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Monday, March 17, 2014

Feast of the Presentation

The Feast of the Presentation of the Lord Year A
Luke 2:22-40 
Feb 2 2014
The Rev. Pete Berry

Almighty and ever-living God, we thank you for the coming of Christ’s light into the darkness that surrounds and sometimes seems to threaten it. Give us confidence and strength to boldly rekindle the fire of your love and carry it into the world. Amen.

One of the most remarkable books to come down to us from the early days of the Church was rediscovered in 1887 by an Italian scholar who found the manuscript in a monastic library in Arrezzo, Italy. It was missing the beginning and end but the middle that remains has proven essential in discovering the state of the liturgy in Palestine in the years 381-4. The Travels of Egeria, or sometimes called the Pilgrimage of Aetheria, is a firsthand account of her experiences as a religious tourist, her travels from Sinai to Constantinople and all over the Holy Land and Jerusalem. Many scholars think she was from Galicia in the northwest corner of Spain and alternatively she was often called Sylvia. The best guess was that she was one of the so-called “wandering monastics,” and her journal was written for the folks in her community back home. She sent it to them in the form of letters to invite them to share in her wondrous experience. It provides details of the incipient liturgical calendar and its cycle of feasts, at a time when the date of Christmas had not yet been universally accepted. This was very early in the history of the church, just 55 years since Christianity became the religion of the empire. She also specifically describes the celebration of the feast that WE celebrate today, the Feast of the Presentation. All the people gathered together in procession into the church, bearing candles to be blessed and carried out to bring the light of Christ into the world. Early on it was therefore also called Candlemas. Jesus is presented in the Temple and we encounter him there and then we present him to the world, bearing the light of Christ. That liturgy has remained basically unchanged since the 4th century and in fact was specifically re-affirmed during liturgical reclamation and renaissance and reform after Vatican 2.

Now what about the gospel for today? Those of us who have had children know that the experience unleashes a complex web of powerful emotions that impact all dimensions of our lives. In my own case, for example, it led me to return to the journey of faith that I had abandoned almost 2 decades earlier. And a little child shall lead them although nobody thinks of my son Matthew as little. In the story as it unfolds in Luke, the birth of the child Jesus is an occasion that evokes family, religious, and social traditions in many ways. Now -as I said a couple of weeks ago about the infancy stories, specifically in relationship to Matthew, these stories serve a definite purpose of framing the entire Gospel narrative, and setting the terms which will be revealed in the ministry of Jesus. They in a sense are prophetic foretastes and need to be dealt with much less as history, and much more as the transmitters of meaning – myth in the most positive sense of the word – the framework of what I called “Capital T Truth.” So what’s going on for Luke in this story?

In a very real sense this day marks the end of Christmastide – 40 days after the birth of a child a woman was expected to appear at the temple to offer post-partum sacrifice – a year-old lamb and a turtle dove – or if she was from the poor, two pigeons or doves were sufficient. So this tells us something about the Holy Family, I think, of their special affinity – and God’s, for those who are powerless on the edges. As you know, contact with anyone who had brushed against mystery—and there is certainly no greater mystery than birth or death—that encounter excluded a person from Jewish worship. So this custom was a way of making the mother ritually pure and welcoming her back into community. The practice was known as the qorban yoledet. The day was really about Mary, about her purification.

But Luke goes further. There was another tradition among the people of God at that time, known as pidyon ha-ben the redemption of a son. Incidentally there is no evidence anywhere except in Luke that these two rituals were celebrated together so we have to assume he conflated them to make a theological point, not that it actually happened as he describes. But what was this custom? We read in Exodus 13:1-2: "The LORD said to Moses, consecrate to me all the first-born; whatever is the first to open the womb among the people of Israel, both of man and beast, is mine." In Numbers 3:47-48 we read that the price of redeeming the first born was set at 5 shekels. So here we see Jesus and his family fully engaged in the traditions of the people of God as they fulfil the requirements of Mosaic Law. It is representative of the fulfillment of the promises of the Old Covenant.

There is another interesting fact about Candlemas Day as it has subsequently evolved. This day, Feb 2nd, Candlemas Day, was the day when some cultures predicted weather patterns. Farmers believed that the remainder of winter would be the opposite of whatever the weather was like on Candlemas Day. There is an old English song which goes like this:
If Candlemas be fair and bright,
Come winter, have another flight;
If Candlemas bring clouds and rain,
Go winter, and come not again.
So if the sun cast a shadow on Candlemas Day, more winter was on the way; if there was no shadow, winter was thought to be ending soon. Sound familiar? Has anybody heard what Punxsutawney Phil did today – or for that matter whether Bill Murray ever found February 3?

There are other ways that today’s gospel is the culmination of the Christmas season – we see it in the progression of the canticles of the season. We've heard the Song of Mary – The Magnificat. Mary, who for Luke is the personification of Israel, hears the fulfillment of prophecy to Abraham. God reverses human status and perception – he scatters the proud and sends the rich away empty. God exalts the lowly, fills the hungry, and walks hand-in hand with God’s people. We hear those exact themes in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in the Beatitudes – which some have called the “State of the Union Address of the Kingdom.” And we see it lived out in Jesus ministry. But for Luke the words are as much for Mary personally. The second canticle – the Song of Zechariah – explicitly ties the fulfillment of the prophecy to the House of David. It broadens the target of God’s redeeming action, if you will, and extends salvation to the whole people of God. When Zechariah who had been struck dumb, is obedient to God’s instruction about naming John, his tongue is freed and the first words he utters a powerful song of praise to God just simply explodes. Then today the Song of Simeon, is the culmination of the progression. Each begins where the other ends. Mary sings her own born Messiah; Zechariah celebrates the triumph of Israel, and Simeon announces the hopes of the Gentiles. The three songs personify the same progression that Luke reveals in his entire 2-volume work that we call Luke-Acts.

Zechariah is an interesting character in the drama. Devout and righteous, filled by the spirit he knows that this infant is the awaited consolation of Israel nobody has to tell him. All the others in the infancy narratives are associated with celestial displays and angelic messengers and heavenly choirs, great signs and portents, but not Simeon. Without so much as a wave from a passing seraph, Simeon looks at this tiny scrap of baby and sees the salvation of the world – the first one to truly appreciate the enormity of it all. There’s one final touch because there is not just Simeon, there is the elderly widow Anna – she too began to praise God and speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Israel. Have you ever noticed that throughout Luke-Acts, men and women stand side-by-side before God, equal in God’s eyes and love, endowed by grace with the same gifts, and trusted with the same responsibilities? What a difference between this and the understandings of the traditional patriarchal society from which it sprang. Jesus indeed came to transform not just you, or me, but all society and all creation.

So what are we to make of this today and moving forward? First --the same spirit that rested on Simeon and provided support for his hope provided for its fulfillment in joy. Simeon encountered Jesus
In the worship of the Temple and religious custom and I think the same can be true for us. Of course we can come to know Jesus in many ways and I certainly would not want to limit God. But among the most powerful and reliable paths is through being a part of the community of faith, and its worship. If we would see Christ we must go to his Temple. More –we must be a part of the community that shares love with one another and thereby experiences the love of God.

Throughout this part of the Gospel, the two themes of prophesy and redemption are inextricably intertwined. In our spiritual journey we too experience the foreshadowing of things to come. Things seen only darkly now, and remaining to be more fully revealed. And as they are, they transform all that HAS been and prepare us for all that is yet to come. Transformation -- and redemption go hand in hand. Our mistakes, our fears, our sins of omissions and commission are embraced by Jesus and we are redeemed. The promise is fulfilled.

But -- invitation, understanding and ultimately the acceptance are a process. Sometimes I wish I had clarity of vision to see more of God’s redeeming work in the world around me, and that I could cultivate the courage and faith to proclaim it – to respond with Simeon’s words and truly know peace. The questions this story raises -- what can I do and what can the community do to see the light of Christ, to know redemption in Jesus, and make it known to all people.

I will resist the temptation of outlining what shape that might take, what it might look like for any of us. There is no programmed set of steps to lead us there. In preparing this sermon, I found a helpful reflection that speaks to this point. I’m a recovering pastor who has given up on formulas, methods, reading lists, conferences, priorities, action statements, discipleship plans, and participating in “call to action” mandates.
I’m learning a sweet contentment in the brief moments of epiphany in my own life…knowing they are real and praying for their continued unfolding in the world. I will serve quietly, love as best I can, and trust God with the rest.



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