The Presentation is the Perfect Reflection for Advent

How do we know if we are truly “ready for Christmas?”

Giovanni Bellini, “The Presentation of Jesus Christ in the Temple,” c. 1469
Giovanni Bellini, “The Presentation of Jesus Christ in the Temple,” c. 1469

A question we always find ourselves asking this time of year is “Are you ready for Christmas?” 

For some the question teases the need to string lights, buy enough eggnog from the grocer, and to be sure the post office is open, supplies are in hand, and shipping is postmarked by an early enough date. There are also those who immediately think of their spiritual readiness for Christmas. After all, Advent is a season for preparation, expectation and hope. What is the right way to judge if we are “ready for Christmas?”

Every year my heart grows stronger with the true meaning of “preparation for Christmas” with contemplation on the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple.

The beginning of Luke’s Gospel is centered the same topics as the Joyful Mysteries. The Annunciation, in which Mary is startled a bit by the news of her heavenly visitor. The Visitation, in which Mary becomes an evangelist and caregiver for months to the aged and also miraculously impregnated Elizabeth. After the monumental events of the Nativity, it may seem as though this mystery, the Presentation, is a little challenging for inspiration. But as with the Nativity, there is almost too much spiritual and practical wisdom to choose from, especially for Advent, even though the liturgical feast is more than a month after Christmas day.

This feast and mystery, which is more traditionally known as the Purification, marks the completion of the events of the events of Mary’s pregnancy and the Incarnation insofar as the Law of Moses is concerned: in order for a priest to atone for birth and make the woman clean, she must fulfill the Law with an act of presentation and sacrifice in the Temple. And this is what takes place in Luke 2:22-24.

What is not present in the text of Luke’s Gospel are the specifics found in Leviticus. The laws of purification — obligations which even the Holy Family are subject to — require the purchase and sacrifice of a Lamb. The poor man’s alternative is the sacrifice of two doves or two pigeons. I imagine, being of excellent conscience, that Mary and Joseph wanted to give according to the height of the Law, but they were unable. Luke makes sure we discover this subtle act of humility.

Although unable to afford the best offering, they didn’t pout. The Law afforded them a meager alternative but meager or not, they gave the most they were able. We shouldn’t pout about our ability to afford the highest of gifts and sacrifices, either. If we can’t afford an Advent pilgrimage to the Holy Land, or to get our college children a new car, we shouldn’t be enticed the temptation of holiday guilt and anxiety. Maybe we can’t travel at all, and due to unforeseen difficulties, can’t afford much for others. Whether we can give or will receive valuable gifts are of no measure: the measure is in lovingly offering all we are able to our parish, loved ones and neighbors. 

The second part of the Presentation is also a monumental occasion for our thoughts during Advent. Simeon was promised that he would not die before seeing the Messiah for himself. He knew it was coming, even if it sort of snuck up on him. We, too, know the liturgical season for the coming of the Messiah has snuck up on us. The school year begins, sometimes an election seasons nags the calendar, Halloween and All Saints Day, Thanksgiving plans are being made, and boom! Advent is here. And just when we settle into Advent, it will be over and our Lord is with us.

Simeon’s reaction should be our adopted response: great joy of expectation and unreluctant acceptance of the contradiction of the Gospel. Many readers are quick to focus on the beautiful Nunc Dimittis of the Canticle of Simeon, and rightfully so. “As you have promised, you may now dismiss your servant in peace. For my eyes have seen your salvation” (Luke 2:29). What supreme joy it is to look upon our Lord at Christmastime, especially the Real Presence of the Holy Eucharist. And it is in that presence where Simeon raises a gentle word of prophetic warning to Mary: “Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising of many in Israel … and a sword will pierce through your own soul also” (34-35). 

Are we as accepting as Simeon for the joy and the torment that comes to those who believe in and follow Jesus? Or do we only intend to call Jesus our Lord in times of happiness and cheer? Much of our contemplation of our personal readiness should include reflection on this response.

Consider praying the Joyful Mysteries of the Holy Rosary this Advent. Each passing Advent it helps me to consider the conditions and anxieties of the first Christmas, which is why praying the Joyful Mysteries — especially the Presentation — with heartfelt examination comes as a timely advantage. There is no mistake or coincidence that the liturgical calendar begins with Advent, and the Holy Rosary begins with the Joyful Mysteries. This set of five decades makes an exquisite highlight of the preparation, expectation and hope of the Advent liturgical season.