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Presentation of Christ in the Temple, 2.1.03, St Mark’s
Malachi 3.1-5: I am sending my messenger
Psalm 24.[1-6]7-10: The Lord of hosts, he is the king of glory - he will suddenly come
Hebrews 2.14-18: he came [in flesh and blood] to help the descendants of Abraham
Luke 2.22-40: purification, Simeon, Anna, ends: growing in wisdom, power and well-being
Summary: 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.
Today in our calendar is what is called the Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple. It was formerly called the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and it has also been known as Candlemas, since candles were blessed on this day, picking up the theme of light from the Song of Simeon, the Nunc Dimittis that occurs in the gospel for today.
The shift of name from Purification of the BVM to the Presentation of Christ in the Temple focuses the feast more clearly on Jesus, but this morning I would like to consider not just Jesus, but Jesus, Mary and Joseph together as a family.
Stop and think for a moment. We confess that Jesus the man is the fulfilment of that humanity to which God calls all of us, but Jesus grows from new-born babe to manhood only in, through and because of the Holy Family. As a helpless baby he is totally dependent upon the care and nurture of Mary and Joseph.
In our gospel for today we have the story of the purification, when Mary and Joseph take Jesus to the temple in Jerusalem in order to present him to the Lord as the firstborn child. If he were an animal, he would have been sacrificed. Instead, being a human baby, he was redeemed by the offering of one of the two turtle doves or two young pigeons, the other being offered for Mary’s purification as required by the Book of Leviticus. This was the least that could be offered. If the parents were richer, they were expected to offer more. So the holy family was not well-to-do in earthly goods, but they were God-fearing and God-loving parents, who taught Jesus to be like them by their word and by their example. And notice the ending of the gospel: “They returned to their own city, Nazareth, and the child grew, became strong, filled with wisdom, and the favour of God was upon him” - that is, he was growing into the biblical pattern of the marks of a mature humanity of which you have heard me speak so often, namely, wisdom, power and well-being.
In St Matthew’s gospel Joseph is called a carpenter or builder, and in Mark’s gospel Jesus himself is called a carpenter, so from an early age Joseph spent time teaching Jesus his trade and all the skill and integrity that went with it.
The next story in Luke’s gospel is about the family going up to Jerusalem when Jesus is twelve. They go to Jerusalem for the Feast of Passover, the great feast celebrating Israel’s release from slavery in Egypt.
We hear so much today about the breakdown of the nuclear family, and of our neighbourhoods. In this story we have the converse. Mary and Joseph were travelling with friends and neighbours, all from the same area. It was such a safe and secure environment that Mary and Joseph allowed Jesus to move freely among the whole company, knowing that everyone would look out for each other, and that Jesus would be free to spend as much time as he wanted with other people in the company. Can you imagine today waiting for a whole day before you became concerned? We have seen, with our increased mobility of population, the rise of neighbourhoods where we do not even know the names of our next door neighbours. It is a mark not only of the problems of theft and robbery but also of the lack of neighbourhood ties that we have to make real efforts to organise Neighbourhood Watch schemes. What a contrast with the neighbours of the Holy Family. They, too, helped Jesus to grow to maturity.
And so Mary and Joseph finally find Jesus in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them, asking them questions, and in turn, offering mature answers.
Obviously, Joseph and Mary had encouraged Jesus to think for himself and to ask and answer questions. And this means that they spent time with him. They did not fob him off with “I’m busy, don’t bother me.” How they treated Jesus in the family was what gave him the freedom to enter into conversation with the teachers in the temple. Because they centred the family life around the worship and service of God, Jesus knew that this was the most important thing in life, which is why in this story Jesus expresses surprise that they didn’t expect him to be engaged in conversation in the temple, when he says, “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” - or in the alternative translation, “about my Father’s business?”
And this story, like today’s gospel, ends with “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.”
So Luke is telling us, both at the end of today’s gospel and at the end of the story that follows it, that Jesus grew into the God-intended humanity. And he did so by honouring and obeying Mary and Joseph. And they in turn gave him all the love and nurture he needed to grow 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.
For it is through them that he learns of God’s love, a loving relationship so deep and so rich that he addresses God with child-like simplicity as “Abba”.
One of the things that sets the United Kingdom apart from the rest of Europe is that we have the highest level of marital breakdown, and that means the breaking down of families.
In 1936 Edward VIII was forced to abdicate because he wished to marry a divorcee. In 1963 John Profumo resigned his ministerial post over his affair with Christine Keeler. We have come a log way since then. Cecil Parkinson had a child by Miss Keay but stayed in post and ended up as a lord.
Almost every film and story shown on TV after 9.00 p.m. has a man and a woman hop into bed the first time they meet, and the same casual liaisons occur in a number of programmes shown before 9.00 o’clock. When the Archdeacon of York, George Austin, raised the question of how seriously the Prince of Wales might take any vows that he makes, the question was laughed off the stage. We have come a long way from 1936, and not all of it has been for the better. If we do not want the old hypocrisy, I for one do not want the new amorality. And ultimately it is up to you and to me to do something about it, no matter how little it may seem.
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, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins or just plain neighbours -- we all can do our bit to encourage, give support, give valuable recognition and worth to people, give a helping hand and a listening ear that will help others through a rough patch, etc. St Mary, St Joseph and their neighbours have shown us how. Let us, by the grace of God, get on with it, that we all, in the Incarnate One, our Lord Jesus Christ, may incarnate his love in our lives and help to nurture that love in the lives of those around us.