January 29 NOTES FOR REFLECTION Candlemas
Texts: Malachi 3:1-5; Hebrews 2:14-18; Luke 22-40
Theme: The proper name of today's celebration is The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple, which is informative if not very catchy. A more eccentric choice might be Spaghetti Junction, on the ground that so many different ways are coming together here that it's difficult to see a clear path ahead. Perhaps "A Meeting of Opposites" might do, or, for those of a more classical bent, "Nunc Dimittis", if only to annoy the spell-check on my laptop.
Introduction. Today's celebration completes this Christmas-Epiphany period of "revelation". Again, we are informed in The Lectionary that "This is a principal feast and should not be displaced by any other celebration"; although we are then reminded that the actual date of the feast is 2 February, so we can leave it until then if we like! But why is it so important as to rank with such feasts as The Baptism of the Lord, for example? Perhaps because it has an air of "completing" the birth of Jesus: born on Christmas Day, and circumcised and named on the 8th day, the final step is the "purification" of his mother on the 40th day. [In that sense, this feast is more about Mary than it is about Jesus; and for that reason it is known in the Orthodox tradition as The Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Our first lesson sets the tone in two ways. First it speaks of the Lord coming to the temple; and secondly it emphasises that his coming has an unavoidable element of judgment about it. The second lesson emphasises again that what we have been reflecting on over the last month or so is the birth of a human being: it is very important to the author of this Letter to the Hebrews to stress the humanity of Jesus. Only if he were fully human (as well as fully divine) could he become our Great High Priest. Only St Luke includes this episode in his gospel: the Christ Child has been acknowledged by the angels, the shepherds (the outcasts of society), and the Gentiles (represented by the Magi); and now he is acclaimed by representatives of the Jewish people in the form of Simeon and Anna.
Background. As hinted in the first paragraph of the introduction above, the title of this feast is something of a misnomer, because there are in fact two ceremonial rites taking place here. On the fortieth day after the birth of any child, male or female, firstborn or not, the mother would need to be ritually purified before she could rejoin the worshipping community. We might want to pause there and think for a moment about what that says of the prevailing religious attitude towards childbirth: it was something 'unclean' requiring the exclusion of the woman from the community of faith until she had been rendered 'clean' again. But it was also fortuitously in the interests of the new infant: we have a rather modern view of what the temple would have been like, anti-sceptic, quiet and peaceful like our modern-day holy places. In fact, the temple was, in part, a slaughter-house, with all the noise, smells and pest problems associated with that – not at all a healthy place to which to bring a new-born baby. Perhaps for that reason, if this were the only rite required (purification of the mother) it was not usual to bring the infant.
However, the law also required the firstborn male child to be formally consecrated or dedicated to the Lord, which, of course, required the presence of the child. Hence Mary and Joseph bring the infant Jesus today.
It may be worthwhile to reflect today on what this whole ceremony tells us about our practice of baptising infants, in view of the fact that infant baptism is opposed by some parts of the Church (such as the Baptists). We have (mercifully!) moved away from the idea that the mother needed "purifying" after childbirth [the Book of Common Prayer prescribed a service for this purpose called "The Churching of Women"]: the closest we come to that may be a lovely little rite called Thanksgiving for the Gift of a Child", which is found on page 754 of the Prayer Book. A prayer of thanksgiving for the preservation of the mother's life and health through pregnancy and labour is included in that service: see page 758 and the mother's own prayer on page 757. But there is something of the idea of dedicating the child to God in our baptismal ceremony, and is some ways to mark the child with the sign of the cross can be seen as the Christian equivalent of circumcision. We shouldn't push this argument too far, but on a day when we are noting the careful way in which the Holy Family is following the dictates of law and tradition it is helpful, perhaps, to see our own practises as rooted in that same tradition, albeit reinterpreted in the light of Christ.
The central idea for me in all this is precisely that: here we see the balance between the traditions of the past and openness to the news ways of God. Once again I find myself coming back to that extraordinary verse in Isaiah: "Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing. Now it springs up. Do you not perceive it?" Hold this in your mind as we once again gather with our Bishop to try to discern the way ahead for our parish and our congregations: more of the same, or a new thing? And the truly wonderful thing in today's gospel passage on this point is that the two with the most investment in the past and the status quo are the two who immediately discern the new thing that God is doing in their presence. Any other observer would have seen yet another couple of parents bringing yet another wee baby into the temple – ho, hum – ya-ya-ya! But these two old folk (strictly, we are not told how old Simeon is, but he sounds ready to go!) see no less than the Lord's salvation, the hope of Israel, the promises of God fulfilled, etc.
But not in any "ah, isn't he a bonny wee chap" sentimental sort of way. They foresee the pain that lies ahead for Mary, and the divisive effect this child is destined to have when he grows to manhood and begins to carry out his mission.
Malachi. It seems that people have been noting that evil people were getting away with their crimes scot-free, and asking "where is the God of justice?" [See 2:17] This passage is God's response. He promises a messenger to prepare the way for him, and then he himself will come to the temple. But before they get too excited at that prospect, they should know that his coming will bring a time of judgment. The faithful will undergo a period of refining (purifying), and the unrighteous will be rejected. Included in that latter class are those who take advantage of widows, orphans, workers, and aliens; as well as sorcerers, adulterers and perjurers. (Despite the impression sometimes given by Christian preachers, not all sin is sexual in nature!)
Taking It Personally.
· How important to your faith is the Old Testament? Do you find tradition interesting and helpful, or is it something you are inclined to get rid of? Do you welcome change?
· Is it helpful in your understanding of Christ to see him is the light of Old Testament prophecy, or do you see this as a case of re-writing history ex post facto?
· What do you make of the list of people who will face judgment in verse 5? Do you agree that the Church is more inclined to condemn sexual sin and rather too wary of condemning social and economic sins of the kind mentioned here?
· Are you naturally sympathetic to the workers' point of view in industrial disputes, or do your instincts tend to lie with the employers? Are you sympathetic to refugees, boat-people and immigrants, or do you favour tighter border control. Are these the sorts of issues the Church should be involved in or not?
Hebrews. Scholars still debate the authorship of this Letter; but whoever wrote it, the issue of Jesus' true humanity was obviously a burning issue. The author takes every opportunity to stress that Jesus was fully human in every way except that he did not sin. In today's passage he stresses that Jesus was like us with flesh and blood (he had a real body, not just an appearance of one as some early heretics maintained), and he suffered temptation just as we do. All this was necessary to enable Jesus to overcome the power of death, to atone for our sin, and to become "a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God".
Taking It Personally.
· Spend some time imagining Jesus as a child? How realistic is your image of Jesus in his childhood years? Is he a typical boy, always on the go, getting up to mischief, getting his clothes dirty and turning up late for meals? Or is he perfect in every way?
· Read Hebrews 5:1-10. Does that help to fill out your image of Jesus? Notice the reference in verse 8 to Jesus learning obedience through suffering. What do you make of that?
· The author also stresses that Jesus is "for us" (as well as one of us). He came not to help angels but "the descendants of Abraham". Can you recall a recent instance when you felt Jesus helped you? Did you give thanks?
· What help would you like from Jesus at this time? Now ask him.
Luke. Once again we have an example of how meticulous St Luke can be in dealing with details. He alone of the gospel writers records that Jesus was named and circumcised on the eighth day; and now he alone records the arrival of the Holy Family at the Temple on the fortieth day after the birth. Mary has observed the prescribed period of purification – a woman was 'unclean' for 40 days after giving birth – and must now be ritualistically made clean so that she can once again re-join the worshipping community. But as Jesus is Mary's firstborn male child he must also be brought to the temple to be consecrated to the Lord. Luke even records the sacrifice to be offered by Mary and Joseph, which scholars delight in pointing out that it was at the rate prescribed for poor parents, "a pair of doves or two young pigeons". Onto the stage comes Simeon, a resident of Jerusalem, who we are told was "righteous and devout" and had been "waiting for the consolation of Israel". We always assume that he was an old man, although the Scriptures do not say so. He represents wisdom and prophecy – an elder upon whom the Holy Spirit rested. He has been promised that he will not die until he has seen the Lord's Christ. He has come to the temple at the prompting of the Holy Spirit and recognises in the infant Jesus the fulfilment of that promise. He sees in Jesus the divine agent of judgment, and cautions Mary of painful times ahead for her. His words are seconded by Anna, a devout widow of prayer, whose age is given (she's 84). Luke stresses again the Holy Family's compliance with the Law (verse 39); and then notes that a period of growth follows for Jesus in all aspects of his humanity, physical, mental, spiritual and social.
Taking It Personally.
· Notice the stress Luke places on compliance with the Law, and following proper procedure. Even the Holy family is not immune from it. How do you feel about that? What analogy might we draw with Church practice and procedure today?
· Reflect on the openness of Simeon and Anna. Simeon can depart in peace now that Christ has come. How might this passage guide us as we reflect on future directions in our lives and in our Church?
· This passage is a good one for praying with the imagination. Place yourself in the temple as an observer. Can you see the baby? How does Mary look? Is Joseph taking a keen interest? What reaction do they have when Simeon takes the baby into his arms? What do you make of Simeon and Anna? Are you inclined to dismiss them as two old fuddy-duddies? Does the baby make any noise or do anything?
· Ponder verse 40 for some time. What does it tell you about Jesus the human being? What does it tell you about growing up in Christ?