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Sermon for the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple

Feb 02, 2020

Passage: Luke 2:22-40

Preacher: Rob Donehue

Category: Epiphany

Detail:

Sermon for the Presentation of Our Lord in the Temple (Year A - 2020)
February 2nd, 2020
St. Anne’s, Conway SC (Lackey Chapel)

Malachi 3:1-4        Hebrews 2:14-18        Luke 2:22-40

If you’re following along in the color-coded seasons of the Church year, you might notice that this morning, we’re not in the typical GREEN of the season. The color change is thanks to today being the church’s observance of the feast of the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple. And if you’re new to the church, you might be thinking that it’s rather odd that we set aside a special day to celebrate Jesus going into the temple as an infant. But even if you’re not new to the church, since todays feast only occasionally falls on a Sunday, you might not be all that familiar with it and so you might also think it’s a somewhat strange event to celebrate. So I want to do a bit of unpacking of what’s going on with today’s celebration because I think if you know what’s going on, then today really will seem more special. 

But before getting into the Gospel reading, since I know that many of you are interested in where our traditions come from, I would like to point out that Christians have been celebrating the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple since at least the 4th century. At some point in the early medieval period,  it became an added tradition on this feast day to do a special blessing of candles so that the faithful could use blessed candles in their homes throughout the course of the year. Hence another popular name for today’s feast day: Candlemas. You can probably guess why, but since the invention of the light bulb, the blessing of candles has kind of tapered off…

There’s an awful lot going on in what the Gospel tells us this morning. But the main thing I’d like to point out is that we’re not dealing just with the holy family’s first trip to church. As much as that conjures up for me the now quite personal image of Mary and Joseph making sure that they’ve got enough diapers to get them through the day and hoping that the baby Jesus doesn’t have a meltdown as soon as they enter the temple, I think it’s worth recalling that what’s going on is a ritual; a very important rite of passage. 

For Mary, the trip to the temple was to complete the rites of purification. According to Jewish law, women who had given birth were to remain separated from the community for seven days and then present themselves to a priest so that they could begin a time of ritual purification, and after an additional thirty three days present themselves in the temple, be pronounced “clean,” and rejoin the community. Now, I know that to our modern ears this may sound horribly patriarchal, but as a friend of mine from seminary who had recently given birth noted, this particular point of Jewish law may have actually been for the sole benefit of women and a sort of early form of maternity leave. As she said, for women in that day and age, a full 40 days off from having to do chores and interact with anyone might have been a real blessing. In any case, for Mary, the trip to the temple was to take part in a ritual in which she was able to give thanks for the birth of her son and reenter the life of the community. And we actually have a modified version of this ritual in the church to this day. If you have a book of common Prayer handy, check out page 439. The ritual there is called “A Thanksgiving for the Birth or Adoption of a Child,” and here’s what the instructions say:  
“As soon as convenient after the birth of a child, or after receiving a child by adoption, the parents, with other members of the family, should come to the church to be welcomed by the congregation and to give thanks to Almighty God.” This is essentially what’s going on with Mary, Joseph, and Jesus going to the temple. The ritual has evolved, but the tradition is still alive. 

Which brings up a more general point about what we’re observing today. It’s a simple fact, but it’s a fact that I think, sadly, Christians in ages past tended to forget. And the fact is that Jesus was Jewish. What Luke’s Gospel tells us is that, from the very outset, Jesus complied with the law. Luke’s Gospel makes it clear that even in his infancy, Jesus did not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it. So, quite far from doing away with old traditions in the face of a new revelation, what the Gospel reminds us is that Jesus was deeply immersed in Jewish tradition, and we in the church have inherited and are deeply indebted to the tradition which shaped our Lord. And it’s good for us to remember that.   

One reason it’s good to remember is because, just recently, the world marked International Holocaust Remembrance Day. If any of you saw news reports or took part in any special observance of International Holocaust Remembrance Day, then you know that there are fewer and fewer Jews left alive who survived the Nazi concentration camps. With each passing year, there are fewer and fewer left who can tell us what their experience was, and if you pay attention to what they say, one of the things you’ll hear is their concern that we remember the evil of Holocaust so that it won’t ever happen again. But across the world, organized, violent anti-Semitism is on the rise again. And considering the role that many Christians played in paving the way for the anti-Semitic ideology that led to Auschwitz and Buchenwald, I think it urgently important for all of us who identify as followers of Jesus to remember that the person whom we acclaim as our savior would have been a candidate for extermination under the Nazis. As Christians, we should be diligent in making sure that the words “never again” do not lose their meaning.    

Another good reason for us to remember our roots is so that we won’t lose sight of the importance of tradition in our own lives. I know that might sound like an argument for supreme conservatism, but it’s here that I’d invite you to consider the words of church historian Jaroslav Pelikan: “Tradition is the living faith of the dead. Traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.” Each one of us here, whether you have been a Christian for 80 years or 80 days, learned the faith from someone. It didn’t just come out of thin air. Someone either helped you to understand or inspired you to search for what it means to believe in and follow Jesus. In that sense, the people who taught you “traditioned” or “handed over” to you the teaching that was “traditioned” or handed over to them. Yes, each and every person has to make sense of the truth they received, but none of us can do so alone. We all depend on the living faith of others to help us grow and develop our own living faith…so that in our own time and in our own way, we can “tradition” or hand over our faith to the next generation.    

So I’d invite you to conjure up an image in your mind of Jesus being presented in the Temple. There is the holy family - Jesus, Mary and Joseph. They’ve entered the temple. Joseph and Mary look a little lost and hesitant. They are hoping to see a friendly face in the crowd; someone who will make them feel welcome and help them know where to go. Now picture yourself as Simeon or as Anna. You smile at Mary and Joseph, and they walk up to you, handing over the baby Jesus. And there you are, standing with the holy child who has just been handed over to you. All around you are people curious to see this wonderful life that you now hold in your arms. And they want to know: can I hold him next? Will you hand him over?