The Presentation of Christ in the Temple: 2nd February 2020
SERMON: Cowcliffe, St. Hilda: Mal. 3: 1-5 Luke 2: 22-40; Heb. 2: 14-end
May I speak in the name of the living God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. AMEN
May I be the last to wish you all a very happy Christmas, and take now as a chance to say all the best for the Easter joy to come?
No, the preacher’s not lost his mind this morning, and the student isn’t being a clever little oink either; I mean it in all genuineness. Today, we keep the feast of Candlemas, commemorating our Lord’s presentation as a baby in the temple at Jerusalem. It was – it is – a big deal, and perhaps one of which we rather lose sight in the modern world’s preoccupation with Christmas and its hogging of the secular stage.
Christmas is, of course, hugely significant: it is none other than the coming down of the mystery of love in a person, Jesus Christ, in order that we might see and know the glory of God fully revealed – fully realised – fully alive. It is entirely right that we make a big deal of it and celebrate with gladness and joy. But we must not lose sight of our other so-called ‘principal feasts’ such as today’s. Red-letter days, when we are encouraged to be in church for worship, fellowship and thanksgiving, expressed particularly in the celebration of the Eucharist, which is the supreme act of giving thanks by the reception of Christ in bread and wine.
The prophet Malachi famously predicts the events of today’s festival at the end of the Old Testament when he says, “the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple, the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight.” (Mal. 3:1) It’s a line made famous in the baritone solo of Handel’s Messiah, of course. And it is fulfilled and completed, not simply in the nativity of Jesus which we celebrate on the 25th December, Christmas; but particularly on the fortieth day following that, today, when Mary and Joseph present their son in the Jerusalem temple as a purification rite in obedience to the law of Moses by which they are bound.
The legal reason for this is one about which I’ve written in more detail for the front of your This Month newsletter. It’s not dissimilar to the provision some of you will no doubt remember from the Book of Common Prayer, the Churching of Women. I don’t know any clergy who would perform this service now, still less whether anyone would desire it pretty much straight after giving birth, but it was a well-practised rite of thanksgiving in the post-reformation Church, taking its precedent from the temple service in Jerusalem and thereby linking Christian parents – and women in particular – to their Jewish heritage. Mary and Joseph, being devout Jews, would have made the 90-mile or so journey from Bethlehem up to Jerusalem as a matter of custom; it was what all new parents did. Why? Because they sought to fulfil their duty according the law of Moses and ‘“designate their firstborn son as holy to the Lord”’ by a ritual presentation in the holiest place where God was believed to dwell. (Lev. 12)
The Presentation of Jesus is to be fêted this day because it is both habitual and extraordinary. On the one hand, his parents, Mary and Joseph are doing what any good mum and dad would do, as they offer the appointed sacrifices and seek priestly blessing upon their boy. On the other, we see the forty-day old Jesus enter his own city Jerusalem, as the light of Christ illumines a new way for the Gentiles – you and me – to see the salvation of God.
This day rightly belongs to Simeon and Anna, who have waited in hope for this all their long lives, according to Luke’s gospel. Hearts who believed that they would see the deliverance of their people Israel by the triumphal entry of God’s Messiah into the centre of the temple they love, at the heart of his own city.
I don’t have an especially visual memory, but I do not find it in any way difficult to picture old Simeon’s joy, when he takes the infant Christ in his frail arms, and with wet eyes exclaims, ‘” My own eyes have seen the salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of every people.’” Nunc dimittis servum tuum, Domine, secundum verbum tuum in pace. He can meet his own end now, dismissed in peace, not only believing the promises of God, but joyfully beholding them too. For he and Anna both, old age and death are no bar to the recognition and acclamation of love which finally meets them in the offering of Christ, transforming all things in its epiphanic power and prefiguring the Easter triumph of resurrection hope which is already theirs.
It is also our Easter triumph prefigured; our joy beheld. Simeon and Anna are examples of all our ordinariness and simplicity. This whole event is transformative for them as for us. It extends beyond the food and animal sacrifices of the Old Covenant, landscaping it into the beautiful and living relationship that is for us flesh and blood, the full, final sacrifice of a person for persons’ sake, that we too might joyfully proclaim him as our light and salvation: God who chooses in the refiner’s fire of love to make our hearts his temple, that many might behold and receive him and so put on themselves a new humanity: the uncreated light that shines through infant eyes.
This morning, we do not come to church as we are not; we may only come as we are. The only sacrifice we need to lay on God’s shrine is the beauty of our own selves, however broken or otherwise those selves may be. As Thomas Aquinas, whose day the church commemorated this week reminds us, “Lo, the full, final sacrifice… manna, paschal lamb, Jesus just and true/our food and faithful shepherd too.” It is he who has become what the writer to the Hebrews calls that ’new and living way’ that we in our turn might be presented as the new temple; the new city of the Great King; a royal Jerusalem; a holy nation to love and serve the Lord.
The Father’s Word has been fulfilled. How may we walk in his light and dwell in his love anew this day, that all eyes may joyfully behold him, rejoice and give glory to our Father in heaven?
God grant that I have spoken to you in his name. Father, Son and Holy Spirit. AMEN