Today we celebrate The Presentation of Christ in the Temple. For the Church of England this is a relatively new festival, for the Presentation or Candlemass, doesn’t feature in the Book of Common Prayer. I for one am glad that the Church of England have re-appropriated this essentially catholic celebration.
In the Church of England, just like our catholic and orthodox friends, we do an awful lot of presenting, if not in the temple, then in the church. We present individuals for baptism, confirmation and ordination, for instance. We present them because we think and hope that something may happen. That something is the affirmation of the love of God, the anointing of the Holy Spirit, and a sense of being commissioned to go out and live as disciples of Christ for the benefit of others – all others.
We do not of course present ourselves as individuals each and every week, but we do present ourselves as a people, as a body, as a communion and we do so through participating in the only sacrament that is an ongoing sacrament; the Eucharist. The other ‘sacraments’ are designed to be one-offs. You can’t be re-baptised, re-ordained and marriage, it is hoped, is also to be a ‘one-off.’ Sadly, marriages don’t always last the course, and the Church of England does allow its priests to marry divorcees, should they be happy to do so. I am happy to do so.
But, what do we present ourselves in church for? Why bother sharing in the Eucharist? Well, just as Jesus was presented as part of a distinctively Jewish ritual in which his mother underwent a rite of purification, we too present ourselves each and every time we come to church to be, if not purified, then at least sanctified. In the words of the prophet Malachi we present ourselves in church, and at the altar rail, so that we can become as ‘gold and silver;’ so that we might grow in ‘righteousness.’ Of course we need to be open to, or present to, that possibility.
Jesus was presented in the temple within a highly closed ritualistic system. This renders the words of Simeon remarkable: ‘Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word, for my eyes have seen the salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for the revelation of the Gentiles, and for the glory of your people Israel.’ There is a danger that we receive those words with a sense of nostalgia, such is their beauty. We are all accustomed to the words of the Nunc Dimitus, as they are integral to the liturgy used at Evensong and, in the Funeral Service.
So can I ask you to pause for a second or two and consider the scandal of these words, as spoken for the first time, in the Jewish Temple; a place where you were not supposed to utter the word Gentile?
Our gospel is a scandalous gospel. Jesus’ parents took him to the temple so that an ancient Jewish ritual could be performed. What they discovered was that Jesus was to be the light of the world, for the world: Jew and Gentile alike. When we make ourselves truly present in church, and at the altar rail, where we receive the blessed sacrament, what we discover is that we too are being refined, washed and cleansed; that our innate prejudices, biases, and propensity to desire to live within a closed religious system are lovingly, but sometimes painfully, dismantled. We are made as ‘gold and silver,’ so that we too are equipped to transcend and break all boundaries that separate people, for that is what it means to live with ‘righteousness,’ in the light of Christ.
Our challenge is simply this: to present ourselves, and open ourselves up to the working of the Holy Spirit within us, so that we can be refined and sanctified.
Let us pray:
Loving God, as we present ourselves before you today disturb us, challenge us, cleanse us, refine us, sanctify us, so that we may live in righteousness as Children of Light. In Jesus name we pray, Amen.