When we were doing Messy Church at our parish, one evening it was my turn to do the Bible story. I began by asking, “How many stories are there in the Bible?” After a moment’s thought, the answers began: “Ten! A hundred! A thousand!” The adults sat in amused silence. They knew a trick question when they heard it, the children not so much. Then I told them: “The answer is one! There is only one story in the Bible.” They were suitably surprised.
Then of course I had to explain. The Bible is the drama of a beautiful world gone wrong, and of a loving Creator who works to put things back together—and recruits human beings to be “co-workers” along the way. That’s the big story. And the dozens of little stories we hear week by week in church are the subplots to that biggest of stories, as the characters contribute their parts to the plot, for good or for evil.
Now suppose that, next summer, you were going to Stratford to see a play you’d never seen, and the traffic turned out be awful, and as a result you didn’t get there till the second half. You would have a hard time understanding the play. Why exactly are these people fighting? What is the promise everyone keeps referring to? Why did everyone laugh when she said that line? You get the idea.
When we read the Gospels, we are in the second half of the story, and there’s a lot we don’t understand unless we know what went before. The story of the presentation in the Temple is a good example. It looks so simple: a young couple bring their first child to the temple to give thanks to God, and two old people come and coo over the baby. It’s charming—a suitable sequel to the Christmas story— but not much more than that. But let’s look more deeply.
Apart from Jesus and his parents, the main actors here are two old people, Simeon and Anna, and surprising things are said about each of them. Simeon, we are told, is “looking forward to the consolation of Israel.” Why does Israel need consoling? And why is he looking forward to it? And what about dear old Anna, who is excited at “the redemption of Jerusalem.” Why exactly does Jerusalem need redeeming?
Well, this is the kind of question you have when you arrive at the play after the interval! So let’s look back to what’s happened earlier in the play.
“The consolation of Israel” is a reminder of what was going on, some centuries earlier. The people of Judah had been in exile in Babylon for seventy years, and then a message came from Isaiah, saying “Comfort ye, comfort ye, my people, says your God.” Why should they be comforted—or consoled? (It’s the same word.) Because now they can finally go home, from Babylon to Jerusalem.
However, when they return to Jerusalem, and start to rebuild the city and the temple, it’s nothing like as wonderful as they thought it would be. It’s really not much of a comfort or a consolation. And the spiritual leaders—the prophets—begin to think, Surely God must have something more than this in mind. So they begin to look forward to a time of real “consolation,” somewhere down the road. Guess what: Simeon thinks that time is right here, in this baby!
And then there is Anna. She was looking for “the redemption of Jerusalem.” She believes that Jerusalem needs to be redeemed—ransomed—from some kind of captivity. It could simply mean that, like many people at that time, she is waiting for the Messiah to come and throw out the Romans, to “redeem” Jerusalem in that sense. But, later in the story, Jesus will say that he has come “to give his life a ransom for many”—a totally different kind of redeeming. Like Simeon, Anna recognises that this baby is somehow connected with what she and the whole country has been longing for!
But there’s more. Look at the words of Simeon, the “Nunc dimittis.” Here are the old words: Mine eyes have seen thy salvation, which thou hast prepared before the face of all people; a light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel.
My eyes have seen “your salvation.” There’s another of those $20 words—consolation, redemption, and now salvation—which are really just different facets of the same Gospel diamond. Salvation means deliverance and rescue, healing and wholeness. And when it’s applied to God, it means God stepping in to put things right—whether it’s bringing the exiles home from Babylon or Jesus healing a blind man.
But of course when Simeon says, “my eyes have seen thy salvation,” he hasn’t actually seen those things. So what exactly has he seen? Well, he’s looking at the baby in his arms. That’s what he sees. He doesn’t say this baby will teach us about salvation, or even bring us salvation. Simeon just says he is salvation: somehow this whole salvation deal is wrapped up in him.
There’s more yet. Simeon somehow discerns that this child is “a light to lighten the Gentiles”—in other words light for the whole human race. How could he know that? I am quite sure he was very familiar with the earlier parts of the story, and particularly God’s promise to Abraham that through his descendants the whole world would be blessed. And now Simeon looks at this child and says, “This is it. This child is the fulfilment of that promise made by God 2000 years ago.”
You can think of it as an hourglass. The earlier parts of the story, which began with God’s creation of the world, narrow down over the centuries to this simple couple, and this little child. And from him, all these things—consolation, redemption, salvation—the things Jesus summarised as “the kingdom of God”—begin to spread out till they fill and bless the whole world. That’s the miracle of the presentation in the temple. That’s the miracle of Jesus.