Mass with Religious and Consecrated Persons, St George’s Cathedral, Southwark, 2 Feb 2023

Dear sisters and brothers in religious and consecrated life

Dear friends in the Lord Jesus, who is the light in our world and hearts which nothing can extinguish

Coming forty days – yes, it really is forty days – after the celebration of Our Lord’s birth at Christmas, today’s Feast of His Presentation in the Temple is, in one sense, a continuation of the Epiphany. The arrival of the Magi from the East signalled the showing, the appearance, the manifestation, of Christ as the saving light to the nations; in fact, as the saving light to the entire world. In a new way, at His Presentation, this manifestation happens again when, faithful to the Jewish Law, Mary and Joseph complete the rituals following childbirth. Their offering is not a lamb, the offering of the wealthy; but the offering prescribed for the poor – two doves or pigeons. Of course the true Lamb is their child, the Lamb of God who makes us rich by taking away our sins.  

It is there, in the Temple, that the Lord Jesus is revealed to Anna and Simeon. They were devout believers who waited and watched all their lives for the Messiah to be revealed. They yearned and longed for salvation to be personified, and to appear in their day; and this is exactly what happens before their expectant eyes and hearts.

While St Luke describes Anna as ‘well on in years,’ no age is given for Simeon, although scholars believe, he too, was advanced in years. Isn’t it always good to be reminded that just as God can use our youth, and our middle age, He can also use our older years. In the Kingdom, no one is on the scrap heap. We remain youthful by the renewal of the Holy Spirit.

Anna and Simeon were faithful witnesses who experienced an encounter with their Saviour. This is emphasised in the Byzantine Christian tradition where this Feast is called ‘The Meeting of Our Lord, God and Saviour Jesus Christ.’ In this meeting Anna and Simeon represent Israel. In this meeting they anticipate the Church. In this meeting they prepare the way for you and me. And yet, even though the Lord Jesus is but a babe in arms, this encounter is bitter-sweet. ‘Jesus is recognised as the long-expected Messiah,’ the Catechism tells us; He is ‘the ‘light to the nations,’ and the ‘glory of Israel,’ but also ‘a sign that is to be spoken against.’ The sword of sorrow predicted for Mary announces Christ’s perfect and unique [offering] on the cross that will impart the salvation God had ‘prepared in the presence of all peoples.’ (cf. CCC 529)

With the shepherds and the Magi, Anna and Simeon join the company of the first disciples of Christ. How beautifully and humbly they reflect the attitude of believers. Just picture and savour, for a moment, their encounter, their meeting with the Holy Family; and their dispositions and response. What are Simeon and Anna teaching us and teaching the Church?

  • The Holy Spirit rested on Simeon, who was upright and devout, and looked for the comforting arrival of God’s anointed one.
  • The prophetess Anna, at eighty-four years old, was always in the Temple, night and day, serving, praising, fasting and praying.
  • Simeon embraced the Christ-Child, holding Him in his arms; he blessed God, and he blessed Mary and Joseph, grateful for the peace, fulfilment, salvation, light and glory that had all come through the Lord Jesus entering our world.
  • Anna spoke of the Lord Jesus to anyone and everyone who hoped for forgiveness, healing, and freedom; she knew He was, and is, the answer to our deepest searching.

We all need to learn from Anna and Simeon. And you, dear sisters and brothers in religious and consecrated life, are, and must be, in a special way, spiritual Annas and Simeons for the Church and world today. We need you, like them, to embody the desire that God’s promises be fulfilled, here and now, in conversion and faith, and justice and peace; and completely and forever in heaven. We need you to stand tall as sentinels, as watchmen and watchwomen of the Kingdom, living joyfully within the gift of what God has already given, but ever hopeful for what is yet to come. We need you to capture and exemplify the delight of personal encounter with Christ; and to showcase, individually and communally, an essential fidelity to God’s Word and an adoring intimacy with the Eucharistic Lord Jesus. We need you to signal an indispensable trust in God’s power and presence and purpose; to be, in simplicity and splendour, women and men of deep and enduring faith. Our world and our Church, our Archdiocese and its laity and clergy – and not least its Archbishop – all need you to point prophetically to the temple where Christ is to be encountered today. For all that you do, in so many ways, across our Archdiocese, I extend to each of you a very sincere thank you. And to those of you celebrating jubilees of profession, many heartfelt congratulations and every blessing.

Sometimes we need imagery to help us consider our discipleship and witness. We find it powerfully throughout the Scripture readings for today’s Feast. But it’s to the first reading, from the Prophet Malachi, that I want to turn.

Anna and Simeon would have known their Scriptures. I wonder if, when they encountered the Lord Jesus at His Presentation, they remembered Malachi’s words: ‘The Lord you are seeking will enter his Temple…for he is like the refiner’s fire and the fuller’s alkali.’ Perhaps these allusions had more resonance with them than they do with us. So, just to be clear, the refiner described here is a refiner, a purifier of silver, mentioned explicitly in the original Hebrew. The silver refiner’s job was to heat lead ore to red hot temperatures in order to extract the silver. The process caused the impurities to rise to the surface of the molten metal to be scrapped off, leaving behind the pure and precious silver. A fuller worked in a kind of laundry using the ashes of plants to make an alkali soap to clean and whiten cloth. The Hebrew word for fuller has a root meaning of ‘to tread.’ The fuller would soak the cloth in alkali soap and water and then stamp on it, or beat it, to remove the impurities and dirt.

In these images there is a down to earth, a nitty gritty truth, valid for all discipleship and certainly valid for religious and consecrated life. So let’s hear the Prophet Malachi again: ‘The Lord you are seeking will enter his Temple, for he is like refiner’s fire (that is, like a heat that purifies, but can sometimes, metaphorically, feel too hot to handle) and [he is like] the fuller’s alkali (that is, a cleansing bath, which again, metaphorically, can sometimes feel like being trodden on or beaten). Is any of this familiar to your vocational journey? It is to mine.

Dear sisters and brothers in Christ, our life together in Christ is a life of conversion. St Thomas Aquinas described sin as ‘aversio a Deo,’ a turning away, an aversion, from God. But we seek the very opposite. Our whole lives are to be a turning towards God, a conversio, a conversion in and through Christ. Religious and consecrated life is at heart, inevitably and rightly, a yearning for holiness. And especially when lived in community – in poverty, under obedience, and through chastity – the heat can be turned up and the ego trampled. But – and only in this way does our life makes sense – we know that living in the crucible of conversion is purifying; that dying to self is cleansing; and that, for us, this is the way of jubilant encounter with Christ, our first and our true love.

After His presentation, Mary and Joseph took the child Jesus back home to Nazareth where he matured humanly and was filled with wisdom and God’s favour. Whatever our charism or ministry, we each need to have a heart for Nazareth, for a hidden growth in holiness through ordinariness. For disciples, the work purification is Christ’s. For disciples, the work of cleansing is Christ’s. It is a work of His love. He is our compassionate and trustworthy high priest, able to atone for our sins. Freedom in Christ takes root only by means of love, even if, and when, this demands sacrifice. Our holiness is either about love or it is nothing.

Today we ask, individually and together: Who is the King of Glory? Who is the King of Love? And we reply with one voice: It is the Lord. Let him enter the temple of our heart, the King of glory, the King of Love.