St Agnes Kennington 2nd February 1997
"It was just a co-incidence".
How often have we said that of some experience we've had: When two or more apparently unconnected events have happened to us at the same time or in the same place.?
At one level the word "co-incidence" means exactly what it says: two things come together or "co-incide" with each other. So two cars crashing into each other is literally the "co-in-cidence" of the two vehicles at the same spot.
But what people usually mean when they say that some event is a "co-incidence" is that it was entirely the work of chance.
We "just happen" to meet an old friend whom we haven't seen for a long time walking through Victoria Station. We meet them, not because we have agreed to meet them there (which would be one kind of co-in-cidence) but because our two paths "just happen" to cross and we come sufficiently close to recognize each other and remember who the other party is.
St Luke in his account of the Presentation of our Lord in the Temple at Jerusalem, describes a co-in-cidence. Joseph, Mary, Jesus, Simeon and Anna, it would seem at first sight "just happened to come together" in the same place at the same time.
But was it just a chance co-in-cidence?
Well, St Luke tells us that it was nothing of the sort. He tells us enough about the three parties involved, the Holy Family, Simeon and Anna to make it abundantly clear that there was a particular reason for each of them being where they were when their paths crossed or co-incided.
Mary and Joseph, St Luke says, were fulfilling their duty as good Jewish people, following the Law of Moses: "Every first-born male must be consecrated to the Lord... and a sacrifice offered, a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons".
Fulfilling the Law in this way involved something more than just popping round the corner into the local church for a 5-minute Churching of Women service as it used to be called.
It meant, amongst other tings, travelling midweek to Jerusalem from Bethlehem (because travel on the Sabbath was forbidden; it meant taking a month-old baby into the crowds with all the risk of infection which that entailed; it meant St Joseph losing at least two days carpentry work (it's quite reasonable to suppose that he had to do the odd job in Bethlehem to make ends meet). It meant paying for accommodation in Jerusalem; and worst of all it meant the risk taking the child who was born to be King into the very city where King Herod of the Jews was living at the time.
The Presentation then, so far from being an easy duty to fulfil, was bristling with inconvenience, danger and complications.
One can just hear Joseph and Mary discussing whether it was really as important as all that to fulfil the Law's demands there and then, or whether it might not be just as good to put the whole thing off till a better, less dangerous, more convenient time.
But, St Luke tells us, they decided to put their duty to God and his Law as they knew it, before their own personal convenience and comfort.
Now let's look at Simeon. "An upright man", St Luke tells us, "who looked forward to Israel's comforting; and the Holy Spirit rested upon him"
"It had been revealed to him that he should not see death until he had set eyes on the Christ of the Lord. Prompted by the Spirit he came to the Temple..."
And we all know what happened next: he almost literally bumped into the Holy Family as they went about fulfilling their duty.
"An upright and devout man who looked forward...."
St Luke gives us a picture very different from the one which the phrase "holy man" often suggests to our minds. So far from being one of those religious people who are always moaning about the fact that "finks ain't what they used to be", in other words always looking backwards, Simeon, he tells us was someone who habitually looked forwards;
Nor are we thinking of some easy-going optimist who reckons that it doesn't much matter how their relation to God is working out because they say to themselves "we'll muddle through somehow and God will take care of the end product"
No. Saint Simeon was, in Luke's words "an upright and devout man who looked forward"
"Looking forward" is one of the things that a prophet does. A true prophet, remember, is not a fortune teller who gazes into a crystal ball or at the stars for his enlightenment or plays around with Tarot cards. That is the mark of a false prophet.
A "prophet of the Lord" by contrast is someone who places his trust in the Word of God and walks around with his eyes wide open in the expectation that he will see the will of God being fulfilled in everyday happenings. As a result, the true prophet picks up the messages God is sending out to him much more quickly than someone whose mind is set on earthly things.
This is a fact about prophets which some people find it difficult to get their mind round.
For most people are totally blind and deaf (sometimes deliberately so) to the promptings of the Holy Spirit and the significance of "coincidences"; and we all know, don't we, that "there's non so blind as those who will not see"?
Besides them there are some other, equally misguided people who insist that they can see "providential co-incidences" (as they would call them) happening every minute of the day. They want to believe this, often, because it makes them feel more important. That's perhaps an even more serious mistake than seeing nothing at all: for whilst the blind and the deaf can have their eyes and ears opened for them, the compulsive providentialist as we might call him doesn't want to be told that he is wrong. So your religious bore, who is always regaling us with what God has done for him it would seem every minute of the day, is just as misguided as the person who doesn't give any consideration to the possibility that God is wanting him to take notice of what is happening right under his very nose.
The true Prophet, by contrast, is someone like Simeon. Someone who "lives an upright and devout life" and is all the time, habitually, "looking forward to God's plan for mankind to be revealed, especially as God intends it to affect his own life. He is well prepared in other words to "pick up" any clue that may appear to come from God; but at the same time he is someone who knows perfectly well that the life of holiness is not one perpetual round of excitement and particular divine intervention in the life of the individual but the much less glamorous business of "living uprightly, fearing the Lord and having our eyes wide open to his mercies".
And then what about Anna?
Well she was a prophetess, St Luke tells us. One of those devout, invaluable holy women who has given herself over to a life of prayer and fasting. Not very intellectual or well-educated, perhaps, but someone who just knows that God requires her to be continually about his business on earth.
Anna, a woman who had been through adolescence, marriage, motherhood perhaps, widowhood and who had come to realise that, despite her great age and all the handicaps which come with it, the right place for her was to stick around the Temple of God, offering prayers and fastings and almsgiving to him on behalf of his people, especially those who were too busy even to think about him at all.
"She came by just at that moment", says St Luke. Well, she was just there wasn't she? And that was probably the reason why God reckoned that it would be a good idea to pull her into this so-called coincidence..
So thus it was that what most people would have reckoned to be a "chance happening, a mere co-incidence" turned out to be in fact nothing of the sort. Those prophecies that Simeon and Anna were inspired by the Holy Spirit to utter were vital bits of the whole jigsaw of the Incarnation, planned by God from the very beginning.
Mary we know from what something Luke tells us earlier, was in the habit of "keeping all these sayings and pondering them in her heart". It's quite probable that she and St Joseph didn't understand the significance of what Simeon and Anna were saying at the time about this Child being a "light to lighten the Nations" and about a "sword piercing her own heart also".
No matter. When those two prophecies were fulfilled on Calvary and at Pentecost the words of Simeon no doubt came back to Mary's mind and she knew that the prophecy about whose precise meaning she had so long wondered were being fulfilled before her very eyes.
There are two lessons, therefore, to learn from the Feast of the Presentation.
The first lesson is the truth that, whilst many things in the life of each one of us are "just co-incidences", several other things are emphatically nothing of the kind. They are, on the contrary, carefully crafted, skilfully executed "comings together" (or co-in-cidences) engineered by God in his providence and wisdom to take place at particular times and in particular places in our lives. The closer we come to God, the more likely we are to discover them. The more careless and casual we are about our relationship with God the less likely he is to reveal himself to us in this way, and the greater the certainty that even if he did so we should fail to see them even if they stared us in the face.
And the second lesson is this:
It is people like Joseph and Mary who doggedly persevere in doing God's will even when it's not the most convenient thing to be doing; it is people like Simeon, upright and devout who look forward and not backwards or downwards or inwards; it is people like Anna who have consciously given their lives to the service of God, perhaps only in very small ways that most people know nothing about at all: it is those sort of people who are most likely to be the ones who are brought together in a particular place, at a particular time for a purpose which God, in his wisdom has determined.
And it will be precisely such people as Joseph, Mary, Simeon and Anna who will be the most unlikely people in the world to dismiss such events as being "just another coincidence"
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