Sermon: Sunday 1 February 2015
The Revd Canon Rosy Fairhurst, Canon Chancellor
Malachi 3:1-5, Hebrews 2:14-end, Luke 2:22-40
The torches blazed, and snaked around the whole scene. Getting closer you could see the gleaming armour. And it all culminated with the conflagration of the boat – there went the mast, the prow, up into the most enormous bonfire. Being as far north as Norway, and with even shorter hours of daylight than we have here, I can see the attraction of the Up Helly Aa festival in the Shetlands, with its enormous torch-lit procession and the burning of the Viking boat. Today we come to the end of the epiphany period with the Presentation of Christ, a last chance to light all the candles in the middle of winter. I can understand the desire to lighten the darkness in this way in the still short winter days. But is that all it is? What does it mean, the Presentation of Christ? How does it lighten our darkness in these wintry days of the New Year?
The big thing about Joseph and Mary in the Presentation of Christ is that they are doing their very best, in very difficult circumstances, to fulfil the law in relation to the birth of their child. There are a few different traditions which are coming together in this moment. Some put this together with the naming and circumcision of Christ which has gone before it, and which of course are other parts of their being good Jews.
If we take the whole thing together we can see more clearly the parallel with the birth of John the Baptist. If you remember, it is at the naming and circumcision of John that Zechariah his father is finally freed from being struck dumb, when he agrees with his wife’s bold statement that the child is not to be called after his father, but John. And then not only does he speak, but the priest burst forth into prophecy in the words which we remember in the Benedictus – the prophecy of the Saviour who will redeem us.
Now naming might be something for everyone, but in the Jewish tradition circumcision was for the boys and showed their special place of belonging in the faith of Israel. And if we delve into what was going on in the events of the Presentation it gets more exclusive. First of all we have the purification of Mary. And the purification was of the woman after childbirth, 40 days for a boy, 80 days for a girl. Hmm… And let’s get this quite clear, Mary was being purified from bearing the Saviour of the world. And of course it doesn’t finish there. It’s Jesus as the firstborn son who is presented – offered back to God as a special gift, and effectively redeemed – as the Passover and the sparing of the baby boys is remembered.
It sticks in the gullet a bit if you’re any kind of feminist. But then so does the idea that following the consecration of the first woman Bishop in the Church of England all the bishops who laid hands on her – including the Archbishop of York – refrain from laying hands on the new Bishop of Burnley, a move which is hard to understand, despite the rhetoric, as other than privileging a theology of ‘taint’ – that somehow laying hands on a woman still invalidates the apostolic succession which comes through the laying on of hands from Bishop to Bishop. So is this alright because we see a similar sort of gender divide in the gospels? Well, actually Luke is a bit more subversive than that. We’ve already heard Elizabeth taking the lead on the naming of her son. And strangely, Luke talks of ‘their’ purification. Mary and Joseph act as a couple throughout, with the gift of their two birds as well – in place of the lamb which usually would be sacrificed because they are too poor to afford one. So Jesus is redeemed by the poverty route. And we’re given another special couple, an elderly pair, in Anna and Simeon.
In telling this story, Luke is less concerned that we understand that Jesus will be the lamb of God, the victim, or that he will be the great high priest, both of which of course are great themes of the letter to the Hebrews. No, he wants to show us that this baby absolutely undergoes and fulfils the requirements of the law in order to subvert them totally. This child might be ‘redeemed’ as part of the remembering of the Passover, but he is to become the redeemer. And if we haven’t got the message from the solidarity of Mary and Joseph in bringing the child together, then we are given another male and female couple to demonstrate that something is changing now, not only about gender relations, but about how we see lay people and how we see the elderly too.
I’ve seen preachers try to make out that Simeon is a priest, but there is no evidence that he is anything other than a devout layman. Even the highly respected commentary of Fitzmyer puts ‘prophetess’ in inverted commas to describe Anna, yet Luke’s text makes no bones about her being the prophet.
These elders, who have been waiting and praying for so long, are the first in the temple to recognise that here is the Messiah, the Saviour.
So Jesus is not only Priest and Victim but also the firstborn who is redeemed and then becomes the redeemer, the one who makes it so that the divide between sacred and profane is abolished. For a Jew, crucifixion was a curse, so it made the one who suffered it unclean – at least as unclean as a woman in childbirth – and yet the one who is to be called the Son of God and to be the Redeemer will undergo it.
Jesus may have been circumcised, in that way which privileges both the Jew and the male, in order to fulfil the law, but he will also be the one who ‘is a light to lighten the Gentiles’ and to open the way for a new rite of belonging which includes both women and men – baptism.
The book of Hebrews makes it clear that Jesus had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people. For all its imagery of the temple and the language of sacrifice, Hebrews brings us the same message as Luke, that now we are to learn to become holy not by regarding other things as tainted or sinful or profane, but by eliminating the boundary line between the two notions. The Son, after all, left the very presence of God to sanctify, as high priest, the world through the most “profane” spectacle of humiliation the Romans could devise – crucifixion. We might well ask, “What is ‘profane’ after the cross?” Christmas celebrates this lifting up of all things into the very presence of God by means of the descent of God in Christ, a self-emptying that brings many “children to glory.” The old way is exposed – it’s just too easy to escape from our own inadequacies by piling them all onto somebody else, and we still live in a culture which tries to do this all the time – to disastrous effect. For example, why should the Muslim community be told that it has a particular responsibility to fight the terrorism of Isis? Our Muslim friends in Leicester are suffering. We all do.
So women aren’t unclean, the old aren’t excluded, nor are those who were condemned under the law, for example the criminal. Instead, all of us are going to have our dark places brought into the light – ‘the inner thoughts of many will be revealed’ as Luke puts it – in order that all us can be freed from lives held in slavery by the fear of death which comes from sin. If we want to go to the most holy place now, then we will need to follow the appeal at the end of Hebrews: ‘Let us then go to him outside the camp and bear the abuse he endured’ 13.13 And we will do it out of gratitude, not because it’s what saves us. It’s why last night’s Beatitude Mass concert with the homeless was a specially holy place – it’s the result of the inclusion of the people who were outside the camp (and in Cathedral Gardens) back into the ‘temple.’
Nothing is to be profane, or unclean, or on the margins after this baby has fulfilled his destiny. Not women, not Gentiles, not the elderly, nothing that was previously outside the camp. The famous Grunewald crucifixion triptych, with Jesus as a leper on the cross for the lepers in the colony to look at, gets the idea. Moses reflected the glory which was so great that it shone from him after his trip up Sinai and those in the camp couldn’t bear the brightness of his face so he stayed outside. Luther describes the glory of the cross, the glory which has reached to the other side of all that is most separated and hopeless and suffering because of sin and death and makes it whole and connected again. Call nothing unclean which has been made clean.
I would suggest that this has something to say to the ‘theology of taint.’ By the standards of Luke’s gospel and of Hebrews, that represents the kind of exclusionary purity which has very little to do with the inclusive love which we see Jesus bring – a love which we can embrace, which we can hold, like a baby, to give us a picture of how God will embrace and hold us.
Viking boats were burned and sent to sea when their captains died. Maybe this Candlemas we need to burn our boats. Shake off our fear of sin and death and the way it causes us to regard anyone with taint. Lift our own darkness into the light and get ourselves outside the camp with Jesus and those who struggle in the business of declaring that all can be holy. And perhaps we’ll find our own healing and sanctification as we do.
© The Revd Canon Rosy Fairhurst