“Just the place for a Snark! I have said it thrice: What I tell you three times is true.” “The Hunting of the Snark” by Lewis Carroll
I am contractually bound to agree with that proverb – three times means it’s true – because when I was taught how to preach sermons (don’t say anything!) I was told, “Tell ’em what you’re going to tell ’em. Tell ’em. Then tell ’em you’ve told ’em.” The assumption being that if you tell a congregation something three times, there’s more than an even chance that they’ll hear it once. I leave you to judge if it has worked for you.
But what if a writer tells their listeners something four times, in the space of one story? Then you might suspect that another proverb comes into play; “Methinks he doth protest too much”. If you have to say it that many times, it feels maybe that you’re trying to convince yourself as much as persuade your audience. Either that, or you have a low opinon of the mental alertness of your readership.
Well, that’s what Luke does; in telling us about the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple today.
Mary and Joseph brought the child Jesus to the temple to “do what the law required.”
Four times Luke tells us that. They were doing what the law required. Not, as they entered, “what joy was theirs!” like the wise men, or “glorifying and praising God” like the shepherds. But, “in accordance with what is required by the law.”
I think that the suggestion is – what Luke is inferring – is that they were “going through the motions.” It was all a bit wooden and two-dimensional. Yes, they were a good Jewish family who did their duty, but there was no expectation that anything out of the ordinary might be going to happen. Mary and Joseph were just getting on with the job of parenting a five-week-old baby, with all the stresses and anxieties that go with it, as well as fulfilling their religious obligations. I’m guessing it’s surprisingly easy to forget messages from angels and ecstatic shepherds when the baby is crying. I mean, Christmas seems a long time ago now even to us.
Which would explain why they were amazed at what was being said about the child by Simeon and Anna.
It was another Epiphany, a breaking through of reality into the mortal world, an experience of the deep stillness of the Kingdom erupting in the moment of Simeon taking the child in his arms. The skies could have been filled with a multitude of the heavenly host, a moment of God’s “I am.”
We can’t live permanently in those realms – not yet. And nor could Mary and Joseph. They had to treat Jesus as the ordinary (and naughty) little boy that he was and go on caring for him as an ordinary mum and dad.
But maybe – probably, in fact– they began to expect the unexpected, to see the light shining through when all is dark; and to live as mortals who know that the truth, true reality, is in those epiphanies. And that there’s more to life than doing what the law requires.