02 February 2013

The Presentation in the Temple and the Menin Gate

From Franco Zeffirelli's mini-series Jesus of Nazareth (1977)

Luke 2: 22-40 (RSV Catholic Edition)

And when the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, "Every male that opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord") and to offer a sacrifice according to what is said in the law of the Lord, "a pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons." 

Now there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon, and this man was righteous and devout, looking for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he should not see death before he had seen the Lord's Christ. And inspired by the Spirit he came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him according to the custom of the law, he took him up in his arms and blessed God and said, "Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word; for mine eyes have seen thy salvation which thou hast prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to thy people Israel." And his father and his mother marveled at what was said about him; and Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, "Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is spoken against (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), that thoughts out of many hearts may be revealed." 

And there was a prophetess, Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher; she was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years from her virginity, and as a widow till she was eighty-four. She did not depart from the temple, worshiping with fasting and prayer night and day. And coming up at that very hour she gave thanks to God, and spoke of him to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem. 

And when they had performed everything according to the law of the Lord, they returned into Galilee, to their own city, Nazareth. And the child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him

The Prophetess Anna, Rembrandt, 1631

When I was reading the Gospel above at Mass this morning, the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord, I recalled an experience in September 2001. At the time I was based in England and was invited to officiate at a Belgian-Filipino wedding of two friends, Stefaan and Joy, near Ieper/Ypres in Belgium. I had heard that every evening in Ieper members of the local fire brigade sounded the Last Post at the Menin Gate to remember the tens of thousands of young men who died in that area in the Great War of 1914 - 1918. 

The day after I arrived in Belgium Stefaan helped me locate the grave of my great-uncle Corporal Lawrence Dowd who was killed on 6 August 1917, ten days before Fr William Doyle SJ, a saintly and heroic Irish chaplain in the British army was killed in the same area.

The evening before the wedding a Belgian friend of Joy and Stefaan took me to the Menin Gate for the ceremony. I had already realised how the memory of the tragic deaths of so many young men on both sides of the conflict nearly 90 years earlier was part of the people living in and near Ieper.

After the sounding of the Last Post a very old man laid a wreath. He might have been one of the few survivors of the Great War still living at the time. But what moved me deeply was that a woman standing near me was carrying an infant that looked no more than a week or so old. Jesus in today's Gospel who was forty days old. 

The child at the Menin Gate was already being brought into the communal memory of a conflict that had occurred long before the vast majority of those present at the ceremony were even born.

Simeon's Song of Praise, Aert de Gelder, around 1700 - 1710.

In the Gospel two elderly people of faith recognise Jesus as the Messiah. They are bridges between the Old and New Testaments. Simeon blesses God for the grace he has received and then blesses Mary and Joseph. Anna is the first person to preach the Gospel: she gave thanks to God, and spoke of him to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.

I thought of the old people who quietly and without being aware of it spoke of him to me when I was a child. Whenever I dropped into the church on my way home from school I would always see some of them, including my grandfather, praying quietly before the Blessed Sacrament. Some of the old men I used to see had survived the Great War and all of the people had come through hard times.

But they lived lives of faith and hope, like Simeon and Anna. Like the mother of the infant at the Menin Gate and the very old man who laid the wreath passing on the memory of the young lives lost in the Great War, they, like Simeon and Anna, were quietly passing on their faith in Jesus Christ to me and my contemporaries.

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