Epiphany 4 – Presentation of Christ in the Temple
Today is known by three names, Candlemass because traditionally this was the day when the year’s candles were blessed, Purification of the BVM, coming as a new mother to the Temple in Jerusalem to give thanks and receive ritual cleansing, and The Presentation of Christ by his parents in the Temple, acknowledging God’s gift to them, and offering him back to God when of course He is at the same time God’s great gift to the world to the world
As the Christmas season draws to an end we mark the very special moment of the presentation of Jesus by his parents in the Temple, the requisite 40 days after his birth to complete the purification rituals for Mary. The Prayer Book provides a little service called the ‘churching of women’, and when on the couple of occasions I have been asked to take such a service the scene of the Presentation comes to mind. These little services are intimate, sometimes only the mother and child, and by tradition a little bouquet of wild flowers for the altar. I found the churching services I have been involved with a great blessing, not least because so many people have had a very difficult road to parenthood, something both parents and society is still reluctant to speak of, and so often the tragedies that are involved do not get the support and acknowledgment they deserve. Even in these days of medical advance we all know well the precious gift that children are, and are relieved and overjoyed when they arrive without incident. It is easy to lose the mystery of childbirth in the round of baby showers and a seeming assumption of automatic joy and happy times, I value greatly the thoughtfulness and reflection that is behind both this feast of the Presentation, and the services of churching. Even though the purity aspect is now redundant, the thanksgiving and the re-entry into society and the worshipping life of the church is a powerful symbol. Mary had been through a traumatic 40 days, and like most new parents I would imagine the chance to present yourself as a new family with your baby after a little trial period of learning how it all works, is a proud and wonderful moment.
There is another moving and important aspect to the story as told in Luke. For at the Temple two people had been waiting for a very long time, they were old- Simeon and Anna. They had tended to the life of the Temple year in and year out, they held firm to the promise of God that they would see the Messiah. Imagine just how familiar, even if touching, the scene in front of them must have been. They had no doubt seen thousands of proud young parents, of little babies, and yet Simeon knew without a hesitation that this was the moment, and that this tiny bundle was the long awaited Messiah the savior of the world being presented. So often the scriptures when they point to the coming of the Messiah frame the thoughts of the prophets in language which tends not to be intimate, but speak of the grander themes of deliverance, salvation, repentance and so on. That is all quite right, but in this picture of the little baby and its parents what would be lost if that was the only language we had to use. God in Christ came close, took flesh, became intimate. It didn’t make the grander ideas any less so, but it made sure they were never again enough on their own. For what is missing in them of course is the required response. It is how we respond to this child that means everything. How we allow him to change our lives, to determine the course we will run, and the people we will meet, and the things that will matter to us. Simeon, and the prophetess Anna respond with joy and certainty, this is what they have waited for – these first responders are a great model for us all.
There is something both deeply moving and informative about what is going on here. What is being displayed is patience on a grand scale. Anna never left the Temple, spend a long life there in widowhood praying and fasting in preparation for the event that is revealed to her now. Simeon took the promise of God a lifetime ago to him as his guiding thought. People, and I so include myself in this, don’t always find patience easy. The pace of modern life is a rush, even in these days of lockdown we are fretting how to fill the time rather than enjoy and savor it. Life has momentum and drive, and yes it leads to many things being done, but it also leads to much anxiety and stress, to things being quickly rushed past and forgotten. In the speed and the plenty of life it might be argued we have not only lost the value of each individual experience and gift, but we have come to expect to be unsatisfied and restless. The essential driving force of modern capitalism is that we won’t ever have what we need, and that we will seek to work to earn to spend to find out mostly that we are still not satisfied or happy. Even supposed rest, can be frantic. People over exercise [there’s me again] even make their spiritual life a competition of the best retreat houses, the coolest destinations to be alone – even very important mental well-being and wholeness work we are in need of can become an oppression on our minds not the liberation it should be. We do not, as many in the past would have, simply stand and wait and be still and even silent. Here we are graced by evening skies without light pollution, they make even the hardest hearted think thoughts, and all around us are the clues and the cues for stopping and waiting on God, waiting to hear that still small voice… these are hard times for many, but also for us all perhaps a once in a lifetime chance to reflect and challenge life as we have lived it to date.
I think Simeon and Anna are central to this momentous scene because they introduce a quality into it. There is a stature of holiness about their waiting, about the fidelity with which they have trusted the word and promise of the Lord. How much can we learn from this, especially as Lent will give us the perfect chance to experiment with being still and waiting on what it is God wants to tell us.
So the remembrance of a simple intimate occasion with so much to learn. Our Lord is presented, to God in thankfulness and to us as the great sign of hope. Two young parents give thanks after trying times, and present their new family, their new future. And setting this in context are two elderly people – and how often do elderly people take centre stage in contemporary life. Their faith, trust and patience, the stature of their waiting, give us perhaps the most important example of how we should respond to this presentation of Christ to he world. Simeon and Anna were content to spend their entire lives waiting for this moment, and felt no compunction to rush, to fear God had forgotten his promise, or to fret whether they had got it wrong. Perhaps in a world and a church that often mistakes business for progress, and doesn’t value understated values such as patience, quiet holiness, taking an important but largely unseen roles in the work of God, then today gives us much to ponder.