The day is October 4th 1669, as the renaissance artist Rembrandt passes away, resting on the easel in his studio lies the unfinished image of Simeon holding Christ.
Rembrandt had famously painted this iconic Gospel scene at least twice before in his career and in the lead up to his death he painted a series of self-portraits, recognizing his fate. So, it was not for the need of the world seeing his commentary or expression that this was the purpose for final work of art, this was for himself.
Rembrandt experienced more than his fair share of death in his life, losing several children in infancy, his first wife, his second wife and in the year before his death, his only surviving adult child. The image of the woman in this picture, most likely Mary was added later, what was left by Rembrandt was Simeon holding Jesus. His unfinished work was an untold story, but a glimpse into the mind of a man who was ready to embrace his God. What must have been going through his head in those final days?
How was it for him to imagine seeing himself through the eyes of Simeon, holding life, holding hope, holding Christ?
In my experience being with people who are experiencing death, either themselves or being present with a loved one, is that time can become elastic in these moments of meaning. There is a visceral and yet mystical nature to thinking about what it will be like to be greeted by our creator in death. We spend our lives trying to control our own lives, and in death, however that may come, there is a reality that we are the ones being approached by God.
It is important to remember that in the Church, we are occupied with the practice of instigating connection with our creator, we are trying to approach God through our rituals, through our prayers, through our worship. We congregate in buildings that we establish as having a Holy presence, because we have invited God into them. And I fully affirm this, I do what I do because I believe this is possible. But this story this morning is a healthy reminder that there are two beings with agency in this relationship, and that we can be approached by God.
2020 began for me with my ordination at Christ Church Cathedral, and thinking about how strange it would have been if I was ordained one cycle later through lockdown how different it would have been and how different it may have felt.
This reading from Luke is the Presentation of Christ and when I think about that day, in the ordination service, like at a wedding, there was a presentation.
Before the examination and the consecration of a Priest or a Deacon happens, two members of the Church who have been influential in the discernment and journey, walk the candidates to the altar and say ‘on behalf of the people of the Church we affirm that this person is called’.
The presentation, like many other aspects of our worship in the Church, we are seeking to connect to God as best we can in the things we do and it is up to us to live our lives as authentically as we can in this ministry. Today’s message is about what happens when God initiates that connection.
We have to be open and ready for the Spirit of God to catch us off guard. We have to be ready to hear God speaking to us in new ways. We have to be humble and faithful. And this is a story about divinity coming into the arms of the faithful.
When we carry out our faith in the church, when we lead or participate through our prayers, our words and actions, we can think about what that responsibility looks and feels like, and how God’s love can transform us through those things in powerful and surprising ways. In our story, Mary and Joseph know that they bring Christ with them to the temple. They have been told and they must have felt how precious the being that they carried was. Yet they are completely transformed by the reaction of Simeon and Anna.
When we work with people in our community, when we invite new people into our space, just like Simeon and Anna, there are people within our congregations who will look to us in bringing Christ to them. That is a massive responsibility. In our worship, we are all tasked with holding that sacred child in a way that is humble and selfless. When we share our experience of what it is to be a Christian, when we do so we realize that the words that we chose to say, the tone and content of what we say influences the way that people understand what we are doing together.
And when someone is invited into our space, they become like Simeon and Anna, faces looking into the face of Holiness.
When I look around the churches that I go into, I see Simeons, I see Annas, I see people who are patient, who work hard, who trust in God and who spend their time with the sick, praying for the poor. There is community in churches that the outside world does not re-create. And there is a human desire for community that is essential to our being. As we participate ourselves in this community, we have to be ready to be transformed by one another as we seek God together.
The image that I want to leave you with today, is that image that Rembrandt left on his easel. The hope that we are given through the Christmas story is the one that we bring with us into our community together. That hope we sanctify by our presence through the way that we interact with one another in this virtual space. In our participation in a virtual space in worship there is a temptation to feel disconnected or distracted. The way that we participate together by being present and receptive to one another is how we make sacred the space in which we worship.
Thinking about how Mary and Joseph walked into the temple with Jesus, humbled by the thing that they carried can help us recognize the Holiness of our worship and how when we meet together we are participating in the witness of Christ.
If Rembrandt could picture himself as Simeon holding Christ as the symbol of hope in his last day. Then we can picture ourselves as both Simeon holding the divine in our times of need. And when we gather together, we become Mary who witnesses that same message meeting others. We become the witness of her standing over Simeon’s shoulder looking at the thing that we brought. When we do this we are reminded of the awesome treasure that we have to offer. As members and leaders in this community, we are Mary entrusted in the care and the nurture of the thing that we love more than anything in the world.
We are entrusted with this message of truth.