The painting (1488) is by Bartolomeo di Giovanni and was commissioned for the Hospital of the Innocents in Florence. The six-sided altar at the centre of the composition points to the Sixth Day Sacrifice of the Cross. There is fire burning on the altar, a sign of the Holy Spirit. The Blessed Virgin Mary’s gesture indicates that she is offering the Infant Christ and participating in His sacrifice. Simeon’s gesture is one of acceptance; he is an image of the Eternal Father. Saint Joseph holds the turtle doves in his cloak; Joseph was chosen by God to veil the mystery. Anna, entering the painting at the extreme left, holds the lighted candle of her faith and hope as she witnesses the arrival in the temple of the long-awaited Priest and Victim, the Consolation of Israel.
The Face of a Little Child
In today’s splendid Introit we sing that we have received Mercy “in the midst of the temple” (Ps 47:10). At the heart of today’s mystery shines the face of a little Child, the human face of Divine Mercy. The four other figures in today’s Gospel — Mary, Joseph, Simeon and Anna — are held in His gaze. In a homily for January 1, 2010, Pope Benedict XVI spoke tenderly of the Face of the Infant Christ. “God’s Face took on a human face, letting itself be seen and recognized in the Son of the Virgin Mary, who for this reason we venerate with the loftiest title of Mother of God. She, who had preserved in her heart the secret of the divine motherhood, was the first to see the face of God made man in the small fruit of her womb.”
Today we meet the gaze of the Infant Christ, “made like His brethren in every respect” (Heb 2:17) and, looking into His eyes, we see that He is already our “merciful and faithful High Priest in the service of God, to make expiation for the sins of the people” (Heb 2:17).
The Presentation of Christ Our Priest
Today in the midst of the temple the Father presents His Christ, our Priest, to us; and today the Father presents us to Christ our Priest. Of ourselves we have nothing to present; we can but receive Christ and allow ourselves to become an offering in His hands. “We have received your Mercy, O God, in the midst of your temple” (Ps 47:10).
The Infant Christ, presented to us as our Priest, presents us, in turn, to the Father. It is fitting that the symbol of the Infant Christ should be the living flame that crowns our candles. This Child has a Heart of fire, and so the prophet says, “But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire . . . and he will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, till they present right offerings to the Lord” (Mal 3:2-3).
The Infant Priest and Victim
Today is the World Day for Consecrated Life. Consider the images that the liturgy sets before us: a flame that burns, consuming the wax that holds it aloft; a Child with the all-embracing gaze of the “Ancient of Days” (Dn 7:13); an Infant who is already Priest and Victim.
Identification with Christ the Victim
One consecrated in the monastic life is a taper offered to the consuming flame of love. One so consecrated has eyes only for the gaze of Christ, revealing a Heart that is all fire. One consecrated is presented and handed over to Christ the Priest. One consecrated is inescapably destined for the altar of sacrifice, for identification with Christ the Victim. Monastic life cannot be anything less than this, nor can it be anything more. This is why the Apostle says, “I appeal to you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship” (Rom 12:1).
The Woman Wrapped in Silence
Each of the four figures surrounding the Infant Christ in the temple is an icon of consecrated life, beginning with his all-holy Virgin Mother. How does today’s Gospel present her? She is a woman wrapped in silence. Even when addressed by Simeon, she remains silent. Her silence is an intensity of listening. She is silent so as to take in Simeon’s song of praise, silent so as to capture his mysterious prophecy of soul-piercing sorrow and hold it in her Immaculate Heart. She is silent because today her eyes say everything, eyes fixed on the face of the Infant Christ, eyes illumined by the brightness of his gaze.
Wordlessly, Mary offers herself to the living flame of love. She is the bride of the Canticle of whom it is said, “Behold, you are beautiful, my love, behold you are beautiful! Your eyes are doves behind your veil” (Ct 4:1). Consecrated life in all its forms, and monastic life in particular, begins in the silence of Mary that, already in the temple, consents to the sacrifice of her Lamb and to the place that will be hers beside the altar of the Cross.
Joseph and the Divine Desires
Turning to Saint Joseph, what do we see? Joseph shares Mary’s silence. Silence is the expression of their communion in a tender and chaste love, a love that is ready for sacrifice. Joseph listens with Mary. Saint Joseph is the first to enter deeply into the silence of the Virgin. It is his way of loving her. It is his way of trusting her beyond words.
Saint Joseph: Tenderly Focused on the Face of Christ
The silence of Saint Joseph becomes for all consecrated persons a way of loving, a way of trusting, a way of pushing back the frontiers of hope. I recall what Pope Benedict XVI said concerning the silence of Saint Joseph. “The silence of Saint Joseph,” said the Holy Father, “is an attitude of total availability to the divine desires. . . . He stands beside the Church today, silent, listening, tenderly focused on the face of Christ in all his members.” Consecrated life is just that: availability to the desires of God, a listening silence, and a way of focusing tenderly on the face of Christ in all his members.
The Old Priest Sings
Saint Simeon represents the ancient priesthood disappearing into the light of Christ, our “merciful and faithful high priest before God” (Heb 2:17). Simeon is the old priest pointing to the new. He speaks; he sings his praise; he utters prophecy. Saint Simeon models the vocation of every priest charged in the celebration of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass with the calling down of the Holy Ghost over altar, bread, wine, and people. Simeon has a particular relationship with the Holy Ghost. Three times in as many verses Saint Luke emphasizes the mystical synergy of Simeon and the Holy Ghost: “The Holy Ghost was upon him. . . ” (Lk 2:25); “It had been revealed to him by the Holy Ghost. . . . ; (Lk 2:26); “He came in the Spirit into the temple”; (Lk 2:27). In the Holy Spirit, Simeon contemplates the face of the Infant Christ; in the Holy Spirit he raises his voice in prophecy and in thanksgiving. In all of this Simeon shows us the characteristic traits of the new priesthood called to serve in the Holy Spirit.
Anna of the Face of God
Finally, there is Anna the prophetess, Anna the daughter of Phanuel whose name means “Face of God.” The widow Anna has made the temple her home. Abiding day and night in adoration, she emerges from the recesses of the temple only to give thanks to God and speak of the Child. Drawn into the light of the face of Christ she cannot but praise and immediately publish the good news “to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem” (Lk 2:38).
Anna of the Face of God models the vocation of every consecrated woman called to be at once fully contemplative and fully apostolic. The old woman’s encounter with the Infant Christ energizes and rejuvenates her. In some way, Anna is the first apostle sent out by the Holy Spirit. Before Mary Magdalene and before the twelve, Anna announces Christ. She is compelled to speak but does so out of an “adoring silence.” She appears in the temple to publish the long-awaited arrival of Mercy, and in her eyes shines the light of his Face. Mercy in the flesh was passed like a living flame from the arms of Mary and Joseph into the arms of Simeon and, then, undoubtedly into the embrace of holy Anna. “We have received your Mercy, O God, in the midst of your temple” (Ps 47:10).
The Consuming Fire of the Most Holy Eucharist
We, who welcome Mercy in the midst of the temple, are compelled to present ourselves to Mercy at the altar, to give ourselves back to Mercy, to give ourselves up to Mercy, to surrender to Mercy’s sweet, purifying flame. “Let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe; for our God is a consuming fire” (Heb 12:28-29).