FEAST OF THE PRESENTATION OF CHRIST IN THE TMEPLE
Sermon preached in the Church of All Saints, New Eltham
at Parish Mass on Sunday, 3rd February 2013
It may seem a long time ago but it’s just five weeks since we were preparing the cold turkey, nursing a slight hangover and clearing up the wrapping paper. Now there’re chocolate crème eggs in Sainsburys and the holiday brochures are out. But, before we completely forget Christmas, the Church remembers this final celebration in our great cycle of Feasts which throw light onto the coming of God among us.
Today, we celebrate Candlemass (which actually fell yesterday, on February 2nd), that old-English name which recalls that ‘Christ is the light of the nations and the glory of his people’. The light has come into the world and darkness is, never again, going to triumph.
In olden days people brought to church the candles they were to use through the year to have them blessed and still we process them round the church. Since the year 542, when the Emperor Justinian introduced the feast to the entire Eastern Roman empire, Christians have recalled that fifty days after his birth Jesus was first acclaimed as the light of all people. For centuries it has been held as the day in which the seasons begin to change. In America it is known as Groundhog Day and here in England farmers believed that the remainder of winter would be the opposite of whatever the weather was like on Candlemas Day (last year it snowed).
However, this morning, what I want us to think about is that word – Presentation and to spend a few minutes reflecting on Mary and Joseph’s offering of their first-born child as a present to God, for that is the basis of all we celebrate today.
A PRESENT TO GOD
Last week we celebrated Matthew’s baptism and Fr. Derek, in his sermon, spoke about the giving of presents. Now the giving of presents is an act that is rich in meaning. It can be as simple as a rose to the one you love on Valentine’s Day, or as profound as the giving of a nation by one ruler to another. But in the case of the presentation of a child in the Temple it concerns the recognition, through the offering of a life, that all life belongs to God. That there is a higher power and a higher good to whom we are all accountable.
Life is a gift for which we are thankful, so this presentation is a joyful act by parents who want to offer that which is their most prized gift to the highest good. God. I guess that’s what lies, in some way, behind why people bring their children for baptism. They want to identify their precious new life with that which is the greatest good. So the Christening of a baby needs to involve a desire to be associated with God, the source of all good. The source of life. It’s a reminder that each of us is called to have our heart set on God. In 2010 Pope Benedict chose to entitle his visit to our country ‘Heart speaks to heart’, a phrase which comes from the motto of Blessed John Henry Newman who was himself clearly inspired by words of St. Francis de Sales: “Eyes speak to eyes, and heart to heart, and none understand what passes save the sacred lovers who speak.”
The profound love of Mary and Joseph was a love rooted in their relationship with God and that, brothers and sisters, is what you and I are called to nurture.
OFFERING AND SACRIFICE
But there is, of course, a cost to all this. And that cost has to do with sacrifice. On the one hand we celebrate God’s being among us, but we are also reminded that it will require the giving of a life. Today, a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons. Later, the offering of a life on a tree on Calvary. We find the combination of life and death so difficult to hold together, yet our Faith constantly proclaims that we need to accept this, apparently shocking, contradiction.
THOSE WHO OFFER THEIR LOVE
So Mary and Joseph present – offer – their child, their first-born, to God. And when you offer something, of course, it’s no longer entirely yours. What a risk! Especially with God.
And the reality of that must have been brought home to Mary when the prophetess, Anna, made that astonishing statement: “And a sword will pierce your own soul, too.” But, come to think of it, it’s not so astonishing. For there are times when the heart of every mother, I guess, is pierced through and all they can do is to stand by their child. Times when all you can do is to stand by the person you love knowing that you are helpless.
Yet this child, whose life would last only thirty-something years, is also declared to be the saviour of the world: “My eyes”, says Simeon, “have seen the salvation which God has prepared for all the nations to see.” So we are presented, yet again, by this painful paradox of death and life, of having to let go of something that life may break forth.
And here we encounter the way in which todays Feast speaks to us all for it concerns the way in which we are to present our-selves at the Holy of Holies: how God wants each of us to stand before Him in that place of encounter having offered our deepest desires to Him. This Temple in which we celebrate today is the sacrament – the outward form – of the Temple of the Heart where God invites each of us to encounter Him. And that is, always, a painful process. Our Faith is no cosy escape from the world: we don’t come to Mass to escape the harsh realities of life: rather we enter this Temple, celebrate this Mass, because – maybe dimly – we recognise that here we encounter what life is all about. (Heart speaks to heart.) Life is not a roller-coaster of fun and games punctuated by pain and loss that intrude like unwelcome and shocking visitors to our party. Being alive means being able to celebrate the complexity of it all – realising that you will only know the full glory of what life is all about if you are prepared to face the pain, at times, head on and allow yourself to pass through that most bitter place.
That’s why, in that Letter to the Hebrews we heard read, the writer said: “(Jesus) had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God …”
So Simeon and Anna witnessed the entrance of God’s anointed One, his Christ, into his own Temple. Into the Holy of Holies, the sacred place. And his parents brought him there, not so that he would be protected from all danger and harm (though, as parents, that must have been their dearest wish) but because they knew they had to present him to their Lord and God. And God couldn’t – wouldn’t – protect him. Rather God had to begin experiencing what it was like to be human. Stunning that, don’t you think? God, the all-powerful Creator, limits himself to our condition so that he, the source of all Wisdom, could know what it was like to be human. And to be human means to be vulnerable and to fall, to suffer pain and loss – and to die.
And God will experience all that. This is only the beginning. Perhaps, come to think of it, the reason why I am a Christian is to be discovered in today’s celebration.
Because God chose to be like me. How amazing!
Because he invites me to enter the Temple of my heart and offer all that I hold dear there so that I might encounter Him and, in doing so, be given in return the gift of life.
Because he shows me that to live is to embrace the whole of life, even those bits I would rather be saved from.
This final celebration of the season of the Incarnation jolts us back to the reality of life. Thanks be to God.