February 2003

What Eyes Have Seen ©

Major feasts of the liturgical year, their scope reaching well beyond the day on which they are celebrated, in a sense, overlap one another to create an integrated whole.

Such is the case for the Feast of Epiphany which is celebrated in January but which is echoed by the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord in February.

This celebratory occasion marks the consecration of Jesus’ life to the will and mission of his heavenly father. It recalls that Jesus accepted all of the conditions of humanity so that we could call him brother and he could call us friend. And it reminds us that we all have through our baptism a vocation to build God’s kingdom on earth.

This latter meaning is what I would like to consider.

It all started with faith, hope and love. Joseph and Mary shared an unwavering fidelity to the purpose and traditions of their faith. Meanwhile, aging Simeon and Anna shared a patient hope that they would see the long-awaited Messiah before they died. All of them were transformed by an epiphany of love …a manifestation of divinity in the form of gentleness and pure innocence.

We are told in the Gospel of Luke that when the time came for their purification according to the Law of Moses, the parents of Jesus brought him to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (for it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every first born male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”).

According to at least one bible commentary, “the scene at the temple is slightly confused because Luke has entwined two separate ceremonies. The Book of Exodus required the presentation and redemption of the first-born son because the first-born sons ‘belong’ to the Lord who saved them when the Egyptian first -born were destroyed at the Passover (Exodus 13:15). Leviticus described the ceremony for their ritual Purification of the mother forty days after giving birth (Lev 12:1-8).”[1]

The plan for Jesus clearly is to identify with the community that he would later endeavour to bring into compliance with the actual purpose or spirit of God’s Law, just as it was his purpose to lead us all from the darkness of illusion and sin into the light of truth and love.

What strikes me most vividly are the parallels between Epiphany and this scene of the Presentation.

At Bethlehem, wise men from an entirely different culture venture courageously in search of meaning, guided only by vague information and a strange heavenly light. Their openness to the mystery of God’s self-revelation through human history is crowned with an epiphany. They are transformed by it, and return to their own country by another way.

At Jerusalem, guided by the Spirit, two wise people, Simeon and Anna, from Jesus’ own religious tradition, wait in hope for the manifestation of God’s love in the form of a promised Messiah. Their own openness to the singular ways of the Lord is also crowned with an epiphany of sorts – the joy of unfathomable consolation: My eyes have seen your salvation, with you prepared in the presence of all peoples, alight for revelation to the Gentiles, and for the glory to your people Israel.

It amazes me that both the wise men from the East and these wise people from the Temple placed their total trust in an infant who must have looked exceedingly ordinary judging by all outward appearances. Their faith was unconditional, their hope unwavering and their confidence in the Lord unshaken by the unlikely form that God’s love and salvation would take.

Anna, who never left the temple but worshipped there with fasting and prayer night and day, …began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem. Simeon, who lived in hope that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah, …took him in his arms and praised God saying, ‘Master now you are dismissing your servant in peace.’

How blessed they were to hold and see the Incarnation of pure Love!

But their blessedness did not happen by chance. It was rooted in faith and nourished by hope. Similarly, our own faith and hope bear the fruit of divine love, expressed in many ways around us today. The Holy Spirit is no less active in our fear-ridden world than it was some two thousand years ago.

Our eyes today also see the salvation of the Lord. It takes many forms, and to recognize these represent variations of epiphany. God’s love is manifest in multitudinous ways, under numerous disguises.

Indeed, the Lord’s love is daily presented at the temple, in the form of the Eucharist, which we have the great privilege of taking in (our) arms and praising God, saying …for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared un the presence of all peoples.

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Luke’s Gospel recalls the form of life adopted by Simeon and Anna who were invited to see the Lord in the temple, just as the wise men from the East had been called to see him in the world.

Our remembrance of the Lord’s Presentation is an occasion to celebrate one particular form of living out in our own age the faith, hope and love than we receive from the Lord, namely what the Catholic Church calls “consecrated life”. It is a vocation marked by the public profession of the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity and obedience, and may take the form of the eremitic life, religious life and participation in secular institutes.

Religious life is the most common. It is distinguished from other forms of consecrated life principally by its fraternal and liturgical character.

The decline in membership of the various religious orders that was once a dominant feature of our spiritual landscape is regrettable both because of what it says about our culture’s commitment to the Church and because it deprives the laity of rich and useful examples, not the least of which is their bold witness to the Gospel and their clear communication of God’s love.

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Mother Teresa of Calcutta serves as a powerful sign of the vitality of consecrated life. Mother Teresa, recognised the world over for her kindness and charity, lived her life at the intersection of prayer and action. She both saw and revealed the Lord’s love.

An image we easily conjure in our memories is of the diminutive sister holding a child in her arms, just at Simeon did, and praising God. We also readily recall how she saw in destitute children the face of God. She had many epiphanies, and was one to us.

She serves as a concrete example of what it means to follow a bright star, a calling, in order to discover the living reality of God in our lives. In telling the story of Mother’s calling, Father Kolodiejchuck, postulator, reveals how a “secret” vow predisposed her to answering a unique call: “Perhaps the most significant and inspiring of these “secrets” of her heart are remarkable aspects of her relationship with Jesus. The first concerns an extraordinary private vow that Mother Teresa made in 1942. The second pertains to the source of Mother Teresa’s inspiration to serve the poorest of the poor.

“(…)As an expression of this daring desire, in 1942 at the age of thirty-six, Mother Teresa made a magnanimous private vow to God. As she later explained it, she “wanted to give Jesus something very beautiful,” “something without reserve.” Thus towards the end of her annual retreat that year, with the permission of her spiritual director, she bound herself “to give to God anything that He may ask – ‘not to refuse Him anything.'”
“(…)Mother Teresa regarded her vow of 1942 as a sacred bond uniting her with her Divine Spouse. Jesus, for His part, took Mother Teresa at her word. Several years later in 1946, in a series of interior locutions and visions, He asked her to found a new religious community totally dedicated to service of the poorest of the poor. In His words to Mother, Jesus alludes to her vow: “You have become my spouse for My love. Will you refuse to do this for me? Refuse Me not.” [2]
The Church at first proceeded cautiously in granting Mother Teresa permission to leave her order to answer her call. In December 1948, she went out to the slums of Calcutta for the first time to begin “the work” that would define her life and great mission of charity for the poorest among us.
Recalling the language of epiphany, the postulator concludes that Mother Teresa has become a sign of God’s love. Her vow of 1942 was like the wise men travelling the necessary distance in her heart to see the Christ-child. She had already journeyed physically from Europe to one of the poorest parts of Asia. The call of 1946 was like the star that guided her to privileged encounters with Christ-crucified in the most needy of God’s children. In her heart, she returned home by another way. Her conversion was total; her vow, an act of total surrender to whatever Christ would ask of her; her response to God’s call, a union with his redemptive action.

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[1] Collegeville Bible Commentary.
[2] The Soul of Mother Teresa: Hidden Aspects of her Interior Life.