We picture Jesus being held aloft in the Temple before the gaze of God, and we hear those songs of jubilation: Gloria in excelsis Deo! Glory to God in the highest! Peace on earth! Good will towards men! But wait, this last line, we read in this morning's lesson, is actually, "Peace among men with whom He is pleased!" Hmmmm. Now, this is a very different thing from "Good will towards men." In the familiar version, a general amnesty is announced to all peoples, a proclamation of divine favor from on High falls on all humankind. God's Son is born and all receive favor! Yet, these cherished words, which we learned as children in our Christmas carols — "Peace on earth, good will towards men" — are not correct.
The problem seems to have begun with St. Jerome's fourth-century translation: gloria in altissimis Deo et in terra pax in hominibus bonae voluntatis. From there it would be picked up by many translators, including the seventeenth-century Authorized Version whence it came down to us in various carols, Christmas songs, and holiday cards. Handel's Messiah has enshrined it. And, yet, there is no way around it. According to the Revised Standard Version, the English Bible used exclusively by Benedict XVI, the correct reading tells us that God's peace alights on those with whom He is well pleased, the ones in whom He delights. The Greek phrase in question is ανθρωποις ευδοκιας In order to derive "Good will towards men" from the original Greek Gospel, ευδοκιας would have to be nominative, but it is not. It is genitive. Make no mistake about it, God's peace in this instance is upon those who get it, who believe that Jesus is the Christ.
But let's turn back to the Temple, where the Lord Jesus is still being held aloft. The Holy Name is being announced to the world: Behold, the Christ, the Holy One, the One Who Is Coming into the World. Does every knee instantly bow as St. Paul proclaims in his soaring exhortation this morning? Well, no. Not exactly. Only two humans, one man and one woman, understand what is happening.
The essence of the Presentation in the Temple can be distilled down to one word: discernment. As with most exercises in discernment, not all people get it. The prophet Simeon sees the Glory of the People Israel, for the Holy Spirit is upon him. And he responds at the sight of Jesus by launching into one of St. Luke's best known arias, the Nunc dimittis, for the mood here is definitely operatic (we moderns would say). In addition, the prophetess Anna sees the Christ, for her soul has become exquisitely sensitive following years of holy life lived within the Temple. By contrast, Jesus' guardian, the ever-steady Joseph, does not understand Simeon's words. Nor does Mary, who holds more puzzle pieces concerning the mystery of Jesus than anyone. Luke underlines this point by following the Presentation immediately with the narrative of Jesus being found debating with the great theological doctors: "And they [Mary and Joseph] did not understand the saying which he spoke to them" (Lk 2:50).
As you know, for centuries the heresy of Arianism dominated the Church. The heresy of our time is Universalism, the doctrine that all people go to Heaven. A version of Universalism is a doctrine known as Eternal Security, that once you have accepted Jesus as your Lord and Savior, you go to Heaven no matter how depraved your secret life, how reprobate your soul, or how cruel your conduct of life may be. But these are weighty subjects that are bound to veer into Election, Predestination, and other highly controverted topics. Suffice it say, that Universalism is a heresy and that it led Vatican II translators of the Roman Canon of the Mass to render a Greek word that plainly means many as the English word all.
No question, God desires the salvation of all people. Equally doubtless is God's invites all of us to Heaven. Nonetheless, a response is required on our parts. We cannot simply say we love God, however truly we might feel it for a few moments, and then decide the question of our salvation has been resolved. God's desire is that we seek Him, that we discern Him, that we be watchers for Him both night and day.
Pope Benedict XVI addresses the subject with admirable balance and concision:
There can be no question of misrepresentation here, since whichever of the formulations is
allowed to stand [that Jesus died for all or that He died for many], we must in any case listen to
the whole of the gospel message: that the Lord truly loves everyone and that he died for all.
And the other aspect: that he does not, by some magic trick, set aside our freedom but allows
us to choose to enter into his great mercy.
Discernment and careful reflection go to the core of spiritual life. Now, I am not suggesting that all theologians go to Heaven. In fact, the state of 20th and 21st c. theology suggests an important principle: the mind, however excellent, will not lead you to God. No, our journey to Heaven has far more to do with our hearts than our heads. "And Mary pondered all these things in her heart."
Mary does not grasp intellectually that Jesus is the Christ. She knows that something very big, and certainly divine, is at constantly happening, but she cannot grasp Simeon's meaning. And it is on account of Mary that we learn another, very important principle: Because God's blessing falls on only two people, Simeon and Anna, does not signify that everyone else here is disfavored. That is, God's blessing on one person never equates to a curse upon the one who did not receive blessing. Mary disfavored? Josephs disfavored? No, they are a different journey from Simeon and Anna. Their blessing will be different.
Sisters, blessing is falling all around us today! And there is particular blessing — peace unto the earth itself — on account of those in whom God takes special delight. And why shouldn't Father God delight in those who have received the gift of His Son with such rejoicing:
"Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace,
according to thy word;
for mine eyes have seen thy salvation
which thou hast prepared before the face of all people,
a light to enlighten to the Gentiles,
and to be the glory of thy people Israel."