Friday, February 02, 2007

My Eyes Have Seen Your Salvation

We have seen in the earlier infancy narratives, when we celebrated the birth of Christ, that He was recognized (by the magi) and feared (by Herod) as the newborn King. Now, on this feast, we see Him manifesting the other elements of his Messianic identity: Priest and Prophet—though these may seem to be somewhat obscure in the text (Luke 2:22-40).

It is evidently the mind of the Church to bring out at least the priestly dimension of the new Messiah, because the epistle reading from Hebrews (7:7-17) speaks of nothing else. It is a meditation on the break from levitical tradition that occurred with the Advent of the Christ, who was not born into a priestly tribe, but whose everlasting priesthood is of the order of Melchizedek, that mysterious priest of the Most High God, who predated all Jewish priesthood.

The high priesthood of Christ is usually, and rightly, associated with his self-offering on the Cross, the perfect sacrifice of atonement in which He is both Priest and Victim. We say in our Liturgy that He is the One “who offers and is offered.” The Law said that every first-born male would be consecrated to God and thus must be ritually offered, along with a sacrifice, and so Jesus was taken to the Temple 40 days after his birth. His act of self-offering, while climaxing in its consummation on the Cross, characterized the whole life of Jesus. So at the very beginning of his life, He was offered, as a kind of prefiguration of his ultimate sacrifice for the salvation of the world, the salvation that Simeon mystically perceived as he held the divine Child in his arms.

Jesus was offered in the Temple as the first-born of Mary, but in St Paul’s theological formulation, He is “the first-born of all creation.” Paul immediately explains what this means: “In him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible… all things were created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together… that in everything he might be pre-eminent” (Col. 1:15-18). Can you imagine Mary walking up to the priest in the temple saying, “This is our Son. He is before all things; in Him all things were created in heaven and on earth. Isn’t He adorable?” Well, she didn’t say that, but it is nonetheless true. And He is adorable, in the most literal sense of the word!

Simeon probably didn’t have quite the profound theological vision of Paul, but He did receive a marvelous revelation. He was a holy man, for he lived in communion with the Holy Spirit, who spoke to him and guided him. The Spirit told him he would not die before he saw the Christ of the Lord, that is, the Anointed One, the Messiah. And on the day when Mary and Joseph brought Him to the Temple, the Spirit told Simeon to go there too. He recognized the Son of God, not only as the Jewish Messiah, but as the Savior of the whole world. This is clear from his own words: “My eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples.” He makes it clearer still: “A light of revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel.” While including the Gentiles as beneficiaries of God’s saving grace, he nonetheless gives priority to Israel. You see, he said that the Christ would be for the Gentiles a “light of revelation,” which means they were still living in the darkness, still didn’t know the true God. He didn’t say that about Israel, for God had already revealed Himself to them, and the Messiah was the fullness, the completion of this centuries-long revelation. So He is for Israel “glory,” their exaltation as those who, in union with Him, would bring his light of revelation to the rest of the world.

This all sounds very wonderful, and it is, but the presence of the Christ among his people was not to be all light and glory, and here Simeon’s tone changes. He becomes a prophet, and in so doing highlights the prophetic character and mission of the Messiah. Simeon tells Mary that her Son is going to be a sign of contradiction, the rise of some and the fall of others. He will endure opposition, and she herself would suffer as she shared his pain in the abundance of her maternal love.

The Messiah as Prophet would speak the word of God to the people, and as with the prophets before Him, some would receive the word and others would reject it, even violently. The fate of the prophets was to be his own. St Stephen summarized it shortly after Jesus’ death, as he himself expressed prophetic indignation before the assembled Council: “Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered…” (Acts 7:52). Stephen also would share the fate of the prophets and of the Messiah, as the first Christian martyr.

The identity of the Christ as King, Priest, and Prophet would be fully manifested on the Cross, his final offering as the First-born of all creation, the only-begotten Son of God the Father. His kingship was even proclaimed publicly, even though not with sincerity and devotion, in the inscription affixed to the Cross: Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews. His priesthood was fully and definitively exercised as He offered himself as the sacrificial Lamb of God, who in that very act took away the sins of the world. And the entire event was prophetic in that is was a word of God spoken to the world: This is my beloved Son. On the Cross, above all, was the Messiah-prophet to be the rise and fall of many. For the Cross is like the judgment seat of God, before which the thoughts of many hearts shall be revealed. Our position vis-à-vis the Cross declares whether we are with Him or against Him, whether we will rise or fall because of his word and his sacrifice.

So it is not merely a matter of saying, as I’ve read in a certain prayer: “If it is faith that justifies, then lo, I believe!” It’s not enough to say, in effect: since I don’t want to go to Hell, I guess I ought to be counted among the believers. It is not a mere verbal profession of faith that will place us with those who are saved by the sacrifice of Christ. We’ll not be asked to give our testimony on Judgment Day, because the works of our whole life will be the testimony that follows us there, which will have already been recorded by the angels, and which will be proclaimed in the heavenly court. We can’t add to the testimony or conceal any of it. Whatever hasn’t been washed away by tears of repentance and the Blood of Christ will stand against us, and then we rightly fear to be among those for whom the Sign of Contradiction means falling instead of rising.

This Gospel begins with the joy over the adorable Baby, but it leads to the soul-piercing sword which is, for us, the testimony of the life and death of Christ, that is, the Word of God, “living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit… discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And before Him no creature is hidden, but all are open and laid bare to the eyes of Him to whom we must render an account” (Heb. 4:12-13).

So let us receive the living Word of God, Christ Himself, as our light and glory and salvation, careful to heed his voice, always standing on the side of his righteousness, so that his prophetic word, his kingship, and his priestly sacrifice may be for us an inexhaustible source of joy and everlasting life. Then we, his servants, will depart unto Him in peace, and our eyes will finally see our salvation.