Mormon Lectionary Project: The Presentation, Year A
The Collect: O Lord: as we turn to thy Temple in our hearts and with our actions, wilt thou, we pray, send thy Presence into our midst and make us, the body of thy Church, into a living Temple, that by thy grace we might become a refuge of holiness for the distressed of the earth.
Church life gets messy sometimes: people say weird things in testimony meeting or Sunday School, have failures of social tact, or occasionally behave in outright ugly ways. Barring the more extreme instances, this is all more or less normal, and every now and again, amidst the humdrum strangeness of it all, holiness manages to occur.
From the Gospel accounts, it would seem that the Jerusalem Temple in the time of Jesus was a bustling place, a place of great social, political, and religious importance. A young couple bringing their child into the Temple for the presentation required by the law—which they fulfilled as humbly as possible, with the poor person’s sacrifice of “a pair of turtledoves”—would not ordinarily merit much notice. One might see them, perhaps, but likely not for long, amidst the pressures of other business. Such may even have been the experience of the priest who assisted them.
Malachi speaks of a messenger who prepares the way, but he also says that the Lord comes suddenly. That is to say that we might be expecting him, but that we still might not notice him when he comes. Of course we expect holiness at Church, but do we notice when it arrives?
There were two who did notice Jesus in the Temple that day. Both, like many who spend considerable time in our modern Temples, were elderly. Perhaps like some of these patrons, those who may find themselves spiritually barren but still optimistic, Simeon and Anna had been waiting a long time. And there he was.
Simeon cried out in ecstatic release. Anna, she was a prophet. Sometimes we forget that. She began proclaiming Jesus to everyone around. Perhaps some of them, in their busyness, were irritated to see an old woman nattering on. Just like, several hundred years prior, people probably got well tired of that crazy naked guy, Isaiah.
But just because we sometimes miss the holiness doesn’t mean it isn’t there. If Jesus may have been just another infant to the priest in the Temple that day, Jesus himself has now become the high priest who will never not notice us, even when we sometimes wish that he’d turn away, if only for a moment.
King Benjamin’s people famously turned their tents toward the Temple so that they could hear their prophet-king re-administer the covenant. In another historical circumstance, the Temple toward which they pointed their tents might itself have been a tent. Our ecclesiological concept of a “Stake” has reference to a tent (see Isaiah 54:2 and D&C 107:17-21), and both sorts of tent, the peoples’ and the Tabernacle, resonate with this image. If we can point the Church toward the Temple, it will become a Temple, and in becoming a Temple, the Church will become the habitation of God.
To become the Temple, though, the Church will have to become more like its perfect high priest, to become the kind of corporate person who, when Jesus came into the Temple, would notice. And as often as not, he comes into the Temple—both of the Church and our lives—as “one of the least of these.” We must make these Temples into the kind of place where
Even the sparrow finds a home,
and the swallow a nest for herself,
where she may lay her young,
at your altars, O Lord of hosts,
my King and my God.
As the great gospel song reminds us, his eye is on the sparrow. If we are to be his Temple, our eyes must be too.
Simeon’s exclamation in the Temple has become a liturgical song, named Nunc dimittis after its Latin incipit. Because this song features in both the Anglican and Catholic mass services, there are many settings. I’ll include just two, Gustav Holst’s and the setting in G by Sir Charles Villiers Stanford.
And then of course there’s “His Eye is on the Sparrow.” I love all this High Church stuff as much as anybody, but sometimes there’s just no substitute for gospel music. (If any members of the Hymnbook Committee are reading this, “Lift Every Voice and Sing” needs to become a part of LDS worship.) There are terrific versions of “His Eye is on the Sparrow” by Whitney Houston and Marvin Gaye (and I wish I could link to audio of the young woman who rocked this song at BYU’s MLK celebration), but ultimately I settled on this one, by the great Mahalia Jackson: