Sermon: The Presentation of Christ in the Temple / Candlemas
Sunday 29 January 2017
The Revd Pete Hobson, Director – Leicester Cathedral Revealed
Blowing Bubbles? (Mal 3.1-5, Heb 2.14-end & Luke 2.22-40)
What do a candle and a bubble have in common? They both go out when you blow at them. How’s your bubble doing?
One of the phenomena of 2016 was the way people on either side of two great popular votes – Brexit here in the UK and the US Presidential elections – totally failed even to realise the strength of, let alone understand the content of the views of those on the other side. And hence, on the one hand some were left totally unable to anticipate the outcome of those votes, or else on the other hand totally unable to understand why that outcome was seen as so traumatic. And the phrase coined to describe that was “being in your bubble”.
It’s certainly not a new thing – only to mix with or talk to our ‘own type’ – but social media has clearly exaggerated it, and hence even more, for those of us who use it, the existence of the Facebook bubble.
There’s a lot of strong feelings being expressed on FB at the moment: Brexit, still; the first week of President Trump in the USA – and the latest, the paper published on Friday by the House of Bishops on Marriage and same sex relationships. On that one my bubbles really do intersect, and I see a lot of strong reactions of enthusiastic welcome, on the one hand, and dismissal and pain on the other, even if it’s not clear how many have yet actually read the document.
What has any of that to do with the Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, which we celebrate today – or Candlemas, for short.
Well, I think this morning we’re welcomed, briefly, into Joseph and Mary’s bubble: what do we see? Just to say, in passing, that one strong theory is that Luke’s gospel contains a lot of first–hand information gleaned directly from Mary herself. Why? Because on the cross Jesus commended Mary into John’s care, and the strong tradition is that John ended his days in Ephesus, where, according to Acts, Luke also spent a lot of time. If so, then of course he would have taken the chance to hear directly from the mother of the one whose life, death and resurrection had transformed his life – and was even then transforming the world. A bubble with a bit of an impact.
So, what is Luke telling us, in welcoming us into the bubble of the Presentation? Let’s pay attention to the actual detail.
Presentation in the Temple was a rite of passage for Jews of this time – laid down in the Law of Moses – at the same time both intimately personal and unavoidably social. If we look more closely Mary and Joseph are meeting two complementary requirements of the law: they are Presenting their first-born son (v.23 says – referencing Exodus 13v.2), and also they are offering a sacrifice of Purification (v.24 – referencing Leviticus 12). And in fact it’s not one but two related sacrifices – a burnt offering and a sin offering – normally a lamb and a turtle dove, but if you’re not rich enough, two doves.
Now I think this tells us two important things about Joseph and Mary in their bubble – one we can identify with: they’re not well off and have to make hard economic decisions about spending, and one we maybe find harder: the take very seriously religious obligations which come in a form we’re unfamiliar with and so might easily dismiss as irrelevant. Which would be a pity, as for Luke the whole point of the story is about how external religious acts can witness to incredible truth – both personal and of much wider implications. Mary and Joseph have travelled maybe 65 miles to carry out this religious act in Jerusalem; they have made real sacrifices to make their sacrifice. It matters to them. And, it turns out, it matters to us too.
Because those wider implications are what are spelled out by two people they met that day – neither of whom were actually necessary for the performance of the religious act. Simeon, and Anna. Simeon, who was “waiting for the consolation of Israel” and Anna who had lived in the temple for upwards of 60 years, and acquired the reputation of being something of a prophetess.
Simeon’s words over the baby have come down to us as the Nunc Dimittis – the Latin for his opening words: “Lord, now dismiss me” more famously in KJV: “Lord now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace.” We regularly use it in our worship to this day. We used a modern version of it between our epistle and gospel – “Faithful vigil ended”. It names Jesus as the Salvation for all people, and bringing glory to God’s people Israel. He then goes on, on words less regularly used, to forewarn Mary that her child will bring shattering change not only to her life but to the whole nation, and that “a sword will pierce your own soul also”. This bubble is due to burst with a vengeance!
Anna is at first perhaps less disconcerting: she gives thanks to God. But she also then can’t stop telling everybody who will listen about the significance of this child, Jesus. A pattern that was to recur later on in his life!
And there’s a third person who points us to the much wider significance of this private act of religious observance. That’s Luke the author himself. Not only by how he has framed and introduced the story – but in how he ends it. They return to Nazareth, and “the child grew and became strong; he was filled with wisdom and the grace of God was upon him.” Apart from the story that follows, of another visit to the temple when Jesus is twelve, that’s it for the childhood of Jesus, from all four gospel writers. The birth narratives in Matthew; nothing at all in Mark and John; and this from Luke – who, remember, probably had it direct from Mary herself.
So why is it there for us at all? What is the point for you and me?
I started by talking about bubbles, and suggested that we can read this story as entering into Joseph and Mary’s very personal bubble, and seeing its much wider, indeed ultimately cosmic, significance. So we can. The account has power to move at many levels. I still well remember in my teens singing in our church choir, as an alto at the time, and seeing two older boys, perhaps in their late teens, not being able to help their infectious smiles of delight as we chanted our way through the Nunc Dimittis. One, Stuart, had I knew been very recently instrumental in the conversion of the other, Nick, to Christian faith. And the words were suddenly coming alive to them both, in ways those of us who sang them countless times, had ever imagined they could. And there’s a thought for those of you in our choirs… Smiling your way through the Nunc!
But my point is wider. Firstly, about bubbles. Looking in from the outside we often can’t understand what makes someone else tick. How they can believe those things, act like that. Looking in at us, others can feel the same. Maybe we’re right. Maybe that bubble is just too strange, and has nothing in it for us. But maybe sometimes we need to look again, and see if there isn’t something more there we haven’t yet grasped. Until you’ve understood, you can’t in conscience dismiss. Be it Brexit votes, a Trump presidency – or a HoB report you immediately think you know how to react to. Sometimes we need Simeons and Annas to help us make sense of our lives – and it’s finding the right ones!
But more importantly, to all of us whose bubble includes being here, week in, week out – or maybe rather less than that! – ‘doing religion’. You can do that as a habit, an outward custom. Indeed, at one level it precisely is that: a thing you regularly choose to do. But the outward custom is the vehicle for some truly amazing inward realities. The form may conceal those from others: it may at times conceal them from you. But they’re nonetheless real, powerful, and life-changing. Look for that find it – and hold onto it.
As the anthem we’re about to hear – and sing (O thou the central orb – music by Charles Wood) – tells us: that child presented in the Temple is in fact the centre of the universe, drawing all to his love, and bringing the transforming light of day to our lives. Enjoy it. Mean it. Live it.