.” Under the Spirit’s inspiration and with His promptings, he recognized the Messiah. To be sure, with the Holy Spirit as our guide, we are able to see big things in small places and are able to recognize God in the ordinary circumstances of life.
Among the gifts of the Holy Spirit “are those secret warnings and invitations, which from time to time are excited in our minds and hearts by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Without these there is no beginning of a good life, no progress, no arriving at eternal salvation. And since these words and admonitions are uttered in the soul in an exceedingly secret manner, they are sometimes aptly compared in Holy Writ to the breathing of a coming breeze…” (Pope Leo XIII, On the Holy Spirit) Without these secret warnings and invitations, we are apt to miss what God is doing in our life. Vigilance is required because his work may come in unexpected ways; sometimes amid failures, setbacks and what may seem uneventful. Quite often, the Lord will speak to us or reveal something important to us; sometimes when we are working or when we are still. In any case, we need to exercise a kind of monastic silence at certain times throughout the day in order to hear His voice more clearly. Silence is the language of God. Who can doubt that St. Simeon understood the importance of silence and prayer.
Again, God works through the ordinary. The first appearance of the Messiah in the temple was not flashy. His parents were doing what countless parents had done on the fortieth day of their child’s life, namely, presenting their child as a dedication to the Lord. Although it is certainly possible that St. Simeon may have received a private revelation so as to identify the Son of God, it may have been the case that he was tipped off by a few things.
First, according to apocryphal literature (books that were not included in the New Testament canon) in early Christianity, such as the Infancy Narratives of James, the Gospel of Pseudo- Matthew and the Gospel of the Nativity of Mary, the Blessed Virgin Mary was dedicated to the temple by her parents St. Joachim and St. Anne when she was only three years old. This is a tradition that the Catholic Church has treated with a great deal of credibility. Furthermore, according to this same tradition, when she was of age, she made known her vow of perpetual virginity to a priest or to the High Priest. Realizing how holy and special she was, the temple priest honored her wish and searched for a suitable husband for her; a man who would honor this vow of hers. Three candidates presented themselves; among them was St. Joseph. It just so happened that according to the apocryphal literature, that a dove descended on St. Joseph and at the same time, his staff miraculously bloomed. In many Catholic churches you will notice a statue of St. Joseph with a staff topped with flowers.
If this story has historical credence, which I believe it does, then upon Mary’s entrance into the temple with her infant Son in her arms, she would have been recognized by the temple priests. Remembering her holiness and her pledge of virginity, it could very well be that St. Simeon, being among the priests, recalled the passage from Isaiah: “Therefore the Lord himself will give you this sign: the virgin shall be with child, and bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.” (7:14)
Having spent eleven, twelve or thirteen years in the temple, the Blessed Virgin Mary would have been recognized by the temple officials. But only one man steps forward to pay homage to the Messiah upon his arrival; and that man was St. Simeon. Later, of course, the prophetess Anna would enter the scene and rejoice with him upon seeing Jesus Christ.
There is a second explanation as to why St. Simeon and Anna might have known that St. Joseph, the Blessed Virgin and the new born Christ were special. Forty days earlier marked the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem. It just so happened that right outside the town of Bethlehem was a watch tower called the Migdal Eder. This was a special watch tower that overlooked a pasture of sheep. But these sheep were no ordinary sheep. The sheep at the Migdal Eder were specially groomed for the temple sacrifice throughout the year. This pasture land happened to be alongside a road leading to Jerusalem. The Migdal Eder shepherds were trained to keep these sheep unblemished, that is, with no broken bones or any other kind of infirmity. Unblemished lambs, of course, were required by the Law of Moses.
Interestingly, it is believed that the Angel announced the glad tidings of the Saviors birth to these special Migdal Eder shepherds on Christmas night. It is entirely within the realm of possibility that after having witnessed the angelic apparition and having visited the Holy Family, these shepherds got to talking at the temple when they transported the sheep there. Perhaps, St. Simeon and the prophetess Anna paid close attention to what was rumored to be the arrival of the Messiah; the fulfillment of the prophet Micah: “But you, Bethlehem-Ephrathah too small to be among the clans of Judah, From you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel; Whose origin is from of old, from ancient times.”
After taking the baby into his arms he prophesied that Jesus would be “a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and glory for your people Israel.” Jesus would prove to be the Hebrew par excellence; the ideal Jew and the Israelite. As for the Gentiles, his Gospel would cast light upon them. “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; Upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom a light has shone. “ (Isaiah 9:1) Since the days of Noah, the Gentiles would lose the Faith and fall not only into religious error but also barbaric practices such as human sacrifices. Indeed, this ungodly sacrificial rite to appease false gods would be practiced on every continent.
St. Simeon then turns his attention to Mary, the mother of Jesus. It is in the temple that she learns of her vocation of co-redemptrix, that is, as one who would suffer with her Son. As the Mother of the new High Priest and the Lamb to be sacrificed, she would be no passive spectator on Good Friday. Rather, Mary would be called to do what Abraham was prevented from doing, namely, offering her Son as a pleasing sacrifice to God. It began with the Presentation in the Temple and was consummated on Calvary just outside of Jerusalem.
It all started when one of the Magi gave to the new born Messiah frankincense. If the Magi came to Bethlehem for the Jesus’ baby shower, frankincense was not your typical gift for such an occasion. It was rather fitting for funerals. To be sure, death is not the first thing a mother wants to think about when her new born comes into the world. On the fortieth day, however, St. Simeon’s prophetic words to Mary would give the gift of frankincense context. After taking the child into his arms, St. Simeon blessed his parents and addressed the following words to the Blessed Virgin: “Behold, this child is destined for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be contradicted (and you yourself a sword will pierce) so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.”
This innocent, endearing little baby was “destined for the fall and the rise of many.” The saving work of Jesus Christ would not only affirm the righteous and lift up the lowly; it would also usher in God’s kingdom by exorcising evil and toppling the powerful. Not even a year earlier, Mary would proclaim in her canticle, “He has shown might with his arm, dispersed the arrogant of mind and heart. He has thrown down the rulers from their thrones but lifted up the lowly. The hungry he has filled with good things; the rich he has sent away empty.” Even the Mother of God knew that her Son’s saving work would involve conflict.
The Apostles and the early Church Fathers were also aware that the preaching of the Gospel and the participation of the Sacraments was a kind of exorcism in itself. Driving out the devil would be required before the Holy Spirit could make his dwelling in the soul. St. Paul reminded those who were committed to the work of evangelization that their ministry would effect people in two different ways; depending on who those people were. He said, “For we are the aroma of Christ for God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, to the latter an odor of death that leads to death, to the former an odor of life that leads to life.” (II Corinthians 2:15-16) Consciousness of this double-effect, that is, of bringing in the good and driving out evil, has faded among Christians. In a polite, liberal society, the confrontation of sin and evil is taboo. But yet it is an integral part of converting souls to Christ. Perhaps this forgetfulness is at least part of the reason why the Church has fewer conversions to account for.
As stated previously, Mary, as the Mother of the Lamb, did what father Abraham was preventing from doing. When his son Isaac came of age, Abraham was commanded by God to sacrifice his son Isaac on Mt. Moriah, where the Temple stood during the time of Christ. However, at the last minute, Abraham was prevented from doing so. His willingness to do it was merit enough for God. Because of his great faith in God, he was esteemed as the father of God’s chosen people. As for Mary, her faith and act of obedience in offering her Son to the Father would merit for her the right to be called the Mother of God's people. What is more, the presentation of the Lord on the fortieth day was not only the fulfillment of a rite according to the law of Moses, it marked the beginning Mary’s spiritual sacrifice; a spiritual sacrifice which would be consummated at the foot of the Cross some thirty three years later.
It took Adam and Eve, that is, a man and a woman to bring about the ruin of the human family. Likewise, God would use a man and a woman to save what was lost.
Posted by Joe at 9:53 AM