Two days ago we celebrated Christmas, the “holiday” which has driven Western economy through the last ten weeks of buying, decorating, and feasting. In the secular world, there are still a few more days to enjoy before New Year’s, when the whole season is packed away like a circus tent and we all go back to work.
Peel back a couple of millennia, though, and we see that our precious Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph were just getting started. For observant Jews, newborn boys are generally circumcised on the eighth day after birth, and after that, Immaculate Mary, in her humility, endured the prescribed thirty-day period of “purification” before she and Joseph could present Jesus to the elders at the temple. This was such a happy and important event that we still celebrate it in the fourth Joyful Mystery of the Rosary.
For me, the Presentation always seemed like one of the less dramatic, and somewhat underutilized of the mysteries. My mind first imagined it as a Jewish baptism—Jesus as a fresh and beautiful newborn, Mary and Joseph the proud parents, and because he is the Christ child, Jesus cherubically and peacefully asleep—or else smiling—while all the elders ooh and ahh.
But let us go deeper into the mystery. Simeon, a righteous and devout man, was there that day in the temple and had been waiting for a sign his whole life, as God revealed to him he would not die until he saw the Christ. Taking baby Jesus into his arms, Simeon is filled with the Holy Spirit and declares to the Lord: Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word: For mine eyes have seen thy salvation (Lk 2:29-30). Simeon was telling God he could happily die because now he’d seen the Christ.
Mary and Joseph, simple people, were no doubt awe-struck by these words, but could they have ever imagined that two thousand years later Simeon’s words would be known as the evangelical canticle “Nunc Dimittis,” part of Compline, the traditional Night Prayer of Christians?
Still—in the midst of joy—Mary must carry in her heart a shadow as Simeon tells her: Yea, a sword shall pierce through thy own soul also, that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed (Lk 2:35). What if we, as new mothers, could receive such verbal assurance of our children’s future importance in the world? Would it change the way we raise them?
As mothers, our hearts have been ordered by our Creator as cautious hearts, protective hearts—not just as beasts protect (though we have that instinct) but as thinking beings given a choice of good and evil.
Nunc Dimittis. The Vulgate translation of the passage is now you dismiss.
St. Simeon earned his eternal rest through prayer and good works, but he was not a mother.
A mother cannot earn her rest or dismiss her vocation by merely casting loving eyes upon her baby. Her child may be praised as exceptionally beautiful, precociously intelligent, or wildly creative, but a mother must take hold of the daily work of feeding, guiding, educating, and correcting the person whom God has entrusted to her. She must, for the course of her lifetime and her example, raise her son or daughter as a person who loves and seeks to follow the light of Love.
She is a person who reflects on the praise of her child, as well as the suffering that will come her way because of him, and holds these things quietly in her heart.