The Gospel story of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, this Sunday’s lectionary Gospel, Luke 2.22-40, is wonderfully rich. We could it explore it as ‘the Feast of Meeting’ (its name in the Orthodox Church), or pick up insights it offers us about ‘remembering’, or indeed about Jewish-Christian relations (especially given that we are close to Holocaust Memorial Day and Interfaith Harmony week is arriving very soon). Sometime it would be good to look at it in these ways. But this week somehow the blog wanted to go off in a different direction… (which was not perhaps what I was originally intending!)… but here it is!
Clare Amos, Director of Lay Discipleship, firstname.lastname@example.org
I am sometimes asked by people if I can recommend to them a particular biblical commentary series. On the whole it is not something that I find easy to do. Most commentary series tend to be a mix of volumes that are good, and with a couple of volumes on particular books outstanding, but also include a few other volumes that can range from the not so good to the downright bizarre.
One of the problems in commentary series is that sometimes authors get asked to write on a biblical book that is needed for the series, but is not a book for which the author him or her self has a real passion. I think (and I say this on the basis of having written a couple of commentaries myself) that to write a biblical commentary you really do need to have a special love for the particular book that you are exploring.
I am much happier if I am asked to recommend what I think is the ‘best’ commentary (or similar) on a particular biblical book. I generally have at least one candidate in view. Of course it depends what one is looking for, whether serious academic exegesis with attention to the Greek or Hebrew text, or a volume that builds a bridge between the biblical book under discussion and the needs of clergy and laypeople who want to explore the text as a tool to deepen their encounter with God.
This year is the lectionary Year C, in which the Gospel of Luke gets particular attention. So it seems appropriate to mention two books on Luke’s Gospel which I particularly cherish and which I am very happy to recommend to others. The first is Jesus, The Image of Humanity by Anselm Grun who is a Roman Catholic Benedictine monk at the Abbey of Münsterschwarzach in Germany (so I suppose he could be described as an honorary member of the Diocese in Europe!).
This is not really a complete commentary on the whole of Luke but Grun offers thoughtful exposition of most of the key passages in the Gospel.
My second recommendation would be The Hospitality of God: A Reading of Luke’s Gospel by Brendan Byrne, who is an Australian Jesuit. Both authors clearly have a deep love for Gospel of Luke which illuminates their writing. It is interesting that the authors of both books are Roman Catholic: perhaps this is somehow linked to my own appreciation of Roman Catholic biblical scholarship – I did my post-graduate biblical studies at the French Dominican Ecole Biblique in Jerusalem. At its very best, Roman Catholic biblical scholarship has a way of holding together serious wrestling with academic questions and the need for Scripture to be able to speak to and among the community of faith.
I will come back to some of these issues again in future weeks, but now I want to reflect briefly on this coming Sunday’s lectionary Gospel, Luke 2.22-40, which recounts the story of Jesus’ presentation in the Temple, and includes the much-cherished song of Simeon, proclaiming Jesus as ‘a light to lighten the Gentiles’. In this story Luke displays his exquisite literary gifts: in my view Luke intends to pair this encounter in the Temple near the beginning of his Gospel with the experience of the disciples walking on the road to Emmaus near the Gospel’s end, and encourage us to interpret each in the light of the other. Both episodes are excellent examples of Luke’s inspired talent as a writer and an evangelist. One of the reasons that I appreciate Anselm Grun’s book, is the way that he acknowledges this aspect of Luke’s Gospel. In his own introduction Grun comments:
‘In Luke’s stories the face of God shines out on us in the man Jesus. If we look at this picture we will be changed by it. Redemption comes about by reading the story. If I read it with all my senses, if – as Martin Luther puts it – I creep into the text, I will emerge from the text transformed. I have encountered the figure of Jesus, and this now shapes my figure.’ (Anselm Grun).
Grun is quite correct – somehow the image of ‘face’ is a recurring and powerful one in Luke’s Gospel – whether we are thinking of the face of Jesus or the ‘face’ of others. Just think for a moment about the way that Luke (alone) tells us that after Peter’s denial of him, ‘the Lord turned and looked at Peter’, or how the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, stood still, ‘looking sad’, or indeed how (in last week’s Gospel reading, ‘the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed’ on Jesus (Luke 4.20).
In some ways of course ‘the Presentation of Christ in the Temple’ is not the most obvious passage to show how ‘the face of God shines out to us in the man Jesus’, even though Simeon proclaims him, ‘a light for revelation to the Gentiles’. Jesus is at the centre of the story, but here he is the ‘still unspeaking and unspoken word’ to quote TS Eliot’s poem, ‘A Song for Simeon.’
Yet the face of God is in this story – in a place that is perhaps unexpected. For after Simeon sings his song, Anna takes up the strain. She is called ‘Anna the daughter of Phanuel’. If we ‘translate’ these originally Hebrew names into their English equivalents her name would read as ‘Grace, daughter of the face of God’. What a wonderful description! It is of course interesting that she had lived for so many years in the Temple – as that was traditionally the place to which people came to ‘see the face of God’. She had lived in this holy place long enough to become her own prayer. Anna’s words of praise and acclamation for the child can genuinely be seen as words of ‘grace, the face of God’.
The picture that illustrates this week’s blog – of an old Greek Cypriot woman – speaks to me of Anna daughter of Phanuel. It is a picture which belongs to my husband Alan and myself, which was painted by the artist John Corbidge in northern Cyprus and bought at Bellapais Abbey by Alan in 1974 just before the Turkish invasion in July that year. A few weeks after Alan bought the painting many Greek Cypriot people were killed nearby: we simply don’t know the fate of the old woman who was the subject of Corbidge’s painting. But we have treasured it over the years, and perhaps through the face of this old woman who probably had seen and experienced quite a lot of suffering during her lifetime, we may be able to glimpse something of the face of God, in the humanity that Jesus came to redeem.
In last week’s blog we explored the importance that Luke gives to the word ‘Today’. (In fact the ‘Now’ of the Song of Simeon… ’Now, Lord you are dismissing your servant in peace’ resonates also with Luke’s interest in ‘Today’). One of the blog readers, who preached on the text of Luke 4.14-21 last Sunday, picked up this theme of ‘Today’ and wrote a poem which he used as part of his sermon, and was kind enough to share it with me . The reader’s poem follows:
“Today. This is the time we are given,
the precious gift we have to use;
Treasure these passing moments.
But don’t bank them :
turn them into life for others.
Let them go, with grace let them flow.
Today; this is the time of human suffering;
This is the time of human need
This is the time not
to walk by on the other side
But to turn, look, see and act.
Let not today pass you by.
Today, this is the day when water becomes wine
When love overflows
When the impossible becomes possible;
When the unforgiven get forgiven
When rich and poor sit down together;
The day when we see the world with fresh eyes
The day when hope is born again to us.