Malachi, meaning “my messenger,” is one of the twelve Minor Prophets of the Old Testament. It was written after the Jews returned to Jerusalem following the Babylonian exile. The prophet witnessed how God had revealed himself to the Jews by bringing them out of Babylon and restoring them to their land, but he also pointed out a glaring failure to properly respond to God’s salvation.
Malachi observed that services held in the newly rebuilt Temple were not properly conducted. Instead of offering God the best they had for worship, the priests were being cheapskates by buying less-than-perfect animals for sacrifice. Malachi also observed that the people themselves did not take seriously enough their responsibility to support the temple through their tithes. It led the prophet to ask, “Will man rob God?”
The Book of Malachi appears just before the Gospels, thus giving today’s passage more poignancy. Malachi speaks of the coming day when the Lord will present himself to us. It is announced as a joyful day; however, in light of the conscious scrimping in the temple and the people’s lack of support of the Temple, the day of the Lord’s coming is seen also as a day in which everyone’s attitudes must be purified through fire, just as ore containing silver and gold must pass through fire.
The Feast of the Presentation of the Lord recalls two Jewish parents faithfully fulfilling the requirements of their faith, but as with all feasts of our Church, there’s more to this day than the memory of a past event. With Simeon’s warning to Mary — “and you yourself a sword will pierce” — we hear a warning. We usually see the sword piercing Mary’s heart only as a prophecy about the heartache she will endure, but this is far more than a prophecy to one woman. This sword is pointed at all of us, and one day it will run us through, and we could quite possibly die from the wound. This is a sword being wielded in a way that either will purify us or destroy us.
Luke’s story intentionally calls to mind a sword in a parallel story in Ezekiel: the sword of discrimination. It is a sword of judgment; it will destroy some but save others. It will separate those who have decided for God from those who have decided against Him. Simeon thus implies that even Mary, the mother of Jesus, must choose whether or not to follow her Son. The clear implication is that, if even Mary must choose whether or not to follow her Son, so must we.
Every day we are tempted to choose what we want over what God wants for us and of us. Unfortunately, like the priests in the Temple and like the people not supporting the Temple, our choices reveal that we too scrimp and are cheap in our support of God and of our Church. Our financial support is not the center of our faith and salvation, but the quality of our support reveals where our choice for God lies.
Hebrews tells us to pay attention to the priesthood of Jesus, the example of His sacrifice, so that we can be helped to overcome the temptation to give God our leftovers instead of our first fruits. The self-sacrifice of Jesus is the standard of support for His followers, and Hebrews gives us the example of Christ as motivation toward what we might think of as an unachievable goal. The death of Christ reveals how much we are loved, and thus reveals how much love we are capable of offering in return.
God presents himself to us in many and varied ways. Simeon and Anna prayed to see the coming of the Lord whom Malachi and the other prophets had foretold. How was it they recognized in one baby the answer to their prayers? Of this we have no clue, but what we do know is that they were looking. We are being reminded that God presents himself to us daily, and we too must be looking. As we begin to see God in our lives, we are expected to respond. A sword waits to separate those who choose to respond with their best from those whose choose to hold back and place themselves and their wants above the needs of God.
Will we choose to be like the two faithful Jewish parents who took their faith seriously enough to make a return to the Lord of the most precious thing in their lives, that is, their son whom they presented to God in the Temple? Or, will we choose to penny-pinch and be cheap like the people with whom Malachi was frustrated? Have we “robbed God” by withholding our tithe? Or, will the sword discern our generous love?
FATHER STEINER, born and reared in Chattanooga, Tenn., is a priest of the Diocese of Nashville. He currently serves as rector of the Cathedral of the Incarnation in Nashville. Previously, he served in the diocesan high school as teacher, associate principal, and principal. He received his education from St. Meinrad Seminary in Indiana, the Gregorian University in Rome, and The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.