…they brought him to Jerusalem, to present him to the Lord. (Luke 2: 22)
It is likely that there have been a number of occasions in our lives when we have felt able to echo some of the sentiments expressed in the hymn ‘Tis good Lord to be here in response to our own situations, not just as a response to the story of the Transfiguration. You will no doubt recall occasions when you have been in the right place at the right time and particular occasions when that has been in the House of the Lord: your parish church, a shrine or other holy place where God’s presence has been felt more strongly than elsewhere. It doesn’t matter whether you came as a result of a desire to offer praise, to seek forgiveness or to find sanctuary. When in the holy place, you were able to recognise God’s presence and catch something of his awesome splendour.
For the observant Jew, that place was frequently the temple where the Ark of the Covenant had its resting place. There were other places of course, something that God’s universal presence made inevitable, like Bethel where Jacob had his vision, but the exceptions prove the rule. According to the cultic understanding the Ark was an extension of God and the temple was therefore his dwelling place – even if it was not exclusive.
Arise, O Lord into thy resting place: thou, and the ark of thy strength. (Psalm 132: 8 – Coverdale)
The Ark did not always rest in Jerusalem of course. On its journey through the wilderness it was found in many places, but became settled after the crossing of the Jordan. The shrine was variously at Gilgal, possibly at Bethel, then at Shiloh. There followed the desolate sojourn of the Ark in Philistia after it was captured in battle and then its journey through the hill country to its final resting place in Jerusalem. The Temple was the shrine which was built around the Ark and which was the locus of the sacrificial cult until 70 A.D. when the Romans raised the building to the ground.
Jerusalem had its own significance. It was the place where David settled as king and so it was the obvious place for the Ark. Recognising the Ark as an extension of God, as cultically significant because it contained the tablets of the Law, as a kind of military talisman essential for the independence of the nation, and as a sort of portable throne for the presence of God, it made sense for it to reside in the capital. David was not seduced into thinking that he had rights over God because of this location, something which is made clear in his speech about the building of the Temple which was to be carried out by his son and successor Solomon. The new king makes this clear in his speech following the installation of the Ark in the newly built temple:
But will God in very deed dwell with men on the earth? behold, heaven and the heaven of heavens cannot contain thee; how much less this house which I have built! (2 Chronicles 6: 18)
Jerusalem is also a place favoured by God, something which is made much of in the psalms:
For the Lord hath chosen Zion; he hath desired it for his habitation. This is my rest for ever: here will I dwell; for I have desired it. I will abundantly bless her provision: I will satisfy her poor with bread. I will also clothe her priests with salvation: and her saints shall shout aloud for joy. (Psalm 132: 13-16)
Just as a footnote – but not an insignificant one given the use that the author of the epistle to the Hebrews makes of it – Jerusalem was also the dwelling place of Melchizedek who was King of Salem and priest of God Most High, a type of our Lord to whom Abraham gave a tithe and from whom he received a blessing.
Given the significance of the Temple it was clearly the place to be. And so we find Mary and Joseph heading there on pilgrimage to fulfil the requirements of the Law by offering sacrifice. After all, at the significant moments of life, where else would you be? If we read back through the scriptures we discover Hannah in the shrine at Shiloh, offering petition to the Lord in her sadness and then offering her son, Samuel to the Lord after her petition is granted. On reading the story it is clear that Hannah is a woman of great faith who trusts in God and is prepared to open her heart to him. It is a profoundly moving story which leaves me wanting to ask, ‘where else would she be?’ There is also a story about Mary herself which refers to her own presentation in the temple when she was three (celebrated on 21st November). The story is a reminder of her consecration to God, the fruit of which we see in today’s gospel reading which has its parallels with the offering of Samuel by Hannah. Mary makes the offering for purification for herself and offers Jesus to the Lord. The offering of Jesus is prophetically significant if, as the text seems to imply, he was not redeemed as required by the Law, but offered as a sacrifice in anticipation. Here is the offering on Calvary being pre-emptively acted out to show that Jesus’ whole life is given to the Lord from the beginning to the end.
So where else would you find Jesus? Where else would Mary and Joseph be? Where else would we find the dedicated servants Simeon and Anna? Where else would you be except in the place where God’s glory dwells, the place of offering, sacrifice and redemption now acted out, not in the Temple in Jerusalem, but in a parish church in some corner of the former Roman Empire? Where else would you come for praise, forgiveness and sanctuary, but to the house of the Lord? May our visit here today, our little moment of pilgrimage, be a fruitful offering of ourselves and bring blessing upon all those for whom we pray. We have come to the right place at the right time!
Father Andrew Burton SSC
Presentation of Christ, 2021
Image by Dimitris Vetsikas on Pixabay