The prophet Malachi makes a rather enigmatic statement in the passage that was proclaimed this morning. “And suddenly there will come to the temple the LORD whom you seek, and the messenger of the covenant whom you desire.” When one considers that the Book of the Prophet Malachi is the last book of the Hebrew Scriptures, this begs the question: “Wasn’t the Lord in the Temple ever since the Israelites rebuilt it after the exile?
To find the answer to this question, I searched the footnotes in the various Bibles that I use and found a reference to the tenth chapter of the Prophet Ezekiel which reads: “Then the glory of the LORD left the threshold of the temple and took its place upon the cherubim. The cherubim lifted their wings and rose up from the earth before my eyes as they departed.” The glory of the Lord, the “shekinah Yahweh” abandoned the Temple before the Assyrians destroyed it and led Israel captive into Babylon. Somehow, I had missed this fact previously, but upon reflecting on it, I realized that God would surely have abandoned the Temple before it was razed by the army of Nebuchadnezzar.
Toward the end of his writing Ezekiel prophesizes that the Lord would one day return to the Temple, an oracle which Malachi takes up in the third and final chapter of his short book. He describes the Lord as one who purifies the sons of Levi, the tribe of the priests of Israel, so that they will be able to offer worthy sacrifices in the Temple.
St. Luke uses these Hebrew Scriptures in the infancy narrative of his Gospel. The Temple is used as the scenic backdrop of three events in the beginning pages of his Gospel. John’s birth is revealed to Zechariah while he is offering incense in the Temple, and Jesus is found in the Temple where he instructs the elders of Jerusalem when he was twelve years old. These two “bookends” frame the incident of which we read in today’s Gospel.
Today we celebrate the presentation of Jesus in the Temple. His parents are observant Jews and bring him as the dictates of Moses demand. When the child is carried into the Temple, two witnesses attest to the fact that the prophecies of Ezekiel and Malachi are fulfilled by this small baby boy. Just as happens when a newborn is first visited by his grandparents, aunts and uncles, he commands the attention of the room. God chooses to fulfill the prophecy not as might be expected but with an infant. Simeon was a devout and righteous man who was awaiting the consolation of Israel. In other words, we was looking for the day when Israel would return to its covenant relationship with God. As he gazes at the child, God reveals to him that he has seen the promised Messiah. The second witness, a wife and childless widow, who has suffered because Israel had long ago forgotten the provisions of the covenant which were meant to provide for her after the death of her husband. She too is led to praise God and to announce the fulfillment of the promise made to her ancestors.
It is possible to over sentimentalize this touching episode and to overlook its importance in the Gospel if we read this story without thinking of the prophecy of Malachi. For Malachi tells us that the glory of the Lord will come back to the Temple as a refiner’s fire and a fuller’s lye to purify the sons of Levi. No matter how you look at it, suffering will obviously accompany the return of the glory of the Lord. The Temple has been defiled and is in need of purification, a purification that will result in the death of the Messiah who will take the sins of humankind upon his shoulders and will bear a cross to Calvary. Simeon alludes to this as he warns the mother of the child that she too will be asked to suffer. All of us need to be purified of our sins and are through the death and resurrection of Jesus. The shadow of the cross hangs over this scene and makes it impossible for us to disregard the tragedy that has come to pass because of the infidelity of God’s people. Despite the fact that they have abandoned God, God has not abandoned them or us. Today’s feast, forty days after the Solemnity of the Nativity forces us to remember that we too are in need of purification. In just a few short weeks we will once again enter the Season of Lent which will lead us to the mysteries of the Passion, Death and Resurrection of Jesus who has fulfilled the prophesies of the Hebrew Scriptures.
Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator