For the past few weeks, our gospel readings have been from St. Matthew. We have examined him not only as an evangelist in the strict sense, the author of one of the four canonical gospels, but as a pastor. He writes to form, not only enlighten his community. Today is the feast of the Presentation of the Lord and St. Luke will be our guest evangelist. We read him last year, and if Matthew is a pastor, Luke is an historian. Let us see what he has to offer us today.
First, the name of the feast. When the Jews were in captivity in Egypt, God called Moses to lead them into the Promised Land. Moses could not convince the leader of the Egyptians, the Pharaoh, to let them go, although God sent many plagues to persuade him. Finally, the LORD killed every first–born male both of man and beast of the Egyptians. He spared the Jews and for this reason every first–born son belongs to the LORD in a special way and must be redeemed from God by a sacrifice. (Ex 13:15)
This is what we see today. Jesus is brought to the Temple to be redeemed. Just as Joseph and Mary obeyed the laws of Rome and went to Bethlehem to fulfill the census requirements, they obeyed the Biblical law to buy Jesus back. Luke wishes to show that Jesus wants us to work in our society and culture, not to abandon it.
There, they meet Simeon. He is called righteous and devout. Luke praised Elizabeth and Zacharias, the parents of St. John, with the same words. Together with Anna and Joseph and of course Mary, they will be the people who recognize who Jesus is. They have been called “the quiet in the Land”, those Jews who lived good lives and “waited for the consolation of Jerusalem”. Others thought by their learning and power they knew what must happen, but in their piety and silence only the “quiet” knew what actually did.
This did not mean that they were ignorant of prophecy or tradition. Indeed, Simeon emphasizes the most important but most overlooked requirement for the Messiah: that the glory of Israel would be to become a light to the nations.
He not only knows how important this is, but he knows the consequences as well.
Behold, this child is destined for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be contradicted (Luke 2: 34)
Luke as we saw last year conceived of his Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles as a common work with virtually every line referring to another line or incident. This reflects the his cross but also Jesus’ first appearance as a teacher in his home village of Nazareth. As always obeying the custom of his people, he went to the synagogue. There he read from Isaiah about “bringing glad tidying to the poor and recovery of sight to the blind” (Luke 4:18) He was warmly accepted until he told them that this liberation was not only for them but for everyone. Then the crowd tuned on him and tried to kill him.
At the very beginning of the Gospel, Luke is telling us that the desire to separate into us and them will be a major problem facing the church. This was acknowledged by many New Testament writers. We will see how Matthew must face this in building his Church – we might almost say Parish – and St. John memorably tells us the ”light came into the world, but people preferred darkness to light, because their works were evil”. (John 3:19).
Luke’s expression is not only powerful but comes with a strategy to combat it. As always with Luke, the model is Mary. She is told that a “sword will pierce her heart” (Luke 2:35) This is a very Semitic way of saying you will be tested as well. There are no free rides in Christianity. She will join all whose experience of Jesus will reveal who they are: “the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.” (Luke 2:36).
The heart – the center of life – is where the decision to follow Jesus or not is made.
In the next section of the Gospel, a young Jesus returned to the temple. This is a time of Mary’s testing. Jesus, Mary and Joseph went to Jerusalem for the Passover. Jesus was separated from his parents and they frantically went back to find him. They located him in the Temple discussing the Law with the teachers. When asked to explain himself, Jesus simply says that he must be about his Father’s business. That this is not an immediately satisfying answer does not mean that it is not a true one. Mary and Joseph did not understand this. Truly the sword had pierced Mary’s heart – but read the line that follows: “He went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them; and his mother kept all these things in her heart.” (Lk:2:45) The ways of God, even for one conceived without sin, are difficult to understand and take time and prayer to even accept must less understand.
This year we will be examining St. Matthew, the Pastor, for ideas on building up St. Charles. He has much to offer us that is both enlightening and practical. Yet we need to remember what St. Luke the historian has to offer as well.
We cannot be utopian. There is no blessing in escape or abandonment of the world. Jesus lived in the world in which he was placed. The greatest danger is to seek a false community of the like-minded. This not only prevents growth but also contains the possibility of constructing the ‘other” by making those who are different the enemy and the source of all evil. This will be especially difficult this year as we endure the presidential campaign. Extremely talented people will seek to divide us for political gain. Also, the wider church is divided particularly in the United States. Small but vocal groups each believing that they speak for Jesus will condemn all who disagree. Those who suggest hat we are turning from schools of thought to tribes of interest may be more accurate than it is comfortable to believe.
We will need to be like “the Quiet in the Land” who we have met in the first part of Luke, particularly our Blessed Lady. We may experience confusion, incomprehension, and hostility from even people who are close to us. Indeed, like Mary, Jesus Himself may disappoint us. But the solution is the same as hers: keep Jesus in our hearts and ponder Him often. Then we will truly build His Church, not maintain our tribe.