Two days ago, friends of mine had a baby—their first. Last night, for the first time, I saw a picture of the sweet little girl, and I was amazed (again) at how tiny newborn babies are. At the time, I noticed that the person holding the baby in the picture was a mutual friend—not either of the parents—but I didn’t give it much thought…until today.
From the Gospel lesson for the Feast of the Presentation of our Lord Jesus Christ in the Temple: “Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying…”
If you’ve spent much time at an Episcopal camp or hung out with an EYC group or said the service of Compline with any regularity, you know the words that follow. In fact, they’re so ingrained in my experience of the tradition that I almost forgot what happens right before Simeon begins his famous song. Before he opens his mouth to exclaim the words of consolation, he takes the baby Jesus into his arms. He holds the baby. He looks down at the 40-day-old boy, smiles as only one holding a baby can smile, twirls around, and exclaims, “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace…”
Something special happens when you hold a baby. That’s definitely true when it’s your own child you’re holding. But I also think something happens to friends or extended family when they hold a tiny little bundle of new life in their arms. I’ve seen grown men wilt with sensitivity. I’ve seen women tear up with emotion. I’ve seen teenagers and older children display a unique combination of excitation and fear when they cradle such vulnerability against their chest. And when a new, first-time parent hands over their most precious possession to a loved one, something changes within them as well. They experience a new sensation—sharing their deepest love in bodily form with someone else they care about. It’s a moment of pride, joy, connection, anxiety, and celebration all wrapped in a little blanket and capped with a pink or blue hat.
I forget that Mary and Joseph hand over their little boy to this border-line crazy man, Simeon, who has been waiting in the Temple for a long time—waiting for the messiah to come. I forget that these new parents watch this ancient stranger take their baby in his arms and dance (perhaps gingerly) around the Temple courts with the joy of a love-struck teenager. I forget that this story involves the most powerful interchange a mother and an outsider can have—the sharing of a little child.
When I read this story this morning, I found myself wondering why we celebrate the Presentation. It was a Jewish obligation to come and offer sacrifice and dedicate a first-born to the Lord. But what does that mean for me? So what if Mary and Joseph did their duty and brought Jesus to the temple forty days after his birth? And then I thought about the picture I saw last night. I remembered again the look on that mutual friend’s face as she held this tiny little baby, and I felt again that sensation I felt last night—that nervous joy as if I were able to hold that newborn daughter. When Simeon takes the baby in his arms, he invites all of us to hold the baby Jesus. He reminds us that Mary and Joseph hand over this child even to a stranger—even to you and to me.