HOW GREAT A GOOD IS CONSECRATED LIFE!
Pope John Paul II
Given by the Holy Father on 2 February 1995, the Feast of the Presentation at the solemn Mass celebrated in St. Peter's Basilica attended by thousands of consecrated men and women.
1. "Lumen ad revelationem gentium" (Lk 2:32).
The liturgy of the Presentation of the Lord has a particular significance: 40 days after Jesus' birth, it is as it were a last word of Christmas joy and invites us to turn our gaze towards the season of Lent and Easter which are now close at hand.
Every year men and women of religious families and secular institutes resident in Rome are invited to today's celebration in St. Peter's Basilica. Welcome dear brothers and sisters. Your presence calls to mind the men and women religious and members of secular institutes throughout the world. It recalls in particular the Synod of Bishops last autumn which focused its reflection on consecrated life at the center of the Church. Today we want to pray that this Synodal Assembly will enable all religious institutes to have a deepened awareness of their own specific vocation.
May the light which pervades today's liturgy become the sign of the inner light which penetrates young people's hearts and shows them the way of the evangelical counsels, offered by Jesus to all those who wish to follow him and dedicate their lives to him.
Temple represented the fulfillment of God's promise
2. Turning our attention now to the Liturgy of the Word, we note that it has three dimensions: the dimension of the temple, of the sacrifice and of prophecy.
The temple. We read in the book of the Prophet Malachi: "And suddenly there will come to the temple the Lord whom you seek, and the messenger of the covenant whom you desire" (Mal 3:1). These words illustrate the specific moment when Mary and Joseph brought Jesus to the temple in Jerusalem to present him to the Lord in accordance with what was prescribed by the Law of Moses. The arrival of two poor people from the neighboring town of Bethlehem would certainly have passed unnoticed if the Holy Spirit had not made Simeon and Anna conscious of the Messiah's presence.
What was the temple of Jerusalem? Built at the time King Solomon, destroyed and rebuilt after the exile and finally restored by Herod the Great, it symbolized the end of Israel's long pilgrimage from slavery in Egypt to the Promised Land. In Egypt, God had burst into Israel's history. The Jewish people, miraculously delivered from slavery, under Moses' guidance had set out through the desert on their long journey, which was to last for 40 years. Along the way they received God's Law, the Decalogue, written on stone tablets. These tablets, which in a certain sense became the most sacred of all that Israel possessed, were kept in a tent. At first they were transferred as the Jewish people went from one place to another, and then, after they had crossed the Jordan, they were taken to the Promised Land. The tablets of the Covenant remained in the tent for an even longer time, since many years passed before the idea developed of building a temple where this sacred sign could be placed in the Holy of Holies.
For Israel, the temple of Jerusalem represented to a certain extent the fulfillment of the promise received from God but it also remained the place of expectation. Indeed, the whole of the Old Testament is imbued with anticipation of the Messiah, and the temple in Jerusalem was a particular sign and almost the symbolic place of this expectation. Many wondered when the day would come when God would send his Messiah and permit him to cross the threshold of the temple in Jerusalem.
And behold, the day came! It came in a different way than Israel had imagined. Apart from Simeon and Anna, no one realized that in the person of a small child, borne in his parents' arms, the Messiah had already crossed the threshold of the temple in the Holy City. The Lord awaited by Israel, the Angel of the Covenant it had longed for, had entered his temple.
The event is celebrated in song in the responsorial psalm of today's liturgy: "Lift up, O gates, your lintels; reach up you ancient portals!..." (Ps 23/24:7) And this in fact is the culmination of the history of the temple in Jerusalem.
Christ would enter temple with his own blood
3. The second dimension of today's liturgy consists in the Sacrifice. Mary and Joseph came to the temple to present an offering to God, in accordance with what was prescribed by the Law of Moses. They were poor and unable to give anything more, so they offered two young doves.
The temple was the place where offerings were presented. Bloody sacrifices were offered at the temple of Jerusalem. However, everyone was to prepare for the time when the Redeemer would enter the temple, no longer with the blood of animals but with his own blood. A temple not built by the hands of man, but eternal. A temple where the Son would offer himself to the Father as the perfect and eternal sacrifice (Heb 9:24-25).
Today's Liturgy of the Word announces this "time". In the Letter to the Hebrews, it is written that the Messiah became "...a merciful and faithful high priest before God on their behalf, to expiate the sins of the people" (Heb 2:17) "that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is the devil" (Heb 2:14). Personally suffering, thus he comes to the aid of all who are put to the test. The author of the Letter to the Hebrews wrote: "Surely he did not help angels but rather the descendants of Abraham" (Heb 2:16). All those who share Abraham's faith will thus be included in the Sacrifice of that Jesus of Nazareth who today, for the first time, crosses the threshold of the temple in Jerusalem.
4. The third dimension is prophecy. The liturgy of today's feast is imbued with a deeply prophetic air. God speaks through every element of this liturgy: he speaks through the temple of Jerusalem through the offering presented by Mary and Josephfinally, he speaks through the words of Simeon, a righteous and devout man who was awaiting the consolation of Israel. The Holy Spirit had revealed to him that he would not die before he had met the Messiah of the Lord (cf. Lk 2:25:26).
God also spoke through the "prophetess" Anna, the daughter of Phanuel. She was an elderly widow who shared the same expectation of the Messiah (cf. Lk 2:36-38). What Simeon said on this occasion also reflects the elderly woman's sentiments. The words inspired by Simeon have deeply entered the Church's memory. We repeat them every day in the Liturgy of the Hours at Compline: "Now, Master, you can dismiss your servant in peace; you have fulfilled your word. For my eyes have witnessed your saving deed, displayed for all the peoples to see: a revealing light to the Gentiles, the glory of your people Israel" (Lk 2:29-32).
Simeon spoke these words, but it is more accurate to say that through his mouth it was the Holy Spirit who uttered them. And Simeon found in the Spirit's words the fulfillment of the expectation of his whole life: at last he could see the Messiah! He saw him on the threshold of his life as the Messiah, while he was still a 40-day-old baby.
The Spirit who inspired his words enabled him to glimpse this Child's future.
Simeon in fact spoke to Mary of the Son's future when he prophesied: "Behold this child is destined for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be contradicted so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed. And you yourself shall be pierced with a sword" (Lk 2:34-35). These words spoken barely 40 days after Jesus' birth already lead us, with Mary, to the foot of the Cross, to the culminating moment of her Son's messianic mission. Indeed, in a certain sense they even go beyond it. Moreover, is it not true that down the centuries Jesus Christ has remained "a sign of contradiction" for many?
We pray for an abundance of religious vocations
5. Dear brothers and sisters, I am pleased to be able to meditate together with you on the mystery of today's feast, which is, at the same time, a mystery of joy and pain.
Here I would like to return to what I said at the beginning. At the Synod of Bishops last autumn, consecrated life was put at the center of the Church. It represents a fulfillment of the Gospel in which Christ is particularly present. Consecrated life, through the evangelical counsels, yields its fruit down the centuries and generations in the Church's life. It is fruitful in a remarkable way! The Synod has made us aware of how great a good the consecrated life is for the Church, i.e., that specific consecration by which a person, man or woman, gives him or herself unreservedly to Christ, the Teacher, Redeemer and Spouse.
In reflecting on all this today we want to pray ardently for the renewal of religious life in the Church: for a great abundance and wealth of religious vocations. They spring most deeply from the spirit of the Gospel and serve the work of the Gospel in the most complete way.
Rome is particularly rich in religious families of men and women. From this city, as from a center, flow strong impulses for the vitality of religious congregations and orders. At the same time, echoes reach Rome of the great and varied mission that consecrated people and religious communities fulfill throughout the world. It takes place just as it did for the sowers described in the psalm: "Although they go forth weeping, carrying the seed to be sown, they shall come back rejoicing, carrying their sheaves" (cf. Ps 125/126: 5-6).
The light of the Gospel, so dear in today's liturgy, shines in the temple of Jerusalem over the newborn Redeemer. May this light always accompany you, dear brothers and sisters, so that in your vocation "the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed", and thus the kingdom of God may be extended to every corner of the earth!
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