For anyone who enjoys watching movies, and have done so for years, you could likely name a list of character actors and actresses. Some you know by face, many by name. But knowing they seem to pop up in lots of movies in a secondary role. Roles that enhance the main actor or actress, allowing the lead role to shine in ways they are meant to shine.
John the Baptist would be the number one “character actor” in the story of Christianity. His appearance is somewhat brief, but most important. Without John being in this movie about Jesus’ life, we would be absent such lines as “The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” And, my favorite, “I must decrease, he must increase.” Any priest, religious or lay person who is worth their salt, and whose ministry is truly centered in Christ, will keep those words of John at the heart of our ministry. For we can accomplish nothing good without Him increasing.
Today, in the celebration of the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple, this annual Feast Day every February 2, 40 days after Christmas, we’re blessed with two more character actors who enhance the role of the lead actor, Jesus Christ. They are Simeon and Anna. One is a Prophet, the other a Prophetess. One goes home every day. The other is homebound in the Temple, the place she never leaves.
Simeon, the character actor, chosen by God to continue the revelation of the newborn child that began with the announcement of the angels informing the shepherds of his birth, speaks these unforgettable words for us who seek to live a Christian life in a world that’s losing its religion. Simeon’s faith, his courage, and his trust in the Lord stand tall in his words, “My eyes have seen your salvation … a light for revelation to the Gentiles.” Therefore, “you may let your servant go in peace.” “I have seen and held the Messiah; now I can die from this world of violence and sin. And do so in peace.”
Simeon’s words reveal that our lives are in the process of being saved for something beyond our imagining. In seeing the Christ child at his presentation in the holiest structure in Israel, Simeon repeats, in essence, the words of John the Baptist; “I must decrease, he must increase.” “I’m decreasing from my inability to save myself, and toss that foolish thought out the Temple window, and let this child increase so that my God can save me from my many weaknesses.”
That’s a lifelong message for us. The way to die in peace, in the peace that brings us to salvation, is to let the Lord increase in us. And I’ve seen many beautiful examples of this from people in this Parish. In saying he can now die in peace, for his eyes have seen salvation in Person, Simeon the Prophet repeats the words of John the Baptist on decreasing and increasing. Simeon decreases to his grave. Jesus increases to his Cross and empty grave.
And in a world where faith and religion are under assault by so many secular forces led by the Devil himself, the time has arrived that we be proud as a peacock to stand up and proclaim that our eyes have seen his salvation. Every time we receive the Eucharist, we see his salvation. When we receive the Eucharist, we’re looking into the eyes of God, literally. Simeon’s eyes feasted on the First Eucharist; he knew what he saw and he loved what he saw. May we have the faith to do likewise. Jesus’ presentation in the Temple is the presentation of the First Eucharist in the Temple.
And then there’s Anna, the character actress who’s the homebound Prophetess. Never leaving the Temple. Praying and fasting all the time. Every day. Never closing on Sunday’s like Chick-Fil-A.
Anna’s role in the prolonged Christmas setting from the manger to the Temple, from Bethlehem to Jerusalem, is, like Simeon, unique. They all have their unique roles with God, just like we do. Anna teaches us, among other things, that the Temple is where we make direct contact with our Savior. Like a person homebound, or in a nursing home, praying the Rosary, praying the Divine Mercy Chaplet, praying the Mass on television, praying for their families, friends, and neighbors, praying for peace in this violent world, praying for the demise of cable news (sorry, that’s me!).
And like these homebound folks waiting for Meals on Wheels to stop by with some nourishment, eating in the most irregular ways, consuming half a meal, feeding the rest to the dog, fasting because of their difficult physical condition at this stage in life. This is Anna. Praying and fasting nonstop.
Her praying and fasting are central to her secondary role in this late Christmas movie. It’s like she’s Home Alone. But, what’s most central, and what she has in common with Simeon, is this patient, intense desire to feast her eyes on her salvation. In the Temple. In the Church. (Pause)
In a world where religion is just another thing, I pray with the intensity of Anna that you don’t lose or minimize this desire to feast our eyes on our salvation. And that we don’t water down the true presence in the Eucharist. When Anna looked on Christ, her eyes feasted on what we are so blessed to receive. She was not casual with what her eyes feasted on.
Character actors they are. They see the Christ child and are ready to die. That’s the faith of Abraham, which, I pray, is our faith too.