Sermon for PRESENTATION OF CHRIST IN THE TEMPLE (Candlemas) High Mass Sunday 2 February 2014
Sermon preached by The Vicar, Prebendary Alan Moses
THE PRESENTATION OF CHRIST IN THE TEMPLE, 2014
“Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is spoken against (and a sword shall pierce your own soul also) that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.”
On Friday evening, we had a Christmas party in the Vicarage: a bit late you might think. But it was for the clergy of our Deanery and their spouses and I decided that the clergy have more than enough to be busy with in the run-up to Christmas, so we would have a: “Very End of Christmas Party.”
One of our servers emailed me a photo of a display he had seen shortly after New Year: “Easter Treats: 3 for the Price of 2.” The Church is not in such a hurry to get on to the next marketing opportunity. Candlemas, the Feast of the Presentation, brings our celebration of Christmas to a close. Tonight after Evensong, the Crib will be dismantled and stored away for another year. But the message of the Christmas season, the Incarnation, the Word made flesh, the divine in the human and humanity taken into divinity, informs and undergirds the whole Christian year and the faith which it celebrates.
We end our celebration of Christmas, as we began it, with St. Luke’s Gospel: on the same note as he began it at Midnight Mass. Then, we heard of Christ’s birth in a stable; his mother and foster-father people of no account in the world, his first witnesses a group of shepherds, symbolic outsiders; of even less account.
Now he is brought to the great Temple in Jerusalem, by parents so humble that they can only make the concessionary offering of the poor to redeem their first-born. There he is recognised as special – not by the High Priest, but by two folk of a type the world of power, the real world, as we think of it, has little time or regard for – old people who spend a lot of time in church praying.
There is Simeon: a “righteous and devout man, looking for the consolation of Israel and the Holy Spirit was upon him.” That Spirit brings him to the Temple and there he recognises Jesus as the Messiah, the anointed one whom the Spirit had told him he would see before he died.
Simeon is often portrayed, in painting and stained glass window, as a priest, although Luke does not spell this out. If he was indeed a priest, then the Church needs more like him, men and women of prayer who can recognise Jesus when he comes not in glory and power but in humility and weakness.
There is a gentle beauty in the way in which he takes the child in his arms and blesses God in the words which, like Luke’s other prayer songs, were to become part of the daily prayer of the Church.
One priest at our party spoke to me how one of the loveliest parts of our ministry is the blessing of children. We do it at the altar here. Fr. Gerald and I do it every Thursday morning at the school mass. We start off kneeling on the floor because the youngest are so we. And what is true of our attitude to children, must be true of our attitude to all who come to us; to all in whom Jesus comes to us. Sometimes, we need to get down on our knees.
Of course, a dark cloud has settled over our ministry to children because of abuse and that shadow has not passed yet. Priests have become people to be “spoken against.” We have a major task of re-building trust.
Then there is Anna, the old widow and prophet. “She did not depart from the temple, worshipping with fasting and prayer, night and day. And coming up at that very hour she gave thanks to God, and spoke of him to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.”
And the Church needs more Annas, and they do not have to be women. Here is a job opportunity for the retired of both sexes; widowers and single folk, as well as widows, because recognising Jesus when he comes is neither the privilege or sole responsibility of the clergy. Someone came to see me recently to say that now they had reached a certain age, they wanted to re-order their life so as to have more time to pray. Good.
Notice an important truth about Simeon and Anna’s prayer life. It has nothing of the present-day therapeutic approach to what we call “spirituality.” Their prayers and fasting and hope were for the consolation of Israel, the redemption of Jerusalem. Our prayer is not for our own comfort or self-improvement, but for the consolation and redemption of the world. It is no escape from reality into sentimentality: a sword will pierce our souls also. Nor is it for a quick-fix: it will take our whole life. It is not something that can wait until we get out free bus pass, but those who have one have a particular opportunity and responsibility to pray for others.
Luke quite deliberately sets the humble birth of this child in a much wider context: that of the might Roman Empire: “in those days a decree when out from Caesar Augustus,” the emperor hailed as Lord and Son of God; and that of the great Temple at Jerusalem with its powerful priesthood, the guardians of the nation’s life.
There is something of immense and eternal significance in this deliberate contrast. As Martin Luther put it, God became small for us in Christ; he showed us his heart, so our hearts might be won. Infants wield a kind of power. Strong hands become gentle, powerful voices are hushed. All but the most self-absorbed are touched with wonder. God came down, not to thrash evildoers or crush the Romans , but as an infant, to elicit love, to nurture tenderness.
All that is reflected in an unusual ordering or words which we may not notice as we listen to this beautifully crafted story. We usually speak of the “rise and fall” of people and nations. As a Victorian hymn-writer puts it:
“Crowns and thrones may perish,
Kingdoms wax and wane.”
As we British have had to learn, there is no empire on which the sun will never set. Commentators say that political careers, especially those of prime ministers, always end in disappointment and failure.
But Simeon’s prophesy reverses the word order. This child has come for the “fall and rise” of many. This child comes not condemn but to save. Nor does he come to compel. We must learn to accept what it offered to us. We must fall first, because we have to learn humility if we are to recognise God born in a manger and dying on a cross, as the only one who can save us from our folly and pride and selfishness.
We need to kneel before the crib and beneath the cross, our hearts need to be pierced with the reality of God’s love. They need to be opened to it. That piercing, that breaking open, will pain us but it will also heal us.
Thirty or so years later, when he is grown, this child will return to the Temple. Then he will expel those who have turned the house of prayer into a house of trade. He will come, as Malachi had prophesied, to purify like the refiner’s fire, to refine God’s people like gold and silver, until they “present offerings to the Lord in righteousness. Then the offerings of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and in former years.”
He draws near in judgement, and the sins he will judge are no narrowly spiritual ones. They encompass the whole divine law of love of God and neighbour.
“I will be swift to bear witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, the widow and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the alien, and do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts.”
But Jesus comes to the Temple not just to judge, but to save. He will teach there his law of love. And there he will be spoken and plotted against.
At an even deeper level, he will replace the Temple and its system of sacrifices with what they could only imperfectly foreshadow: the self-offering which reconciles us to God. He will purify the human race, not by some external act, but from within, as the one who has “become like his brothers and sisters, in every respect, so that he may become a merciful and faithful priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people.” He has come to make us at one with God and thus with each other,
And as he came to that temple, so he comes to this one, and countless others like it round the world.
The Churches of the East call this feast “The Meeting” because of the encounter between Jesus and these representatives of the Old Covenant. We come to church to meet Jesus.
Here, through that same Spirit who inspired Simeon and Anna, he continues to teach us. That teaching is one full of hope, but it is also one which purifies us. He comes still in humility and gentleness, in the power of that love which has been tested by what he suffered and so is able to help those who are being tested. He helps us both to see ourselves as we are, by humbling us he reveals the thoughts of our hearts,, and as we are meant to be, by sharing with us his life; that life which is directed to the Father and to others in the perfect offering of love.
In the sacrifice of the Church, in the holy Eucharist, the high priest who has offered the one true perfect sacrifice to the Father, takes us and offers us to the Father; and so we can offer our souls and bodies; not just our minds but the whole of life; relationships and work, hopes and fears, joys and sorrows: all represented for us by bread and wine, our two turtle doves, the offerings of the humble poor; for that in truth is what we all are, until we allow God to make us rich.