February 2 NOTES FOR REFLECTION The Presentation in the Temple
Texts: Malachi 3:1-5; Hebrews 2:14-18; Luke 2:22-40
Theme: The safe option may be to stick with the official title of the feast, and perhaps even throw in “commonly known as Candlemas”, or words to that effect, just to show the older members of the congregation that you’re sensitive to their concerns. I’ve recently discovered that this feast is known in the Eastern Churches as “The Meeting”, and that rather appeals to me. Apparently they have in mind the meeting between Jesus and Simeon, but it’s surely much wider than this. For all sorts of reasons I’m leaning towards “The Meeting of the Old and the New”.
Introduction. This week we have a break from Isaiah, St Paul and Matthew. In their place we have, first, Malachi with his prophecy of the Lord coming to the Temple and what that might mean for the people of God. Then we have a rather over-used passage from the Book of Hebrews stressing that Jesus, being flesh and blood, had to undergo everything that every other human being undergoes, although this ritual was more about the mother than the child so the choice of this reading today may be a bit of a stretch. The gospel passage, however, is the only possible choice.
Background. Well, it’s been quite a week in New Zealand, with two Grammy awards and a series win on the cricket field. Try as I might I haven’t been able to find a connection with those happy events and this week’s readings, so I will have to draw your attention (in a strictly non-partisan way) to the proposed “baby bonus”, as a rather feeble way into today’s gospel story. For we are well and truly back to the infant Jesus with Luke’s exclusive scoop on this episode in Christ’s life.
And that might be a good place to start: at first sight this would seem to be the sort of story that Matthew would be more likely to get his teeth into, with his concern to show that everything about Jesus was kosher. But it reminds us that Luke has a particular concern with the relationship between the whole new drama of Christ and the Temple. He alone has the story of the annunciation to Zechariah, and, of course, that takes place in the Holy Place in the Temple, where Zechariah is performing a priestly role. This week we have Jesus, aged 40 days, coming to the Temple, and, if we had stayed with Luke’s gospel, we would have come to another of Luke’s exclusive scoops, with the twelve-year-old Jesus back in the Temple. So we need to think about today’s passage in that larger context. Luke, the evangelist of and to the Gentiles, is very concerned about Jesus’ relationship with and to the Temple.
Like the others, he is also very concerned about the relationship between Jesus and John the Baptist, and that, too, may well be a part of what he is up to in this week’s story. Luke records the naming and circumcision of John and Jesus (1:59ff, and 2:21), but there the similarity ceases (although 1:80 and 2:40 are parallel). Elizabeth would no doubt have been to the Temple on the fortieth day and John would have been consecrated to the Lord as her firstborn son, but Luke leaves all that out. In his narrative the focus is on the infant Jesus and his parents, and he stage-manages the whole thing to perfection.
Again, look at his careful editing of the relevant Scriptures. Nowhere is this more apparent than his treatment of Leviticus 12:8, which reads: “if she cannot afford a sheep, she shall take two turtledoves or two pigeons, one for a burnt offering and the other for a sin offering, and the priest shall make atonement on her behalf, and she shall be clean.” Luke was pleased to borrow from this verse to show that Mary and Joseph offered at the poor rate (even though, as a carpenter, Joseph would have been “middle-class” and able to pay the top rate) to identify Jesus with the poor; but that’s all he was prepared to take from that verse. He has air-brushed out the priest, and with him any idea that Mary needed a priest to make atonement for her.
In place of the priest we have two prophets, Simeon and Anna; so perhaps it’s not too fanciful to see this “meeting” as prefiguring that which took place on the Mount of Transfiguration. Here the Temple (the seat of Mosaic Law) and these prophets foreshadow the appearance of Moses and Elijah on the mountain. We usually picture Simeon as an old man, but notice that Luke doesn’t say that. His important characteristics are that he is full of and directed by the Holy Spirit, and he has been awaiting the “consolation of Israel”. He sees in the infant Jesus the promised salvation, not only for the Jews but also the Gentiles.
Anna “seconds the motion”. She is indeed full of years and wisdom. So between them they represent all humanity, men and women, and spiritual wisdom, maturity and faithfulness. And there, perhaps, is the cue to go deeper into this story. Over the last few weeks there have been many hints to us that the gospel narrative is also about the birth and growth of faith in us. Christ himself is the new birth born in each new believer. Like Mary and Joseph it is our responsibility to nurture and protect this new-born faith; and we do this, not by hiding it and keeping it to ourselves, but recognising it as a gift from God, and offering it back to God for his purposes – consecrating it to the Lord, as the Scriptures put it. Christian families grow best in the family of Christ: our individual faith will grow and become strong, become filled with wisdom, and enjoy the favour of God, within the household of God.
And now for my annual rave in favour of using our wonderful pastoral liturgy, “Thanksgiving for the Gift of a Child”, beginning on page 754 of the Prayer Book. If I had my way (the pathetic wail of an old retired priest!) no infant would be baptised until his or her parents had taken part in this beautiful ceremony which has evolved over the centuries from the ceremony we have in this week’s gospel, through the somewhat alarming service (The Churching of Women) in the Book of Common Prayer, into this little gem of today. Just read through it slowly, but have some tissues handy – the prayers are so beautiful. More importantly, this liturgy is far more appropriate for parents who just want some connection with the church, but frankly have no real intention of fulfilling the commitments expected of them in baptism. Here endeth the rave – but I’m right, aren’t I?
Malachi. This is one of the many Old Testament prophecies of the coming of the Lord, with a reality warning attached. Any idea that the coming of God – the birth of faith within us – is all about warm fuzzies and feeling good is quickly dispelled. There is a thin line between “God loves me as I am”, which is true, and “God wants me to stay the way I am”, which is not true. [See John 8:1-12, if you need a refresher course on this distinction.] True faith is always transformational: we know the new life born within us is truly alive when we feel it kicking! Malachi re-affirms the truth that God comes to his people (symbolised here by the Temple) but that coming requires a complete make-over.
Taking It Personally.
- Start with a spiritual stock-take. Can you feel the new life growing within you? Is it, as we say, alive and kicking?
- Notice that the Lord comes to the Temple, and the refining process starts with the Levites. It is not those who never darken the doors of the church who are in the line of fire here, but those who are in the service of the Lord. How acceptable are your offerings to the Lord? How might your local church stand up to such scrutiny?
- The test is surely one of sincerity and authenticity, an absence of “rote worship”. What might you need to change in your own religious observances? What might your local church need to change?
- We are in the season of Parish AGM’s. Do you have any ideas to offer?
Hebrews. I have perhaps been a little too disparaging about the choice of this lesson this week. It is a very important passage; but it seems to have become something of a “go-to” passage when we can’t think of anything else to choose. I guess it supports the idea that Jesus was treated and brought up just like any other child, but is that really the point Luke is trying to make in the gospel passage, and the Church is trying to make in this Feast? At best we can say that it reminds us that Jesus, the Saviour of the World, is fully human and fully Jewish: it is within the Jewish tradition that God has chosen to reveal himself in his Son. But then, that’s not the point being made in this passage, is it? Maybe we need to emphasise the reference to “descendants of Abraham” in verse 16?
Taking It Personally.
- As we come to the end of the Advent-Christmas-Epiphany period, reflect on your own image of Christ. Has he become more human in your eyes, more like one of us? Can you see him as a real baby, heir to all the growing pains that babies have to pass through? Or is your image of the infant Christ still shaped more by icons and stained glass windows?
- Has the flagrantly un-chronological approach helped or hindered your understanding of the coming of Christ among us?
Luke. I have already said much of what I wanted to say about this passage, but here are a few more random thoughts. First, notice the emphasis on the Law and the Spirit, both of which themes seem to interweave throughout the passage. The Law comes first (verses 22-24), as Joseph and Mary are shown doing what the Law requires. Then, with the entrance onto the stage of Simeon, the Spirit takes over (verses 25-27). But this is not about the Spirit replacing the Law, for in verse 27 the two are seen working together, as it were – the Spirit guides Simeon into the Temple as the Law guides Mary and Joseph. I’m struck, too, by verse 33, where Mary and Joseph are said to be amazed at what is being said about Jesus: any idea that Mary has been “in on the divine plan all along” is somewhat undermined by this reaction. Rather the unfolding revelation of Christ is unfolded to her as to the rest of us over time. And the third thought I have to toss before you is the possibility that we are to contrast and compare the ways in which Simeon and Anna received the revelation of Christ. With Simeon the emphasis is on the direct inspiration of the Spirit; in Anna’s case the route to enlightenment seems to have been through rigorous asceticism and prayer. I’ll leave that with you.
Taking It Personally.
· This is another passage that is ideal for the prayer of imagination. Put yourself in the Temple. Take your time. Take in your surroundings. What can you see? What can you smell? What can you hear? Is it hot and stuffy, or cold and damp? Are there flies buzzing around...? Can you see Simeon and Anna? What are they doing? What about the Holy Family – have they arrived yet? When you do see them what is your reaction? Are you awe-struck – or curious? Can you say anything to them? What about the baby? Does he look just like any other baby? Does he have a halo?
· What importance if any do you attach to religious practice, traditions and ritual? Do you subscribe to the view that spirituality is best cut free from all those sorts of things? How might Mary and Joseph respond to such an argument?
· As you come away from the Temple, what one aspect of the birth, baptism or consecration of Jesus is uppermost in your mind?
· What might the new-born Christ in you need most from you at this time? Are you willing to give him whatever he needs?
· When a new idea, thought or insight first comes to us, it may seem like an intruder, a challenge to everything that represents security for us, and so we resist or reject it. What lessons might there be for us in the open-minded and open-hearted response to the new (in Jesus) by Simeon and Anna (representing the already known)?