Presentation of our Lord, Year C, 2019
St. Mary's & St. Peter's Church, Bagillt
May the words I speak and the words you hear be God’s alone.
We have before us today pieces of Scripture saturated with vivid imagery. Malachi paints the picture of the coming of God, swooping down to set the world back in order, administering judgment to those who exploit others, and delivering justice to the exploited. In Hebrews we delve into how and why Jesus came to rescue us from being enslaved to death. And in the Gospel according to Luke we hear about the first time Jesus goes to temple, where he meets two faithful souls. Yet woven throughout all three readings is a common thread of sacrifice and offerings.
When Mary and Joseph bring Jesus to Jerusalem, they are obeying the Jewish law of purification. This law is two-fold: the mother must be purified in the temple 40 days after childbirth before she is considered pure enough to be able to return to society. If any of you remember the custom of the churching of women, this law is the root of that tradition. However, nowadays in the Church the emphasis is not on purification so much as giving thanks for the safe delivery of mother and child, of officially welcoming both mother and child back into the community after they have recovered.
The second part of the law of purification is presenting one’s first-born son to God. This may call to mind the story of Hannah and Samuel. Hannah is barren and prays fervently for a child. God grants her prayer and she miraculously bears a son named Samuel, who she then dedicates to God. Mary and Jesus are a parallel story, except in Jesus’ case, his parents make a sacrifice of two birds on his behalf, redeeming him back from a life of service to God in the temple. Samuel must remain in the temple, but Jesus is freed from this responsibility.
Jesus is freed from a life of service to God. And yet, this is exactly what he ends up doing, which means that it is completely Jesus’ choice to take on the responsibility. When Jesus dedicates his life to preaching and teaching people about scripture, it is Jesus’ choice to do so. When Jesus performs healings or exorcisms, it is Jesus’ choice to do so. When Jesus gives up his life on the cross for our sake, it is Jesus’ choice to do so. Our salvation through Christ does not come because God the Father makes God’s son do it, like Abraham offering up his son Isaac. Our salvation comes because Christ willingly volunteered, offered up himself on the altar. This makes his sacrifice all the more meaningful.
You may wonder why in the Anglican Church we call clergy priests and not pastors or ministers. Every time we gather for the Eucharist we are recreating the story of Jesus’ resurrection. The priest stands before the altar to offer the sacrifice of bread and wine which is then changed into God’s body and blood, given and shed by Jesus on our behalf. The priest isn’t up there because they are more special than the people in the pews, but because they have been set apart by the community as one to make the sacrifice on their behalf. When I celebrate at this altar I am not turning my back to you to hide my hands while I perform some religious magic trick that you’re not good enough to see. I’m not facing away from you, rather we are all pointed in the same direction, facing God together, and as your priest I am offering a sacrifice on our behalf, yours and mine. This is a recreation of Christ’s offering. As it says in our reading from Hebrews, when God comes to earth in human form, Jesus becomes the “merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people” (Hebrews 2:18). When we celebrate communion, we are remembering that Christ offered himself for us. We call this the Eucharist because Eucharist means thanksgiving. We give thanks every time we eat the bread and drink from the cup that God chose to save us, not because we earned it or are deserving, but because we serve a gracious God.
So how can we possibly respond to this grand gesture, God’s demonstration of love, other than participating in the Eucharist? We find two reactions right here in the Gospel. Interestingly, this is the only occasion where Jesus is in a temple and he doesn’t do any speaking, where Jesus is silent. And so what is lifted up instead is the voices of Simeon and Anna. Simeon is described as a devout and righteous man in tune with the Holy Spirit. When he meets the holy family in the temple he immediately recognises Jesus as God. He cradles the baby Jesus in his arms and praises God, because in meeting Christ he is finally able to face his own death. Simeon, guided by the Holy Spirit, realises that Jesus will bring salvation to the whole world, both Jews and non-Jews. Simeon can face his death without fear because he knows that Christ is the saviour, and that God is with him. Does this mean that pain and suffering has been eliminated from the world? No, even Mary is told that a sword will pierce her own soul. It still hurts when we lose people we love or when we face our own death. But the blow is ever so slightly softened by knowing that death is not where our story ends. This is the crux of our faith, trusting that our lives are not over upon our death but rather that we will rejoin God and our loved ones in a place where pain and fear can no longer have a hold of us.
Anna, another devout and faithful person who has dedicated her life to serving God in the temple, has a slightly different response. She, like Simeon, sees Jesus in the temple and also praises God, but then immediately begins telling everyone that she has met the one who will bring about the salvation of God’s people. She spreads the Good News because this is the natural reaction to such an incredible occurrence: to go and tell others that they might share in this good news with us!
Mahatma Gandhi said of the Bible, “You Christians look after a document containing enough dynamite to blow all civilisation to pieces, turn the world upside down and bring peace to a battle-torn planet. But you treat it as though it is nothing more than a piece of literature.” We have in our hands this salvation story, this faith that has been handed down to us. It is not meant to be kept to ourselves; we are meant to share it with a world desperate for some Good News. May we follow Simeon and Anna’s lead and respond to God’s grace with trust, gratitude, and by joyfully spreading the news that in Christ’s sacrifice has come our salvation.
Image found here