Homily of Bishop Kevin Doran for Feast of the Presentation
Celebration of the Call to Religious and Consecrated Life
I want to invite you this morning to imagine a scene that could take place any day of the week in this Cathedral or, indeed, in any Church. A young couple pushing a buggy come for Sunday Mass, or a young woman leading her infant child by the hand, stops by for a few moments to give thanks or to ask for a blessing on her new child. Although the child is too young to understand, he or she is already being introduced to the mystery of the presence of God.
There are a few elderly people in the Cathedral; you know those people who come every day and for whom the daily encounter with God is such an important part of their lives. One old man pauses on his way out, smiles and says “God bless you…” A lady comes across and wants to know the child’s name, but the little girl is shy and she hides behind her mother. The old lay remarks that “she is a lovely child and she will soon be walking. For these people, in old age, a child is a sign of hope and continuity. It is a very human encounter and, as I said, it could happen here in our own Cathedral on any day of the week.
But, for all its simplicity, the story of the Presentation has deep roots in the faith and culture of the Jewish people. The Hebrews were always waiting for the fulfilment of a promise. They spent many years in exile as slaves in Egypt before making their way, under the leadership of Moses, through the wilderness into the land that God had promised them. The Book of Exodus records how, on the night of their departure from Egypt, a plague struck the land and, mysteriously, all the first-born sons of Egypt died. The sons of the Hebrews were spared and, in the confusion, escaped across the Red Sea. I’m not sure if things actually happened that way, because the Bible is not meant to be a history book. But it is an account of God’s relationship with his people and his presence with them on the journey of life.
Certainly this important experience of being set free through the intervention of God, gave rise to a deep sense of gratitude among the people of Israel for the gift of life. That is the origin of the “Presentation” in the Jewish spiritual tradition. If you happen to have been at the weekday masses in the past two weeks, you will have heard the story of the boy Samuel, who was born to his parents after many disappointments and then, at the age of two, was brought back by his mother to serve in the Temple. There he had his first experience of being called by God and went on eventually to become a great prophet in Israel. In today’s Gospel, St Luke tells us how Mary and Joseph, follow that same tradition. They are not just there for a visit; they are there to “present” their child to God.
There is another very important connection between today’s celebration and the ancient faith of the Hebrews. On Christmas eve – and again last Sunday – we heard the words of the prophet Isaiah proclaiming: “the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light”. On Christmas morning, the passage from St John’s Gospel reminded us that “the Word was the true light, a ligt that enlightens everyone, and He was coming into the world”. Now, today, the old man Simeon gives thanks to God because he has lived long enough to see this child whom he describes as “a light to enlighten the pagans and give glory to Israel”.
For the Jewish people, the Temple is the place where God lives among his people. I often imagine it as a relatively dark space, lit only by flickering candles. But now Jesus, the light of the world, comes in to be “God with Us” in a whole new way. This, of course, is the origin of our tradition of blessing candles on the Feast of the Presentation, as we did at the beginning of Mass. It is not just a celebration of our faith in Jesus, but a reminder that we are called to reflect his light in our liturgies and in our daily lives, whoever we are and whatever we do.
I want to return for a moment to those two elderly people, Simeon and Anna, who are very attractive in their old age. They have lost nothing of their confidence in God’s fidelity. They turn up in the Temple, as usual, on the day of the Presentation of Jesus. As I suggested earlier, they are like many of the holy people who come in and out of our own Cathedral every day of the week.
We are told that the “Holy Spirit rested” in Simeon. Anna was a prophetess. Each in his or her own way was a witness to the light, a witness to the fact that God keeps his promises. What is interesting about them is that they are not priests or officials of the Temple. They seem to be ordinary people, whose lives are dedicated to God in an extraordinary way. That, in a real sense, is the heart of every Christian vocation.
In our Catholic tradition, the day of the Presentation is particularly associated with the vocation to religious and consecrated life. Who are these women and men who make up the religious congregations that are so much a part of our own Diocese? They are ordinary men and women who, as young adults, dedicated their lives to be witnesses to the presence of God among us. They have continued to express that witness through prayer, through their life in community and through many works of service. Men and women religious take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. I think these vows are not always well understood in our society. They are often thought of in negative terms. But the vow of poverty is not intended to be a rejection of the goodness of all the material things that God has provided for us in his creation. The vow of chastity is certainly not meant to be a rejection of the goodness or importance of human relationships, and the vow of obedience is not intended to mean that these religious or consecrated men and women have no minds of their own. Quite the contrary.
The vows are a way of saying that every material thing, every relationship and every personal agenda is placed at the service of God and God’s people. Everything we have and everything we are, is directed towards the ultimate plan that God has for all of us, to find fulfilment in our relationship with Him. While religious are called to give expression to that reality in a particular way, that call to be the people of the Kingdom is the vocation of all of us.
This morning I want to welcome the religious communities who have a regular presence in our Diocese. They are the Sisters of Mercy, the Ursuline Sisters, the Sisters of the Presentation of Mary, the Missionaries of Charity, the Daughters of Wisdom, the Nazareth Sisters, the Disciples of the Divine Master and the Servant Sisters of the Home of the Mother. They are the Dominicans, the Divine Word Missionaries, the Spiritans (Holy Ghost Missionaries), the Salesians and the Mill Hill Missionaries. Some of them, I know, are unable to be here this morning because of the requirements of their mission.
On behalf of all of us, I want to say thank you for your witness of prayer and service. I want to encourage you to continue to “be attractive” in your way of being witnesses, so that in your lives you can reflect the light of Christ, right into old age, just as Simeon and Anna did in the Temple. Then, like Simeon, you too can say, “At last all-powerful master, you give leave to your servant to go in peace, according to your promise”.
Bishop Kevin Doran
Feast of the Presentation and World Day of Prayer for Consecrated Life
2nd February 2020, Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, Sligo