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With open arms: Celebrating the Feast of the Presentation of Jesus

Photo by Brandon Green on Unsplash

I’m not sitting in my green La-Z-Boy, the chair I used to sit in to pray and write. It’s in the basement next to my desk in my makeshift pandemic office and has been since I started working, writing, and teaching from home almost two years ago. Also, a teenager lives in the basement, which makes it a less than ideal environment for solitude and prayer.

The chair I’m currently sitting in is tucked in the corner of our bedroom. It’s a wingback with paisley upholstery, nothing close to the style we would choose. It rests here safely out of view. I needed a reading chair in my office at the seminary where I teach, so I claimed this one from the seminary library when it was being renovated and they were giving furniture away. I lugged it home from my office a year ago. It’s one of a matching pair. I wonder if it misses its mate.

Today is February 2. Cold. Our bedroom sits above the garage, making it the coldest room in the house. One of the many afghans my wife has crocheted in the past few months warms my legs. The dull light of an overcast morning presses through the window.

Many folks are thinking this morning about a groundhog named Phil in a tricky-to-spell Pennsylvania town 80 miles northeast of where I am. Phil’s handlers, outfitted in bowties and top hats, will announce whether Phil has seen his shadow, in which case this afghan will get plenty more use before spring.

Fewer people call today by its other name, its name on the Christian calendar: the Feast of the Presentation of Jesus. The second chapter of Luke tells the story of Mary and Joseph dedicating their firstborn son to God at the Temple in Jerusalem (see Luke 2:22-35). At the time, Jesus was just over a month old.

So, while others are pondering a rodent weather forecaster, I’m reading a touching story of two parents taking their newborn on his first trip out of town and of whom they meet when they arrive: an old man named Simeon.

If we long for lives that are open and responsive to God, why not learn from Simeon?

Scripture says the “Holy Spirit rested on him” (v. 25) and that it “had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit” that he would see the Messiah before he died (v. 26). On the day Mary and Joseph brought Jesus to the Temple, Simeon himself was “guided by the Spirit” to show up as well (v. 27). There, Simeon opened wide his arms and held the baby. He was able to see something about Jesus others couldn’t yet see. He praised God, declaring the truth of what he saw about the child and announcing that Jesus would be “a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to [God’s] people Israel” (v. 32).

A picture begins to emerge of one living completely open, available, and responsive to God, of a man free from defenses and attachments, sensitive to the Holy Spirit’s presence and action in his life. He was a servant of God able to respond in the moment to the shifting wind of God’s Spirit. This posture of responsiveness and freedom in God allowed him to see the good news of God’s saving grace in an unlikely place: the squirming bundle in his arms.

He was a boat without an anchor, sails raised and open to the Spirit of God.

Simeon was an everyday contemplative.

“Presentation in the Temple” by Lodovico Carracci. Public domain.

Simeon has always been an important figure for me. For at least 20 years, I’ve prayed the Song of Simeon before bed every night, longing to be as open and responsive to God as he. We named our first child after him because we wanted to be open enough to see in him what God sees, to know that this child is a word from God to us, a gift in the world. We wanted to see him as everyday contemplatives might.

There are a lot of feast days on the Christian calendar. Many of them I’ve never heard of; others I’ve heard of but don’t remember. But there are some I never fail to observe in some small way because the figures they memorialize are figures that reflect for me the kind of life I long to live: open, available, responsive to God.

On March 25, the Feast of the Annunciation, I meditate on the angel showing up to Mary and delivering unbelievable news. I also meditate on Mary’s unconditional “yes” to God.

On March 17, I think of St. Patrick. How many people possess the freedom in God to take God’s news of restoration and forgiveness to the people who had once enslaved them?

On February 14, I observe St. Valentine’s Day. Because: chocolate.

And on February 2, I consider an old man who kept an eye out for God’s Messiah. Who trusted God’s promises. Who watched and waited, sensitive to the presence and movement of God’s Spirit in his life. Who was free enough from attachments to respond to the Spirit’s gentle nudge to go when God said, “go.” Who was vulnerable enough to say to Mary and Joseph the truth he saw in their child. Who opened his arms and held God’s long-awaited gift before he died, then offered his life back to God, saying, “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace” (v. 29).

He’d seen God’s Messiah, held the holy child in his arms — what more did he need?

Is it too bold, too presumptuous to suggest that we too could live like Mary, St. Patrick or Simeon — like so many of the saints who lived each moment of their lives radically open to God, completely available, responsive to the invitations of divine Love coursing in and around them? This is what I’m wondering as I sit in a cold bedroom and consider Simeon. Can we approach life, prayer, and God – indeed, each moment given to us – as everyday contemplatives?

There is no gym where we can lift soul-weights that will bring this posture about. There is no strategic seven-point plan that will guarantee a contemplative approach to life analogous to the plans sold by magazines each summer promising a beach body in a few short weeks.

But there is a God who can shape this posture in us, who can take what we show up with and work with that. What we show up with is all God needs, that and our grace-enabled consent, our open-hearted “yes.”