What do you see?
The temple in Jerusalem was a busy place. Thousands of people gathered there, bustling in and out with their birds and animals, offering sacrifices, praying, singing, catching up on the news. Young parents would bring their newborns for presentation forty days after they were born, and offer the sacrifice that was customary under the law, in the midst of everything else that was going on.
Of those thousands of people on that day, most wouldn’t have noticed Mary and Joseph at all. Others who did notice would have seen a young couple holding a baby.
But when Simeon comes into the temple, he sees something different. He sees something more:
“My eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel.”
Anna sees it too. She calls it the redemption of Jerusalem and she begins to praise God and tell everyone about the child.
What do Simeon and Anna see that thousands of others don’t? And how is it that they are able to see it?
Some years ago the Salvation Army ran an ad campaign called “We see what most don’t”. Maybe you remember it. It consisted of a series of images of park benches or street corners, where nothing appeared visible at first, but when you looked more closely, you could see the shape of a person who was homeless huddled on the park bench. The ads seemed to suggest that what we see depends on us, it depends on our expectations, on what we care about, on what we’re looking for, on how well we’ve developed our ability to see.
Interestingly enough, neuroscientists have recently lent support to this idea. We used to think that the way sight worked is that our eyes would look, would capture the light, the visual data that came from the objects we were looking at, and send it to the brain which would then form a visual image. But recent neurological studies have shown that it doesn’t work like that at all. What actually happens when we look at something is that the brain sends an image to the eyes of what it expects to see, and the eyes look for what is expected and use the light entering the eyes to send back corrections, which the brain then uses to correct the visual image that it expected. It’s more efficient – but it’s also one of reasons why we often miss seeing certain things. What we see is shaped by both our experience and our expectations.
In that busy temple, thousands of people saw a young couple with a baby. But Anna and Simeon saw God at work in the midst of our busy world. How is it that they were able to see things that the others didn’t?
That’s actually a really important question for our faith. One of our core beliefs is that God isn’t some faraway God who is indifferent to us, but rather that our God is a caring God who is active and present in our world and in our lives. But sometimes that’s hard to see. And that creates a tension for us.
The great theologian Karl Rahner predicted way back in the 1970s that “the devout Christian of the future will either by a ‘mystic’, that is, one who has experienced ‘something’ or they will cease to be anything at all.” According to Rahner, we need to become ‘ordinary mystics’, people who can see the divine in-dwelling in the midst of our ordinary lives.
So how do we learn to see like Anna and Simeon? How can you become an ordinary mystic? How do we get to the point, where, according to the great spiritual writer Henri Nouwen, “the world of experience starts pointing beyond itself to the translucent realm of the Spirit of God”?[i]
Well, if we are to learn anything from Anna and Simeon, it does seem to have something to do with what we might call the spiritual life.
We are told that Simeon is a righteous and devout man, and that he was guided by the Spirit. We are told that Anna never left the temple but for many years worshipped there with fasting and prayer, night and day. When the baby Jesus was brought into the temple, Simeon could see the salvation of God and Anna could see the redemption of Jerusalem because they had been preparing for this moment for their whole lives.
It’s a bit like all those athletes competing this week at the Olympics. When we see a figure skater leap and turn in the air or a skier race down the mountain at breath-taking speed, it’s not just a fluke that they can do those things. No, we know that the reason they can do it is because they’ve been training for it their whole lives. Excellence in athletics takes discipline and practice.
So does the spiritual life. The spiritual life is a journey which takes intentional and regular practice. Prayer. Reflection. Meditation on scripture. Silence. Community. Service. Learning to See.
What does it mean to you to live a spiritual life? What are your spiritual practices? Take a moment and think about that, or talk about it with the person beside you.
On any journey, it helps to have guides along the way. One of my guides is Henri Nouwen, whom I just quoted. He writes about the spiritual life as a series of movements that are enabled by the discipline of spiritual practices. One of the movements that Nouwen talks about is the seeing practiced by Simeon and Anna. Nouwen uses the metaphor of looking through a window. At first, the window is opaque, but gradually it becomes more and more transparent. We move from opaqueness to transparency. “The spiritual life,” writes Nouwen, “is an abundant life which transforms all moments of time into windows through which the invisible becomes visible.”
And so when Simeon and Anna look upon the baby Jesus in the temple, they see what others don’t. They see the very presence of God in that tiny human form. They see a God who cares about them preparing their salvation and redemption right in front of their very eyes. They see a God making ready to bring good news not just to their own people of Israel but to all the nations of the earth. They see God making good on his promises. They see God’s glory in that tiny child – the power and presence of God in our world, a God who is active in our midst, a God wants the best for us and a God who longs to bring us peace. They see a greater reality than they themselves can ever fully know.
Sometimes I wish I could see like that. Sometimes, I get glimpses.
We live in this tension. We live in a world in which God often remains invisible, and yet we live by faith in a God who is present and active in our midst. I’d like to be able to see that more clearly, more fully, more often.
But then I’m also reminded in this story of the importance not just of sight, but of patience. Simeon and Anna had both been waiting a long time for this moment of clarity.
Our time is coming too. In the meanwhile, let’s get ready.
Homily: Presentation of our Lord, Feb 6 2022
Readings: Malachi 3.1-4; Ps 84; Hebrews 2.14-18; Luke 2.22-40
Image by Gustavo Devito, Creative Commons [i] Nouwen, Spiritual Formation