The Presentation of Christ in the Temple - Sermon
Posted on the 31st Jan 2021 in the category Resources
As given at St Mary's Nuneaton and SS Mary and John, Camp Hill (Final Mass)
Readings: Malachi 3.1-4; Hebrews 2.14-18; Luke 2.22-40
When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”), and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”
Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying,“Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother 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.” There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem. When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.
Homily: One with His unique destiny
Most of us have regrets regarding the past. We can learn from our mistakes, but we may regret making them all the same. Sometimes we can put things right, but often we have to accept that something has been lost, which we can never recover. A promising student who fails her course due to a lack of discipline may never get that chance again. A man loses touch with his brother simply through letting time and personality differences fill the gap that he should have been filling.
In view of such regrets the life of a baby offers new hope. The child’s life lies open before us; there are no regrets, no looking back. A child is an open book, a fresh and blank page at every turn. Yet if we look more closely we may see dark clouds already on the horizon. ‘Which health condition will he get from his parents? Will she end up unemployed?’ Soon the child’s life looks over before it has begun.
We could tell a very different story. We could say, ‘Well, there will be difficulties and challenges, but she’ll survive her problems and thrive; he’ll find the courage and humour (and the prayer) to overcome despair with grace?
The problem with both attitudes, with the pessimist and the optimist, is that they measure lives according to a human measure: success or failure.
Today we celebrate a child whose life is measured completely differently. St Luke’s description of the parents of Jesus bringing Him to the Temple in Jerusalem, 40 days after His birth, brings the story of the nativity to an end.
Some aspects of the story are matters of Jewish law, which Luke stresses three times. First, as a woman who has recently given birth Mary had to present herself for her own purification. The law required her to sacrifice a lamb (or, in the case of a poor woman like Mary, just a couple of pigeons: Lev 12.8) after which she would be declared clean by the priest. In fact neither Joseph nor Jesus need have been there.
But there’s a second legal aspect. When the new-born child was a first-born son then the ancient Jewish rule, from the time of the Exodus (13.2), was that the child should be designated holy and set-apart for the Lord service. In that case the parents had to pay a tax to ‘redeem’ the child, to buy them back into the family. But for that the Holy Family need not to go anywhere near Jerusalem.
But the facts are that they are all there, in Jerusalem, and they are there for something that is not in the law: something that’s unique to Jesus.
Luke doesn’t mention any payment to redeem Jesus from the ancient obligation of concerning a first-born son. What he does say—and this is new—is that Jesus is brought to the Jerusalem Temple for the new and clear purpose of presenting Him to the Lord. The point is, this is the one child who cannot be returned to his parents: He belongs to God already, He is the Incarnate Son of God Most High. Everything in the law had been fulfilled, but Jesus could not be exempted from giving his life-long special service to the Lord. This child’s life was not to be measured according to human goals and desires, but in terms of God’s life-giving promises.
But I what I really want you notice is something else about Luke’s story of Jesus’s early life highlighted by today’s gospel. Most of our images of Christmas, all our cribs and cards and carols, focus exclusively on Bethlehem. But that’s rather a thin version of the story. St Luke’s story always widens our vision. First he digs deep into the past. Through Zechariah, Elizabeth, Mary, Joseph, Simeon and Anna, Luke underlines the centuries’-old expectation of Israel that God would send His Messiah to save them from their sins and their enemies. But as the story progresses, Luke also peers deep into the future too. Through the magi and their gifts, Simeon’s prophecies, Mary’s pondering of Jesus’s destiny, Jesus being found teaching among the rabbis as a boy, Luke points to the time when Jesus will return to Jerusalem to present Himself to His Father upon the cross, as the True Sacrifice for our salvation.
Simeon’s prophecy in today’s gospel sums all this up. Simeon immediately recognizes the child both as the fulfilment of God’s promises in the past, and as the light of revelation for the future of the whole world, Jewish and Gentile. That future will extend God's salvation to all peoples, to the ends of the earth—even to Nuneaton and Camp Hill!—and he tells Mary that, because of her child, the secret thoughts of many will, till the end of time, be revealed. Not just in Jesus’s life time, but here, and now, among us, in me, in you, and among our neighbours.
4 At Camp Hill
All of this makes this an extraordinary moment to be in God’s temple here in Camp Hill, thinking and praying in a building with such a wonderful story of courage, hope and faithfulness, a beloved place linked to great successes as well as some failures over the years, like any parish family. We’re reaching back into the past to see if we can understand how this moment fits in God’s plan for this community and the Church in this place. For God has been, and is (no question about it) a faithful God. We also know that in the present the church building and the parish is struggling, and needs more attention and energy than it seems possible to give it, especially at this moment.
And yet, while we cannot see what God will do here in the future—anymore than Simeon knew how his prophecy would be fulfilled in the life, death, resurrection and mission of the baby he held in his arms—we also know that God finishes what He begins. And so we have every reason to hope, to be at least hearts half-full people not hearts half-empty people. Your PCC is involved in the pastoral discussions in the deanery that will affect you, and we pray for wise and hope-filled outcomes, while those processes move forward. For the time being, even in the present health crisis, our lives with God—our faith and hope—continue, and can do so most obviously with brothers and sisters in your mother parish at St Mary’s who send you their love and welcome.
But you remember that what was new in our gospel story was that Jesus having been presented to God to fulfil a unique destiny, opens up a new and unthought of future. He wasn’t bought back so He could be an ordinary kid in Nazareth. And that unique destiny—that unthought of future—has reached us—and will carry us forward into what still ‘we cannot even ask or imagine’, says St Paul (Eph 3.20).
Jesus is the light from God who has entered into the darkness and despair of human history to shine that light on our lives, on the successes we’ve achieved, the mistakes we’ve made, the hurts we’ve suffered. His presence transforms us, transforms what we can think, what we can believe; and He enables us in return to present, to offer—to sacrifice!—our lives to the Lord. In every Eucharist—and it will happen again in this liturgy, and will happen in the Abbey next week and the weeks after—Christ is presented to God for our salvation, and we offer ourselves with him. And we receive him into our hands, and we consume him so as to be made one with his unique destiny.
In the sacrament of the Eucharist, that small child whom Simeon held in his hands, God enters into and transforms our lives and our histories. He gives back what we had lost in sin and unbelief, and unites us in Jesus so we can see our lives together in the light of eternity.
Dear Friends, the past can burden us. But it (and for that matter the present and the future too) can only truly burden us if we judge our lives by human standards. The hope that is offered to us in Jesus Christ, the gift that is given to us in the Eucharistic body of Jesus, has the power to transform us, so that no matter how life turns out hope is not lost, because the truth is that hope does not rest on our efforts, but upon the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the heart that offered itself and is offered to God for our sakes. That is not to say that emotional hurts and scars easily go away (Jesus’s wounds didn’t); but it gives us, at the deepest level of our being, the assurance that, no matter how life turns out, God promises unceasingly to present us with a gift beyond all human measure, one that can never be taken away from us: His Only Son, Jesus our Saviour.
Christ our Saviour, in the living flesh and home of blessed Mary you found a dwelling place on earth, and you willed that she should accompany you to the end. Remain with us for ever and free our hearts from sin; and through her intercession strengthen us to rejoice in sharing your sufferings for the sake of the whole world. Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.