St. John the Evangelist

St. John the Evangelist

Thursday, 31 January 2013

The Presentation in the Temple

February 3                  NOTES FOR REFLECTION             The Presentation in the Temple

Texts:  Malachi 3:1-5; Hebrews 2:14-18; Luke 2:22-40.

Theme:  Perhaps the easiest solution is to stick with the official title, noting that in full it is "The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple".  Other possibilities include "The Law and the Prophets", or "The Faithful Family", or "Observing the Niceties".

Introduction.  Today's readings together strike me as a bit of a jumble, perhaps because they are struggling to make sense of the essential mystery of Jesus' true identity.  They are also, perhaps, trying to do too much.  First, by including this prophecy from Malachi the implication is given that Jesus' presentation in the temple on this occasion is in fulfilment of that prophecy, which frankly is a bit of a stretch.  As St Luke is at pains to stress, the presentation is in fulfilment of the Law, and Mary and Joseph were doing what all parents of good faith would have done.  (Of course, St Luke has far more in mind than legal niceties, but one of them was probably not Malachi's prophecy.) The writer to the Hebrews stresses the fleshly reality of Christ's birth, so that we are to remember that this little baby being brought to the temple today is just like any other human baby in his physical make-up.  That point made, however, the writer uses it as part of his teaching on the salvific value of Christ's life and death.

Background.  This is another of those early stories that we find in St Matthew and St Luke (and to some extent in chapter 2 of St John's Gospel) that may be more concerned with the truth of Jesus' identity than with the facts of an actual incident.  At first sight it might seem surprising to find it is this gospel, rather than St Matthew's: certainly verses 22-24 would seem the sort of thing that would concern St Matthew more than St Luke.  Again, this opening paragraph has something of the "shoring up of defences" or "responding to questions from the floor" about it.  It is, of course, very likely that Mary and Joseph followed the prescribed requirements in this way, because all practising Jews would have done, so wqhy does St Luke bother to mention it?  It may be that this was in response to some attack on Mary (and Joseph) designed to suggest that Jesus did not come from the right sort of family; but again this would be more likely to concern Matthew than Luke.

There is another, more subtle possibility.  In strictly legal terms, St Luke is a bit muddled.  He shows both Mary and Joseph in need of purification, but these requirements only applied to the mother, not the father.  The mother became ritually unclean by giving birth, not the father.  (One commentator, so concerned about this "mistake", suggests that Joseph must have helped in the delivery, thus rendering himself 'unclean'.)  This 'mistake' could have been inadvertent – St Luke lacking Matthew's expertise in legal matters: or it might have been that St Luke's agenda of the equality of sexes got the better of him.  Notice how Simeon (male) and Anna (female) play equal roles as the drama unfolds.

It would be useful to add in verse 21 to this story to get the full picture.  On the 8th day Jesus is officially named and circumcised.  He is given the name specified by the angel Gabriel: there is no argument over the name.  Why is that significant?  Because it contrasts with what happened with John the Baptist, as St Luke tells it in 1:59-63, so yet again the subtext is to distinguish Jesus from John.  (There may even be a hint of this in 1:80 compared with 2:40.)  So Jesus has received the sign of the Covenant – he is recognised as a descendant of Abraham, in short he is a member of the People of God.  Now, as the first-born male child, he must be consecrated to the Lord (a requirement, incidentally, that applied to the first-born male issue of their livestock as well: see Exodus 13:2, 12).

There is a particularly lovely pastoral liturgy in our Prayer Book that is, to some extent, an echo of this "presentation".  It is called Thanksgiving for the Gift of a Child, and begins on page 754.  It is a modernised (not to say sanitised) version of the old service in the Book of Common Prayer commonly called The Churching of Women.  (Both are well worth reading as background for today's gospel.)  The old service did at least have the advantage of reminding us that child-birth can be a dangerous experience for the mother: "we give thee humble thanks for that thou hast vouchsafed to deliver this woman thy servant from the great pain and peril of child-birth".  This is somewhat muted in the modern version: the mother's prayer includes thanksgiving "for sustaining me through the pain of labour", and our prayer for the mother includes thanks "that she has been brought safely through the time of pregnancy and labour".

Interestingly, neither service seems to recognise the danger of childbirth to the child.  Perhaps that's worth thinking about this week, particularly by those who regularly lead intercessions in our services.  I often hear prayers for the sick and the dying: what about prayers for those who are about to give birth, or about to be born?  And, perhaps, to focus again on Mary's labour, and the real threat to her health and her baby's health in the actual, physical, real birth.  [Yes, we believe that he "was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became fully human", but that doesn't quite capture how it felt at the time to Mary (and the baby), does it?]

The other issue that might be floating around in the ether this week is the vexed question of infant baptism.  In the introductory notes to "The Thanksgiving for the Gift of a Child" (page 754 of the Prayer Book) a very clear statement is made: This service has no connection with Baptism, which is the sacrament of initiation into the Church, the Body of Christ.  There is its great value.  I have used this service about 6-8 times, never in a church building (usually in the family home).  It provides for the naming of the child, his or her reception into the wider family, and an opportunity to give thanks to God for the gift of the child's life.  What it doesn't do is require the parents to make solemn professions of faith and promises to bring the child up in the faith, as the baptismal liturgy requires.  So, in my view there is no longer any excuse for baptising an infant whose parents are not themselves members of the worshipping community, nor have any intention of becoming so. 

And yes, I claim my position is totally consistent with the teaching (but sadly not the practice) of the Anglican Church in this Province.  On page 384 of the Prayer Book, in the "Presentation for Baptism", the bishop or priest says this: From the beginning the Church has received believers by baptism.  Believers' children have also been baptised so that with help and encouragement they should grow up in Christ and by the grace of God serve Christ all the days of their life.  I rest my case (for now).

Malachi.  This passage more seem more appropriate as a reading for Advent than for Candlemas (last year it was set for the Second Sunday in Advent, 9 December), or perhaps as a backdrop to the story of the Cleansing of the Temple.  It opens with the assurance that the Lord (also known as the messenger of the covenant), whom the people are seeking and whom they desire, will indeed come to the Temple (the good news), but for the purpose of bringing judgement (the bad news).  In particular, the target will be the Levites, the "staff" of the Temple, whose standards have fallen below an acceptable stand.  So this is essentially about the need for religious reform.  There is a need to return to the good old days when the offerings were made in righteousness and were therefore acceptable to the Lord.  But in verse 5 there are 2 changes.  First, it is now the Lord God (rather than the messenger of the covenant) who is to come to the Temple; and judgment will be applied to all the people on the ground of personal piety and of social justice.

Taking It Personally.

·        Are you "seeking" the Lord?  Do you "desire" him?  Make time this week for a personal spiritual stock-take, bearing in mind the sins referred to in verse 5.

·        Think about our church for a while, and about your own local faith community.  Are our offerings of praise and thanksgiving (worship) acceptable to the Lord, do you think, or do we need a shake-up?    What changes (if any) in our practices would you like to see?

·        How good or otherwise is our care of the vulnerable, the workers, orphans, widows and aliens?  Make this the subject of your prayers this week.

Hebrews.  A further and fascinating attempt by the author to get the balance right between our understanding of Christ as Son of God (his spiritual nature) and as a human being just like the rest of us (his human nature).  Hence the reference to flesh and blood as the introduction to the phrase "shared in their humanity".  Jesus was real like us: he had flesh and blood like us.  Nothing too startling there; but notice what comes next.  It was by his (human) death that he destroyed the devil "who holds the power of death".  What is this "power of death" rather than death itself?  The writer spells it out in verse 15 in graphic terms: and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.  If we get our heads around nothing else in our readings this week, this one thought could transform us!  How often we are held back by "prudence" or "risk assessment" in our faith journeys.  And behind all this we are held back by our (natural) fear of death.  If we truly lost that fear how different our lives might be.  And, of course, that this passage tells us is that because of Christ, there is no longer any reason to fear death.  And the rest of the passage is pretty good, too.

Taking It Personally.

·     In a very moving interview broadcast on TV this week, Sir Paul Holmes admitted to an apprehension about what might be "over there".  Reflect on your own attitude to your own death.  Are you afraid of what might be over there?

·     Can you recall instances in your past when you have been held back from doing something, or going somewhere, by fear (whether of death, failure, embarrassment, or otherwise)?

·     What would you say to Sir Paul Holmes by way of comfort or assurance?

Luke.  Apart from the opening paragraph (see above), this is a classic Luke story.  Notice the central role of the Holy Spirit in arranging the encounter between Simeon and the Holy Family.  Then we have yet another song (the Nunc Dimitis) to go with the Magnificat and the Song of Zechariah.  It is no accident that the welcoming party comprises a prophet and a prophetess; nor that the salvation Simeon has seen is for all people, the Gentiles and Israel.  In verse 38 we have another favourite theme of Luke's – the need to share the good news about Jesus with others.

Taking It Personally.

·        Another good passage for praying with imagination.  Put yourself in the Temple.  Look at the characters. Mary and Joseph, Simeon and Anna, and the infant Jesus.  Listen to the words of Simeon.  What do you feel as you see and hear the drama unfold?

·        Notice the emphasis on compliance with the Law (religious, not civil).  Do you find that helpful or unhelpful to your own faith journey?

·        What do you think about infant baptism?  Should it be restricted to the infants of believers (however defined or determined) or should we "welcome all-comers" to the font, regardless of religious belief?

·        Notice that Jesus is completely passive during all this, and nothing was done to or for him that did not apply in the case of any other Jewish first-born child.  What do you make of that?

·        Follow Anna's example and share your faith this week with others.


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