The Rev. Elaine H. Breckenridge
The Feast of the Presentation
February 2, 2014
Listen to this…Sermon 2014.02.02 EHB
As I have gone about my day to day life lately, in shops and in businesses, I have been asked, “So are you ready for the big game?” I try to bat my eyelashes and sound naive as I say, “What game?”
What game? Of course I know that some people call this day Super Bowl Sunday. I know it is a feast day when friends will gather to eat and to drink as well as to watch football. But there are other calendars which also mark today as a special feast day.
They include Groundhog Day, Candlemas, The Feast of the Purification and The Feast of the Presentation. So let’s take a quick tour.
Groundhog Day, while it seems to have some Germanic festivities connected with it, it really dates back to Celtic Christian people in Scotland. Only the tradition related to the first sighting of a bear emerging from hibernation, signaling the beginning of spring as the animal world was waking up. Here in the United States the bear was translated into a groundhog, which was later made famous, as Phil, in a movie called Groundhog Day, starring Bill Murray. And with that I might be digressing.
On to Candlemas, which was another name given to the Church’s Feast Day of The Presentation or The Purification in the eleventh century.
It was so named, because the liturgy began to include a procession and blessing of candles. That originated in the late fourth century in Jerusalem.
And that is what we celebrate today: The Feast of the Presentation, the day when Mary and Joseph took Jesus to the temple and suddenly he was surrounded by prophets, prayers and praise as we heard in our Gospel reading.
But. But in its earliest history, it was also known as The Purification. As we also heard in the Gospel reading from Luke, Mary and Joseph are fulfilling one of the requirements of the law, their purification. Remember that in the Judaism of the time of Jesus, women were considered ritually unclean for forty days after child birth, and so consequently the whole family, having been in close proximity to the new Mother were also unclean. Before they could be re-admitted into the worshiping community, they all had to go to the temple to offer a ritual sacrifice.
Now if a feast of purification for a woman after childbirth sounds somewhat archaic, remember that in our own 1928 version of the Book of Common Prayer, used until 1978; it also had a service of this nature. It was called The Churching of Women.
The rubric introducing the rite said, “The Woman, at the usual time after her delivery, shall come into the Church decently appareled, and there shall kneel down in some convenient place outside the church as the Minister shall direct”. In other words, it was not until she received a blessing that she was able to enter the church.
That rite has thankfully been replaced by The Rite of Thanksgiving for the Birth of a Child– a ritual focused on the blessing of the child and not on the purification of the woman–just as our Gospel reading does today. I for one am pleased that rather than focusing on the purification of Mary, in today’s feast we are invited to reflect upon the presentation and dedication of Jesus in the temple. It was an interesting shift and no doubt one that Luke was trying to make to the early church.
Still the other readings for today show us the tension between purification and dedication. On the one hand, Malachi and Hebrews both speak of refining fires and ritual sacrifices– underscoring a theology of atonement, the necessity of offering a ritual sacrifice for sin, whether it be temple worship or focusing on the cross of Christ.
And on the other hand, Psalm 84 and the Gospel reading emphasize a spirituality of pilgrimage and dedication. We come to God and present ourselves for worship not because we suffer from some stain of sin or have a need for ritual purification. No, we come to God because of our longing and love for God; “Happy are they who dwell in your house, they will always be praising you.” says Psalm 84. We come to church to worship with Christ because with Simeon we too have seen the presence of God at work in our lives and in creation and for that we are thankful.
So what are we to do with the rest of the day? What meaning does this Gospel have for those of us counting down to other feasts with families, friends and football, or in my case, settling down to watch the next installment of the Downtown Abbey series on public television?
Perhaps it is no more complicated than to look for the light of Christ. The light of Christ shines throughout this Gospel reading casting light everywhere. Look at the elders Simeon and Anna. Although they were surely steeped in the traditions of their ancestors, they were not closed off to the possibility of the revelation of the light of God occurring in new and surprising ways. Their expectant faith gave them an openness to recognize God incarnate entering into the temple not in pomp and glory, as so many expected that the Messiah would, but as one like them, poor and simple, totally dependant on God. They saw the light, the salvation of Israel wrapped in the bundle of joy held in Mary’s arms.
And let it be said that Mary and Joseph were handing over their first born, not as a sacrifice for sin, but as a love offering, praying that God would bless and nurture the inner light of grace that they saw revealed in their arms– just as we do in our blessings of our own children and grandchildren today.
Simeon and Anna, Joseph and Mary saw that a new light had come into the world–the light of Jesus. And that light was the light that “enlightens everyone coming into this world.” (John 1:9)
Everyone. I wonder if the church has emphasized the darkness of the human heart over the light to be found in each human being? I told you once that I am an Epiphany person. And I am, because I hold dear, the words of the proper preface which I have the privilege of saying during the Great Thanksgiving this holy season. “You have caused a new light to shine in our hearts.” BCP p. 378
The light of Christ shines in our hearts. Too often the rituals and the prayers of the church remind us otherwise. We forget that in all people, in all places, in every created thing (dang, I have to admit maybe even in football) the light of God is shining.
Of course that light may lie buried and forgotten under layers of darkness and distortion. The reality for most of us, is that much of the time, we live as fugitives from the true light. (1.) We all know what moments of darkness are like when we feel cut off from God, cut off from love and from one another, cut off from the light shining in our hearts.
But the divine light is always there waiting to be recovered. The church’s role is not to bring light to a fallen and dark creation, but rather to liberate the light from the heart of life which has been there since creation.
That’s why we need the church. Through our worship, sacraments and spiritual friendships we journey together to be reconnected to the light of God within. Together we discover that grace is that moment of re-connection when we experience “that the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.” (John 1:5)
Today is Candlemas, and in keeping with an ancient tradition of lighting candles, I invite you to take some time today to light a candle in your own home. If you prefer, you can also simply light a candle in your heart praying for a clarity of vision.
Pray that we may be open to God’s on-going revelation. Like Simeon and Anna may we delight in the new and surprising ways in which God reveals God’s Self. Like Mary and Joseph, light a candle in thanksgiving for the glory of Jesus, but also in thanksgiving for all children. Light a candle if you are living in a time of suffering and darkness remembering the old Irish proverb, that “It is better to light one candle than to complain about the darkness.” Light a candle if you have a desire and longing for God, if your heart is set on the pilgrim’ way, and ask for God’s direction.
And then, however you spend the rest of your day, be thankful for God’s light which indeed is at the heart of all life. Amen.
(1.) John Philip Newell, The Book of Creation, p.11