Prophecy and promises: 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, they took him 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.

Several years ago, friends of mine got involved in the Promise Keepers organization, an ecumenical fellowship of Christian men predicated on doing one thing: keeping promises of fidelity to family and God. Although I didn’t have the time to devote to another organization, my experiences with it were very positive, and all the more amazing because of its simplicity. How difficult is it to keep a promise, after all?

Pretty darned difficult, as the entire arc of salvation shows, but also as we see in our daily lives. Left on our own, we tend to fall back to our own interests, and living in a fallen world, those tend to lead us back into sin. Sin is, at its heart, selfishness and self-idolatry. The Promise Keepers model, as I understood it (and I was only loosely involved, so my apologies for any misunderstandings), was to build a network of mentors and friendships with the purpose of accountability. That support system might seem intrusive on the outside, but the men I knew in it absolutely understood the need for those connections as a means to keep their promises to Christ and to their families. They met regularly, discussed their trials and setbacks, and received the support and fellowship necessary to get back onto the right track.

Today’s readings and Gospel are all about keeping promises, remaining faithful, and the unfolding of God’s will through that fidelity. We start with Abram’s love for the Lord and how that changed the world, allowing the sin of Adam to recede and our connection to the Lord to begin flourishing again. Abram and Sarah had reached an older age and could not have children; they had given up that hope when the Lord reached out to them. The Lord promised Abram that his descendants would be uncountable, and Abram “put his faith in the Lord” that this prophecy would come to pass, at which point the Lord renamed him Abraham. God kept that promise by making Sarah fertile and bearing Isaac, through whom the twelve tribes of Israel would descend and the path of salvation would unfold.

And yet, as precious as Isaac was to Abraham, he was willing to sacrifice him at God’s command. This last test of Abraham’s fidelity goes beyond all imagining, and yet Abraham kept his fidelity to the Lord. His trust in God ran so deep, as Paul writes to the Hebrews, that Abraham believed that even death would not stop the Lord from fulfilling His promise:

By faith Abraham, when put to the test, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was ready to offer his only son, of whom it was said, “Through Isaac descendants shall bear your name.” He reasoned that God was able to raise even from the dead, and he received Isaac back as a symbol.

This turned out to be a prophetic foreshadowing of Christ, as Paul explains in his epistle. The Lord would complete the sacrifice that Abraham began by sacrificing His only Son for the salvation of the world, as an act of love and fidelity to His people.

In today’s Gospel, we see even more of promise keeping with Simeon and Anna. The Holy Spirit had promised both that they would live to see the Christ and testify to His arrival. This promise was itself a model of accountability; in their way, the signs and portents throughout scripture are models of accountability, just as the prophets explicitly are. They are God’s way of emphasizing his promise and ensuring that people put their trust in His word. Simeon and Anna are the guarantors of the promise of salvation, just as John the Baptist was its herald later.

All of this teaches us that the Lord keeps His promises — even though we often do not. His promises can be relied upon, while our fidelity is too often weak and situational. It is in this contrast that we see the real nature of salvation in the adoption of the self-giving and self-sacrificing love of the Trinity through Christ and abandoning the self-love that leads us into sin and infidelity.

It is for this reason that Christ established His church, as well as the fulfillment of the Great Commission. As imperfect as it can be in this world, the church is a network of support and accountability as well as a place for the worship due to the God who loves us so completely. That is where we learn to keep promises, and to recognize that the world is greater than ourselves. It is only through that recognition that true caritas love can find expression in our communities and in our world, and our hearts be transformed from promise breaking to promise keeping. And only then can we say that we have seen the coming of salvation, as Simeon and Anna testified in our gospel today.

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.