Liberation from our own chains: Sunday reflection

This morning’s Gospel reading is Luke 2:22–40:

When the days were completed for their purification according to the law of Moses, Mary and Joseph took Jesus up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord, just as it is written in the law of the Lord, Every male that opens the womb shall be consecrated to the Lord, and to offer the sacrifice of a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons, in accordance with the dictate in the law of the Lord.

Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon. This man was righteous and devout, awaiting the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he should not see death before he had seen the Christ of the Lord. He came in the Spirit into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus to perform the custom of the law in regard to him, he took him into his arms and blessed God, saying:

“Now, Master, you may let your servant go in peace, according to your word, for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you prepared in sight of all the peoples: a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and glory for your people Israel.”

The child’s father and mother were amazed at what was said about him; and Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, “Behold, this child is destined for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be contradicted —and you yourself a sword will pierce— so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.” There was also a prophetess, Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was advanced in years, having lived seven years with her husband after her marriage, and then as a widow until she was eighty-four. She never left the temple, but worshiped night and day with fasting and prayer. And coming forward at that very time, she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were awaiting the redemption of Jerusalem.

When they had fulfilled all the prescriptions of the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.

A very long time ago, I read the remarkable novel Watership Down by Richard Adams, a sort of Odyssey set in the English countryside, with rabbits as characters. Adams wrote it in a highly accessible prose that allowed younger readers to enjoy the book, but the themes of the novel still resonate with me to this day. The story follows several rabbits who break free of an autocratic warren and look for a new home, coming into contact with other societies along the way and often barely escaping with their lives.

One of Adams’ characters haunts me in particular, a rabbit named Silverweed, who writes poetry for a warren which at first glance seems prosperous and peaceful. Silverweed’s poetry is all about surrender and fatalism, with talk of a shining wire. This greatly disturbs the visionary of the adventurers, who prophesies — correctly — that death is all around them. The warren is in fact a rabbit farm, and the residents have welcomed the wanderers to sacrifice them to the farmer to turn them into meat rather than themselves.

Silverweed’s poetry and this warren in particular demonstrated what happens to us when we obsess over death and allow fear of it to paralyze us. We end up surrendering to despair, and imagine that it is all that we will have in the end. If that’s the case, then nothing really matters, and we can exploit others around us to push off that day of reckoning as long as possible.

This comes to mind in today’s readings, especially in Paul’s epistle to the Hebrews, where he confronts this directly. Christ died for our sins and rose again to prove conclusively that the Lord has much more in store for us:

Since the children share in blood and flesh, Jesus likewise shared in them, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who through fear of death had been subject to slavery all their life. Surely he did not help angels but rather the descendants of Abraham; therefore, he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every way, that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest before God to expiate the sins of the people. Because he himself was tested through what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.

Paul does not mince words about the impact of the fear of death on the human psyche. He describes it as “slavery” for a reason. It is this finality which appears to render us insignificant and convince us that the only reality is this physical world. That is what leads us to sin, and causes us to neglect or outright reject the health of our spiritual nature. This is a self-imposed slavery of the mind, strengthened further the more popular these notions become. And as this process continues, the more despair enters into it — because if we have no spiritual life, we can only rely on the material, and the material passes into dust as surely as anything we know.

With this in mind, let’s look at the two people who prophesy in today’s Gospel. Both are elderly, much closer to death than most if not on its brink. Simeon in particular is presented as a man who communes closely with the Lord and has waited patiently for his one task to come. His age is not given but it’s clear that Simeon has lived many years in hope for just a glimpse of the Messiah. He has not given in to despair over the fear of death, but welcomes it as his reward for a job faithfully executed in the end.

Not only does Simeon see the role of death clearly in this moment, he also sees the nature of the Messiah to come much more clearly than the temple authorities. “Behold, this child is destined for the fall and rise of many in Israel,” Simeon tells Mary “and to be a sign that will be contradicted —and you yourself a sword will pierce— so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.” The Messiah will come to open hearts, not establish armies and fiefdoms on earth. This is a Messiah not focused on the material world but on gaining entry for all to a perfected material-spiritual world in the Lord in the next life.

Anna gives us another such example. At 84, she has survived her husband and has remained a faithful servant of the Lord at the temple. Anna echoes Simeon’s prophesy, although the Gospel gives us less detail about her specific words. Like Simeon, Anna did not give in to despair over age and death, but instead kept herself free from the chains of fear of them by relying on her faith in the Lord.

This task might be even more difficult today than it was in those times. We have the Gospels and the Holy Spirit, but we live in an age not just of science but scientism, a philosophy that science explains everything. It certainly explains our physical world, but it does not explain our spiritual life nor any purpose. In this age, we can discern songs of the shining wire all around us, emphasized as the inevitable conclusion of all things, where surrender and despair become virtues rather than vices.

Paul understood this 2,000 years before now, and writes to us from that place and time to warn us that this is nothing new. It only comes to us in different guises, with different ways to envelop us in hopelessness.  Christ has broken through all of those barricades already; all we need to do is have faith and remember that the Holy Spirit will fill our hearts with love rather than despair, if we only allow Him to do so.

The front-page image is a detail from “Simeon in the Temple” by Rembrandt, 1631. On display at Mauritshuis, The Hague, Netherlands, via WikiArt. 

“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here.  For previous Green Room entries, click here.