The presentation of Christ in the temple

02 February 2004 | Faith & Society

Luke 2: 27-33, 36-38

Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying, ‘Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.’ And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him.

There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband for seven years after her marriage, then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshipped there with fasting and prayer night and day. At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.

 

This account of the fulfilment of Jewish religious observance lays two points open to immediate view, namely that Jesus is a Jew and that his relevance will be to all peoples – Jews and Gentiles (non-Jews). These are truths central to Jesus’ ministry. But if we glance to the side of the scene, we notice that one of the participants is Joseph, Jesus’ father. There is an ambivalence in the gospels about Joseph; an ambivalence which can connect with fathers, present and absent, today.

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 The airbrushing of politicians into and out of photographs of the former Soviet regime became internationally notorious. One day you were reviewing the May Day parade and taking the salute, then in a later photograph of the same day you weren’t. That pattern is slightly reminiscent of the appearance and non-appearance of Joseph in the gospels.

On the one hand, Joseph is carefully written into the two genealogies of Jesus (Matthew 1: 16, Luke 3: 23). On the other hand, his disappearance shortly thereafter from these two gospels and his near non-existence in the other two is stark. Mark is particularly brutal: no mention of any of Jesus’ family until 3: 21 (‘his family’) - which gets spelled out a few verses later as ‘Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother’ (Mark 3: 35).

The point bears making more strongly. Mary, the mother of Jesus, receives a hymn of praise (‘My soul magnifies the Lord’, Luke 1: 46-55) which is sung in churches to this day. Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, gets similar treatment (‘Blessed be the Lord God of Israel’, Luke 1: 68-79). Even Simeon – whom in ordinary language one might describe as a religious nutter hanging around the temple – gets his own song (above), said and sung in churches daily 2,000 years later.

 But Joseph? Nothing – although his obedience to the angels of God in Matthew chapters 1 and 2 might reasonably have attracted a verse or two. In reality, he is a father whose presence and absence are equally problematic. The gospel writers can’t live with him and they can’t live without him. That modern idiom describes a modern ambivalence. Not all of us are sure what fathers are for - how they should be when they are present, and what is missing when they are absent.

Often when the gospel-writers include Joseph (for example in the genealogies) the writers seem to be making a noisy point about his presence. Similarly when absent (for example in Mark), the noise of a point being made may be equally loud. From this point of view the presentation of Christ in the temple is rather precious. It is a gospel scene in which we can be sure Joseph is present, but not in so important a way as to attract the airbrushers’ attention. Can we catch something of the real Joseph from the unwitting side glances in Luke’s picture?

The account tells us that Simeon ‘took [the infant Jesus] in his arms’. Picture it: Simeon, an old man, with thin, wiry arms. I find then that I also picture the infant Jesus in Joseph’s arms, moments before Simeon arrives. For if it was unusual or unnatural for Joseph to hold his own child, what chance would there have been of his mother giving the baby to an unknown male? Moreover, the ceremony described is gender-specific - the presentation of every first-born Jewish male to the Lord.

So we are within striking distance of the text if we picture what does not otherwise appear in it, namely the young Joseph – a muscular, protective Joseph – the Joseph who left with his wife and new-born child by night for Egypt, and when it was safe brought them back again – the obedient and uncelebrated Joseph – presenting Jesus in the temple. Hold them there, the boy and his dad; a dad soon afterwards written out of accounts of his son’s life.

When we portray God one-sidedly as ‘Father’ we are right to be conscious of the excluding effect of that portrayal on women. But it is the nature of discrimination to deform the favoured as well as the disfavoured. Many of us should rejoice for having been held by – or having married - or just knowing! - good fathers. Others of us need to recover absent fathers, or to forgive ourselves (or others) for being such. The presentation of Christ in the temple is a good occasion to do so.

 

Father in heaven

Your care for Joseph enabled him

To carry the salvation of the world on his shoulders.

Spread the glory of loving fatherhood widely on Earth.

Be tender where it has been missing,

And plant it deeply in my soul.

In Jesus’ name I ask.

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