This Sunday’s Feast of the Presentation of the Lord recalls several Jewish traditions by which a child was officially inducted into his faith. The Presentation ceremony incorporates purification rituals and the ceremonial redemption of the firstborn. As a Christian with limited exposure to those traditions, when I look at the readings for this Feast, I can’t help but think of a song from that famous Broadway musical and film, Fiddler on the Roof: “Tradition.”
The story focuses on a late-19th-century tradition-steeped Jewish community facing the unknown terrors of changing times and the familiar horrors of prejudice and persecution coming from ruling powers. We are introduced to the troubles of one particular family consisting of two parents with five daughters. The father, Tevye, has a constant running dialog with God. At one point, before he gives his oldest daughter’s hand in marriage to a dirt-poor tailor, he tells God (and the audience) “They’re so happy they don’t know how miserable they are.”
That’s a perfect setup for this Sunday’s readings. Each is filled with pain and suffering, but undergirding them is the promise of salvation. In the play and movie, Tevye meets each crisis with an upward glance and a loving questioning of God’s purpose in putting him through this. Sunday’s first reading from the Book of Malachi (Mal 3:1-4) reads like God’s answer to Tevye’s prayers.
[The Lord you seek] is like the refiner’s fire, or like the fuller’s lye. He will sit refining and purifying silver, and he will purify the sons of Levi, Refining them like gold or like silver that they may offer due sacrifice to the LORD. Then the sacrifice of Judah and Jerusalem will please the LORD, as in the days of old, as in years gone by.
Jesus was raised in the same traditions, and faced many of the same existential fears as the people with whom he grew up. He had a target on his back not only for being a Jew, but for offering freedom to anyone who fears losing life and livelihood to those wielding power over them. In the second reading from his letter to the Hebrews (Heb 2:14-18), we can imagine Paul addressing Tevye personally. In the story, Tevye distances himself from Christianity until he is confronted by it through one of his other daughters who falls in love with a Christian and asks her father to bless their union. At first he angrily puts his foot down—threatening to disown his daughter for betraying their tradition. Paul’s letter presents Jesus not only as a kindred soul for the oppressed, but one whose faith and courage free him and anyone who follows him out of fear’s slavery.
Since the children share in blood and flesh, Jesus likewise shared in them, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the Devil, and free those who through fear of death had been subject to slavery all their life. … Because he himself was tested through what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.
Fiddler on the Roof ends with the Tsarist government of Russia driving the families in Tevye’s community off their land, forcing them into the arms of relatives who’ve settled in other lands around the world. We see Tevye’s remaining family kiss other families and friends goodbye—until it comes to his daughter who is about to run off with her Christian husband. She begs for her father’s blessing. He remains silent. She leaves. Under his breath, he whispers “Go with God.” Hearing this, a family member transmits that blessing to the daughter, giving her the precious farewell gift she craved.
Sunday’s gospel reading (Lk 2:22-40) would be a fitting coda to this story, especially for 21st century audiences seeming to have lost faith that God is with them as they surrender little by little to fear. That’s not hyperbole. The news media fill our ears with stories about “existential threats” of terrorism, environmental devastation and political power shifts. Their news cycle is even fed by something called “The Existential Risk Research Assessment,” for crying out loud! All the better to tighten those shackles of fear we choose to wear. For today, let’s imagine we’re Tevye and celebrate the promise that came out of the tradition the Holy Family enjoyed with Jesus’ presentation at the Temple. The coda we need to end our story of slavery comes from the Tevye-like prayer Simeon offers up to God:
Now, Master, you may let your servant go in peace, according to your word, for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you prepared in the sight of all the peoples: a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and glory for your people Israel.
L’chaim! (To Life!)