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of Christ in the Temple (Purification), St Mark's, 2,2,97
Malachi 3.1-5 ("the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple")
1 Peter 2.1-10 (Temple imagery: Christ as the cornerstone; stone of judgement)
Luke 2.22-35 (Purification; Simeon's song: fall & rise & sword) (2279 words)
Today is the Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, also known as
the Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and commonly called
Candlemas, a name based on the formerly widespread custom of lighting many
candles on this day because of Simeon's words about Jesus being "a light to
lighten the Gentiles". Because of the encounter of Jesus with Simeon
the Eastern Church calls the day "Hypapante", which means The Meeting,
that is, the meeting of our Lord and Simeon.
This feast originated in the late fourth century in the church in Jerusalem, where it was observed on Fenruary 14th. But when Christmas day became widely established today's feast was moved back to February 2nd to make it fall on the 40th day from the nativity as required by the Book of Leviticus. Obviously, today's Gospel is the basis for the feast, namely, the story peculiar to Luke, of Mary and Joseph taking Jesus to the Temple in Jerusalem in order to present him to the Lord as the firstborn child and to make the two offerings required by Leviticus, one to redeem the child and one for the mother's purification.
Before we look more closely at his, let us stop to think about what we have just done. Namely, we stood to hear the Gospel although we sat to hear the other two readings. Have you ever asked yourself why we do this? By centuries-old tradition the reading of the Gospel at the Eucharist has been set apart by special ceremonies. In its most solemn setting there is a procession during the Gradual. The crucifer, flanked by torches, lads the procession, followed by a thurifer, then by the bearer of the Gospels, and the one who is to chant or read the Gospel brings up the rear. When the special place for the proclamation of the Gospel has been reached, the crucifer and everyone else, including all the congregation, turn to face the book, and the two torchbearers flank the book itself.
Having announced the Gospel, the reader, traditionally a deacon, takes the thurible and honours the book of the Gospels by censing it, while all the congregation say or sing an acclamation such as "Glory to Christ our Saviour". And when the Gospel has been read we have the second acclamation, namely, "Praise to Christ our Lord".
Our gospels are not our earliest Christian writings. Historically speaking, the letters that are actually by St Paul are earlier, with the gospels as we have them coming one or two generations later, but yet it is the Gospels that have the greater honour paid to them. why? Initially it was because they were believed to consist of the precise words and actions of our Lord, and therefore to highlight the book of the gospels with special ceremonies was to help focus our full attention on what Jesus had said and done. While we recognize today that not everything that is written in the Gospels is precisely what Jesus said and did, we still have good reason to give the reading of the Gospel our special, attention. and that reason is this: each one of our four Gospels was written to be the unique and normative form of the traditions about Jesus for the community for which it was written. Let me unpack that a bit. Each gospel writer wrote for his own church, his local community of Christians, or group of communities, to present the tradition of what Jesus had said and done and to present it in a way that made it relevant to the needs, hopes and challenges facing those Christians in their own setting. So the Markan community had the Gospel according to Mark, the Matthaean community had Matthew, the Lukan community had Luke and Acts and the Johannine community had John, and we know that other communities had other gospels, such as the Gospel top the Hebrews, which have been lost. Incidentally, the names attached to the Gospels - Matthew, Mark, Luke and John - are what we might call no more than educated guesses made in the second century AD. But our four Gospels were written for four different groups of Christians, each with its own unique situation. As people travelled from one church to another, so they became aware that a different gospel was being read on Sunday from the one they were used to back home. And so the various churches began to swap copies with each other, so that finally every church had several gospels with the end result being what we have today. But it remains the fact that each evangelist has, what we might call, a different axe to grind, and so we nee to hear the unique witness to Christ that each evangelist has to make.
That is why, incidentally7, from November of this year we shall be able to use a new Eucharistic Lectionary, the so-called Common Lectionary, which centres on a different Gospel each year and which will be the Sunday lectionary in the revised ASB.
So let us now look at today's gospel, not simply as a story about Jesus, but rather in terms of what Luke is trying to present in his gospel.
Jesus is Mary's firstborn, and therefore if he were an animal, he would have been sacrificed. Instead, being a human baby, he is redeemed by the offering of one of the two turtle doves or two young pigeons. In the Book of Leviticus, this was the least that could be offered. If the parents were richer, they were expected to offer more, with the redemption offering being a young lamb. So Luke presents the holy family as not being well-to-do in earthly goods, but they are God-fearing and God-loving parents, who taught Jesus to be like them by their word and by their example.
If we had continued our gospel reading to the end of the story we would have heard of the encounter with the prophet Anna and the treading would have ended with: "They returned to their own city, Nazareth, and the child grew, became strong, filled with wisdom, and the favour of God was upon him" (Luke 2.40).
Luke's next story tells of the family going to Jerusalem when Jesus is 12 years old for the Feast of Passover, the great feast celebrating Israel's release from slavery in Egypt. Passover was one of the three so-called "Pilgrimage Feasts", the other two being Pentecost and Tabernacles. Like Muslims making the pilgrimage to Mecca, so even more anciently, Jews were expected to travel to Jerusalem for these feasts if at all possible, but Luke only tells of the family going up for Passover.
This is the story in which the parents find Jesus in the temple asking questions and saying he must be about his Father's business. It may be that Luke's emphasis on Jesus asking questions is based on Passover itself, for Passover is the feast on which the youngest child of the family asks the question, "Father, why is this night unlike every other night?" And this story, like the first one, ends with the words "And he went down with them and came to Nazareth and was obedient to them. And Jesus increased in wisdom and in age of strength and in favour with God and man" (Luke 2.51 f.).
Throughout the Old Testament, from the story of Joseph in Egypt onwards, writer after writer and prophet after prophet talks of the marks of a true human being or a true human community as being those of wisdom, strength and well-being, with all of these coming only through total dependence upon God and obedience to him. So Luke is telling us, both at the end of today's story and at the end of the story that follows it, that Jesus grew into the God-intended humanity. And Jesus does so by honouring and obeying Mary and Joseph. And they in turn give him all the love and nurture he needs for true human growth. It is through them that he learns of God's love, a love he comes through them to experience so deeply that he calls God "Abba". Through them he grows up into the one who uniquely could call on God as "Abba", "Father", and teach his followers to do the same, as we do every time we pray the Lord's Prayer.
Among the emphases in the Gospel according to Luke there are three that can be found not only in today's Gospel reading but which permeate both the rest of the Gospel and also its companion volume, the Book of Acts. These are Luke's emphasis on Jesus' Jewishness, as seen in the devout practice of his family, along with a special witness to the place of women and a strong sense of outreach to the Samaritans and the Gentiles.
In the first century AD many a male Jew would pray, "I thank thee, O Lord, that I was not born a woman," and only men were taught the scriptures. It is in this context that John the Baptist's father, the priest Zechariah, is initially struck dumb for his disbelief, and his wife Elizabeth ends up as the one who names their son "John", effectively upstaging her husband. The visitation of Mary to Elizabeth culminates in the Magnificat, with its talk of the promise to Abraham, whom Jewish tradition took to have been a proselyte, that is, a convert from paganism. Abraham was not only reckoned to have been a proselyte but also a maker of proselytes. In today's story Simeon speaks of Jesus as "a light for revelation to the Gentiles", and then he directly addresses Mary. The rest of the story gives prominence to the prophet Anna and her witness. Furthermore, in the story of the finding of Jesus in the Temple, it is Mary who speaks and who is said to keep all these things in her heart. It is striking that Joseph is never presented in Luke as saying a single word. Later on in the Gospel Jesus commends another Mary for sitting at his feet as a learner over against her sister Martha who is busy with household chores.
In summary, Luke would have us understand Jesus as being deeply rooted in Judaism, in the scriptures and the covenant. He would have us know that women are to have an honoured place beyond the kitchen, so to speak. And while maintaining Jesus' primary mission as being to his fellow Israelites, from the beginning of his Gospel Luke looks toward bringing the good news to all people.
If today is primarily a Christological feast rather than a feast of St Mary, it is fitting that we should recognize the prominent place that she has and represents in Luke's witness to the Gospel as brining equal value to all people, male and female, Jew and Gentile.
There is one further thing that we ought to notice, and that is that all three of our readings point toward the Messiah as bringing judgement, a moment of crisis and decision. The reading from Malachi speaks of the Lord coming to his temple and testifying against all those who oppress the hired labourer, the widow, the orphan and the stranger. The reading from 1 Peter speaks of Jesus as the temple's cornerstone which at the same time is a rock of stumbling. And in the Gospel Simeon's words to Mary are that Jesus is "destined for the fall and the rising of many in Israel", and with Luke taking Mary as representing the whole of Israel, Simeon is presented as adding, "and a sword will pierce your own soul also".
So what should we take to heart from this feast? I would suggest four things.
Firstly, it reminds us that our Lord was a Jew, and if we would understand him well we cannot do so on the basis of the New Testament alone but only through the witness of the whole of the scriptures taken in their historical context, which is why we, the Church, need not only to read our whole Bible but we also need the ongoing study and research of biblical scholars if we would keep a keen cutting edge to our understanding of the Gospel.
Secondly, the prominent place given to women by St Luke both in his Gospel and in Acts reminds us that the Gospel broke the bounds of contemporary society then, and therefore, when properly understood, can continue to judge and challenge the patterns of our society today, as we have seen in such areas as the abolition of slavery, the combatting of racial and ethnic prejudice and the ordination of women
Thirdly, the words of Simeon remind us that the Gospel is not ours to keep but rather ours to share, and to share it without limit to the ends of the earth.
And finally, this feast reminds us of the centrality of the family. Let me repeat what I said last September when our Sunday theme [in the ASB] was "The Family". It is God's intention that every family should be a Holy Family. And you and I can help to support and nurture them to that end, whether as sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, fathers, mothers, grand-parents, aunts, uncles, cousins or just plain neighbours - we can all do our bit to encourage, give support, give valuable recognition and worth to people, giving a helping hand and a listening ear that will help others through a rough patch, etc. St Mary and St Joseph have shown us how. Let us, upheld by God's love made known in Christ, incarnate that love in our lives and the lives of those around us.