On the Sunday before Ash Wednesday, the church typically hears scriptures and sermons about the Transfiguration, that occasion when Peter, James, and John go up on a mountain with Jesus and some rather strange events occur. However, the CHMF worship calendar—in either a mistaken or inspired move—scheduled the readings for today to be those for the Presentation of the Lord—a Feast day which falls on February 2nd.
Today we hear the story of the forty-day-old Jesus being brought by his parents to the Temple in Jerusalem. We hear of two individuals recognizing this month-old baby as Israel’s Messiah. This moment stands in stark contrast to the Transfiguration. On the mountain, Jesus is glorious and is flanked by Moses and Elijah; in the temple, Jesus is an infant, whose attendants are two aged eccentrics. The revelation of the divine presence is clear in the transfiguration, but what are we supposed to make of Anna and Simeon worshipping this helpless babe?
The reading from Hebrews today offers one answer, “Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death” (Heb. 2:14). The fourth century theologian, Gregory of Nazianzus, puts it this way: “For that which He has not assumed He has not healed; but that which is united to His Godhead is also saved.” Humanity is saved because God unites humanity with godself in Jesus. Surely this is good and true, but in rushing to this answer we may miss the significance of the fact that Simeon and Anna are worshipping Jesus, a forty-day-old infant. Yes, it is true that in order for Jesus to be human he needed to be born human, and that entails birth, infancy, and presumably an awkward adolescence. But the adoration of the infant Jesus forces us to slow down. We must take the time to understand that in Christ, God does not simply join godself with adult humanity, but humanity in all its features—including infancy and childhood.
Maria Montessori thought that we too often instrumentalized childhood, seeing it only as a part of the process of becoming a mature adult. Montessori instead insists that, “child and adult are not just successive phases in an individual life but are ‘two different forms of human life, going on at the same time, and exerting upon one another reciprocal influence.” We all recognize that children should learn from adults, but rarely do we emphasize the ways adults should learn from children. We should not learn from children because they are more pure or innocent than adults. In fact, the utter dependency of children makes them especially vulnerable to the environments they inhabit. From the moment we are born everything must be provided for us. This not only includes nourishment and protection, but also the way we understand ourselves and the world. The philosopher Stanley Cavell writes:
When you say, “I love my love,” the child learns the meaning of the word ‘love’ and what love is. That (what you do) will be love in the child’s world; and if it is mixed with resentment and intimidation, then love is a mixture of resentment and intimidation, and when love is sought that will be sought. When you say, “I’ll take you tomorrow, I promise,” the child begins to learn what temporal durations are, and what trust is, and what you do will show what trust is worth.
The brokenness of our lives bears witness to this terrible vulnerability. We all were and continue to be shaped by people and events outside of our control. My wife is a clinical social worker who works with children in crisis. As she relates to me so many stories of unimaginable abuse and neglect, I cannot help but remember that these tragedies will be likely be repeated as these children grow into adulthood. Hurt people hurt people, as they say.
Jesus was open to these very same risks. He was the scandalous child of Mary—that mad woman who believed the child’s father was God. Perhaps her son has inherited this madness. We do not know what gossip the child grew up hearing or if his brothers and sisters maligned him for being the favorite child. We do know that when he sets out to begin his ministry in his hometown, he is met with rejection.
Jesus was open to our same vulnerabilities; he was at the mercy of his environment. But the same reality that opens us up to the possibility that our lives will be shaped fear and alienation, also holds the potential for us to know and be formed by acceptance and intimacy. If we can become damaged by the wrongs done to us at the hands of others how much more can our lives be transformed by another person’s love and care?
The first two chapters of Luke’s gospel seem to demonstrate the way our lives can be transformed by words spoken over us by another. The angel Gabriel visits Mary to announce and explain the good news of her pregnancy, Elizabeth tells Mary that the baby in her womb leaped at the sound of Mary’s voice, Mary sings her own song of praise to the Lord because of the child in her womb, angels make known the good news of Jesus’ birth to shepherds, and the shepherds worship God after seeing the child. Surely all of these events shaped who Jesus would become. When Jesus doubted his calling did he think back to the story his parents told him about Simeon and Anna? Did he remember the way Simeon cradled him in his arms and worshipped God for his life? Did Jesus think of the elderly Anna singing a hymn to God for love of the child and telling all those around her that he would be the one to redeem Jerusalem? Without such words would Jesus have known that his life was good news?
Today’s passage from Hebrews reminds us that Jesus “had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people.” In Christ, God becomes vulnerable like us. God experiences what it is to be built up by another person in love, and God suffers the consequences of having others tear him down out of fear and hatred.
In Christ, God takes these things away from us in order to give them back to us healed and redeemed. When we love and care for one another can we know that it is the love and care of God. And when we harm or are harmed by another, we can trust that there is no wound that God cannot heal for they are God’s own.
 Gregory Nazianzen, “To Cledonius the Priest Against Apollinarius” in Letters on the Apollinarian Controversy. Christian Classics Ethereal Library. http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf207.iv.ii.iii.html
 Natalie Carnes, “We in Our Turmoil: Theological Anthropology through Maria Montessori and the Lives of Children,” Journal of Religion, Vol. 95, No. 3 (July 2015), 318.
 Stanley Cavell, The Claim of Reason: Wittgenstein, Skepticism, Morality, and Tragedy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979), 177.