29 January 2017
10.30 Sung Eucharist
The Presentation of Christ in the Temple
Revd Jonathan Cain
Heb. 2: 14-end; Lk. 2: 22-40
“When the time came …” the first words from the gospel reading this morning tell us that what follows accords to established tradition. Luke describes this simply as “their purification” but in this statement he conflates two distinct Jewish rituals.
The first is the purification of Mary, a ritual that is part of the law of Moses. We read in Leviticus …
“When the days of her purification are completed … she shall bring to the priest … a lamb … for a burnt-offering, and a pigeon or a turtle-dove for a sin-offering … if she cannot afford a sheep, she shall take two turtle-doves 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.”
We note that Mary’s offering confirms the poverty of Jesus’ family. Prayer Book devotees among you will also note that a ritual like this was carried forward into Christian practice. We Anglicans call it ‘The Thanksgiving of Women after Childbirth’ or ‘The Churching of Women’.
The second ritual is the redemption of the first-born. Again this is part of the law of Moses, the origin of which begins in the Passover episode described in the book of Exodus. First-born sons were spared from the plagues that struck Egypt to serve as the priesthood; but in the subsequent idolatrous worship of the golden calf the first-born sons forfeited this birthright and the priesthood was transferred to the Levites, the only tribe who did not participate in the idolatry, and in particular to Aaron’s children. The obligation is for fathers to redeem the lives of their first-born sons with the payment of five silver coins to a priestly descendent of Aaron.
So, when the time came, Mary and Joseph went to the Temple to do what was required by the law of Moses. And, if you read the verse before the reading today started you will also see that Jesus’ parents had, eight days after his birth, also taken him to be circumcised; an act that honoured God’s covenant with Abraham.
I have taken some time to describe these rituals, because they emphasise the Jewish identity of Jesus; an identity that is vital to understand the gospel. Yes, Jesus is a new and definitive revelation of God in human history, but this revelation is in continuity with the revelation of God to God’s people since the beginning of recorded time. It is that revelation history that is the backdrop to the encounter in the Temple with Simeon and Anna.
We know very little about Simeon other than he was righteous, and devout, and “looking forward to the consolation of Israel.” God had answered his prayers with a promise. He would not die until he had seen the Messiah. The Spirit moves Simeon into the temple in Jerusalem at the very moment that Mary, Joseph, and Jesus are there. Immediately, Simeon recognises the child.
And Simeon was not the only one moved by the Spirit into the presence of the infant Jesus. There was Anna, the prophet; of the tribe of Asher, and daughter of Phanuel. Here we have a women from a tribe that, to all intents and purposes, disappeared 700 years before Christ, coming to the infant Jesus. Phanuel, the name of her father, means ‘vision of God’.
Mary and Joseph were already aware that Jesus was special. I mean there were the angels, the miraculous circumstances surrounding the conception, the shepherds, and the wise men, but I wonder how they felt following this latest encounter? They had, after all gone to the Temple to do what any other Jewish family would do, and then … listen again to Simeon’s words to Mary …
“This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed – and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”
I suspect that these words filled Mary with awe; that mysterious combination of wonder and of fear that is familiar to all who wrestle with the implications of Jesus’ true identity.
The writer of the letter to the Hebrews was one who wrestled with Jesus’ identity. In the short passage that we heard today, he or she asserts that through the incarnation and through his death and resurrection, Jesus has destroyed the power of sin, death and the devil. In other words Jesus has destroyed the power of all the things that cause fear. As descendants of Abraham, and with Jesus’ help, we have the opportunity to live fear-free, the opportunity to speak of hope.
Friday of last week was Holocaust Memorial Day; a day to pause and to remember the European Jews who suffered and were murdered when political leadership manipulated fear and self-interest to project the world’s problems onto them. Holocaust Memorial Day is a day for Christians to repent.
On Wednesday of last week members of the Skipton Deanery Synod were, to use the Rector’s word, ‘spellbound’ by Toby Howarth, the Bishop of Bradford. With insightful exposition of Scripture, he challenged us not to be fearful of our Muslim brothers and sisters, but to see their faith as a gift; a gift through which our own faith can be deepened. Bishop Toby gave us these words from the prophet Isaiah …
“It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.”
These words were written 600 years before Jesus’ birth, they continued God’s consistent message mediated through Abraham, Moses, and all the prophets, that the people of God should be a blessing for all nations. Isaiah’s words are echoed by Simeon in today’s gospel, and they remind us of the universal vision of God.
As the letter to the Hebrews has it, Christ has destroyed the powers of sin, death and the devil … and yet they retain the power to deceive. History confirms our susceptibility to be seduced by fear. And so we must wrestle. We must be wary of the fearful voice in our own lives and in the public discourse and speak of the hope that will bring the salvation of God to the ends of the earth.