My dear graduates of Chaminade, Kellenberg Memorial, and St. Martin de Porres Marianist School,
The month of February, with its cold temperatures and diminished sunlight, can sometimes be seen as a month to simply endure, as we anticipate warmer and brighter days ahead. In my family, though, it was a month of many celebrations. Not only did we celebrate the birth of some of our greatest presidents, Valentine’s Day, as well as the “winter recess” (a phenomenon that was introduced as I neared the end of grammar school), but also, both of my parents were born, eleven days apart, during this month! Later in my life, when I entered the religious life, I was introduced to another February celebration that seemed to embrace, in different ways, all of the others. This celebration occurs every year, right at the beginning of the month, and for me, it sets a tone for the entire month. I refer to the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord on February 2.
The Feast of the Presentation of the Lord is the commemoration of Mary and Joseph’s bringing the new-born Jesus into the Temple in Jerusalem, as was Jewish custom, and presenting him, consecrating him to God. Of course, Jesus was God (even if that was not yet clear to his parents and the others), and you might say he had no need to be consecrated! True, but we do. Effectively, Jesus’ presentation and consecration is for our benefit, not his.
It is a wonderful story, most likely familiar to you already (if not, perhaps it would be good to read the Gospel for February 2 now, before continuing). It is a very human story, for a babe who is God! There is a whole lot of emotion as the proud parents present their firstborn and he is welcomed by an elderly couple who have waited for this moment their whole lives. There is also a whole lot of irony as the feeble hand of the old man gently grasps the tiny hands of Jesus, the very hands which had fashioned the stars and the whole universe!
In the Christian East, this feast is call the Feast of Encounter. It marks the encounter between God, who became a child to bring newness to our world, and an expectant humanity, represented by the elderly couple in the Temple. In fact, there are many encounters in this story, and it is in these encounters that we can discover the richness of our Faith; the loving faithfulness of God; the motivation and a roadmap for our own life’s journey.
There is the encounter between the young Mary and Joseph, and the elderly Simeon and Anna, when the old receive from the young, and the young draw upon the old. This is important because God’s promise does not come to fulfillment merely in individuals, once and for all, but within a community, and over time. Mary and Joseph learn from the experience of their elders, while at the same time these elders are consoled and fulfilled in the encounter with this young couple and their long-awaited son. The two young people, in meeting the two older people, discover themselves. The two older people, at the end of their lives, receive Jesus, who is, in fact, the meaning of their lives!
Somewhere along the way, each of us has had an encounter with Jesus. I would venture to guess that simply by the fact that you are reading this letter, you have taken that encounter seriously, and it is an important part of who you are, and who you hope to become. Yet, I would also assert that rarely is this encounter with Jesus just between the individual and the Lord. With reflection on the encounters we have experienced, we realize that, in these encounters, we were not alone with Jesus; there was also the people of God, the Church, young and old, just as in the Presentation story. Indeed, we usually encounter the Lord while in relation with others. This story particularly highlights the importance of inter-generational encounter – between the old and the young. Both need to find Jesus, both need each other. Pope Francis has said: “There is no growth without roots and no flowering without new buds!”
Today’s world places many obstacles to finding true and life-giving encounters. With eyes fixed on our many “screens” we often fail to look each other in the eye. We make many connections, but don’t often connect at the levels of the heart and soul. Many of us experience emptiness, even when our days and nights are packed with things to do and things to have! What can we do? I think we can start by learning from Anna and Simeon: at the sunset of their lives, after years of anticipation and hope, they held the Lord in their arms and overwhelming joy in their hearts, because they sought this encounter with their whole being. Again, Pope Francis tells us: “How good it is for us to hold the Lord ‘in our arms,’ like Simeon. Not only in our heads and in our hearts, but also ‘in our hands,’ in all that we do: in prayer, at work, at the table, on the telephone, at school, with the poor, everywhere.” Having the Lord ‘in our hands’ in an antidote to the self-preoccupation and frenetic character of today’s world. Savoring the encounter with Jesus is also a good remedy for the monotony or paralysis of routine, since it opens us up to being surprised by grace.
Perhaps, as a personal project this February, you might try to “fan the flame” of your spiritual life, cultivate a willingness to allow yourself to encounter Jesus, and to be encountered by him. Each of us can begin by encountering one another in Jesus as brothers and sisters, young and old, of all shapes, sizes and walks of life! Pope Francis urges us: “If we encounter Jesus and our brothers and sisters in the everyday events of our life, our hearts will no longer be set on the past, or the future, but will experience the ‘today of God’ in peace with everyone.”
Now that’s worth celebrating!
Bro. Michael John McAward