On February 2, forty days after Christmas, the Church celebrates the presentation of Jesus in the Jewish Temple by his parents. According to Jewish law, a couple’s first-born son was to be brought to the Temple when he was forty days old so that his parents could give thanks for his birth and present him to God.
Forty days was also the time allotted for a woman to become ritually cleansed before re-entering the Temple after childbirth. So, the day marks a big moment for Mary, too, who is presenting herself and her son in a rite of thanksgiving and purification after safe delivery (And yes, first-born son and the implicit “impurity” of motherhood and childbirth are all aspects of ancient patriarchy, but we’ll set that aside for the moment.)
It is during this ritual event that Simeon and Anna, two prophets in the Temple, recognize this forty-day-old child as the Messiah and proclaim him as the light of the world.
All of these events take place in the space of one moment and it is such an important moment that the Episcopal Church created a whole liturgy with specific prayers to mark it. In the Candlemas Procession that some Episcopalians will participate in today, we pray that, just as God revealed the light of Christ to Simeon, we also might have that light in our hearts; that, since Mary gave birth to Jesus, we may hope for and rejoice in our own salvation through him; and that, as Jesus was ‘this day presented in the temple, so we may be presented to [God] with pure and clean hearts by Jesus Christ.’ With pure and clean hearts.
Many years ago, I engaged in a home workout routine based on a set of DVDs (remember those?!). One was a program led by a woman named Ellen who was big on ‘mind-body wellness’ before mind-body wellness was the thing it is today. Ellen encouraged her audience to work out in bare feet, be aware of one’s own surroundings, and pay attention to breath. I imagine she’s a yoga instructor somewhere now because even decades ago she was adamant that good health is not just about being physically fit, but emotionally energized, tuned-in to body and mind.
And she had this phrase that she would repeat over and over in her videos: ‘Lift your heart up.’ I’d be squatting or jumping or twisting or stretching and she’d ask, ‘Is your heart lifted?’
This is why I think she must be a yoga instructor now because of the simple idea she communicated with that phrase: your body should be aligned, with your chest out a bit and your neck long and your shoulders back and down, no matter what other movement is happening. Ellen claimed that keeping your heart lifted maintains good posture and promotes energy, good health and ‘mind-body wellness’ even after you’ve finished and moved on with your day.
In my Episcopal tradition, I hear (or, as a priest, say) that phrase just about every week. It’s in the main prayer of our Sunday morning Eucharistic liturgy, as we consecrate bread and wine to share as a congregation in communion: ‘The Lord be with you,’ says the priest. ‘And also with you,’ respond the people.
‘Lift up your hearts.’
‘We lift them to the Lord.’
‘Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.’
‘It is right to give God thanks and praise.’
Lift up your hearts. It is right to give God thanks and praise.
I don’t know if everything my old video-workout-instructor Ellen said about heart-lifting was true, but I do know that when we lift up our hearts to God, on Sunday or any day, it certainly does promote our spiritual wellness. When we lift our hearts to the Lord, we present ourselves to God. When we lift up our hearts—physically and spiritually— in a posture of worship and thanksgiving to the Lord who loves us, we are drawn ever closer into the heart of God.
And, ultimately, we’re not presenting ourselves to God, but Christ Jesus presents us. As Mary presented Jesus in the Temple, so too does Jesus present us when we worship God in any modern-day temple—from the pews of a church to the quiet moment of gratitude at our desk, to the whispered prayer as our patience runs thin at the dinner table. In all those times and places, perhaps we can take a moment to straighten our spine, relax our shoulders, and lift up our hearts to the Lord who meets us there and receives our whole self.
And because we are presented by and through Christ, that refiner and purifier, we are able to lift up hearts made pure and clean through him, even when we don’t feel so refined. In and through Christ, we can offer ourselves, not cowering in fear of retribution or burdened with the worries of our worlds, but assured of God’s mercy and forgiveness, in thanksgiving and praise for our right relationship with God and the grace by which we are able to be in service to the Light of the world, lifting up our hearts to the Lord.