Sermon in Ankara for the Presentation of Christ (31st January 2021) - The Revd Patrick IrwinToday we are celebrating the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, commonly called Candlemas Day, the occasion when Mary and Joseph brought their infant child to the Temple in Jerusalem. The actual date of this feast, 2nd February, marks the end of the Christmas season, another period of forty days.
The evangelist Luke emphasises Jesus’ Jewishness. Immediately before today’s passage he informed us that Jesus was circumcised and after the passage we hear how Jesus’ parents went every year to Jerusalem for the Festival of the Passover, a round trip from Nazareth of about 120 miles on foot. They were clearly pious and practising Jews.
In the Gospel according to Luke Jesus’ life on earth begins with fulfilling the Jewish law and coming to the Temple. It ends in a similar way. The risen Jesus tells his disciples that “that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” After Christ’s Ascension the disciples were “continually in the Temple blessing God.” We may wonder why Luke emphasises Jesus’ Jewishness in a work written for the Gentile Theophilus. Perhaps Gentile Christians were as suspicious of their Jewish co-religionists as the Jewish Christians were of them. Jesus is presented as one who fulfils the Law and the Prophets, as an insider who lives and worships within the framework of the Jewish faith.
Today’s story actually tells us of three Jewish rituals. First there is the Purification. Forty days after childbirth a mother offered sacrifice as an act of cleansing. Mary makes the offering of the poor. The redemption of the firstborn boy was a separate ritual, in which five shekels was paid to the priest. The third element was the dedication of the firstborn boy to God. Jesus is offered to God as was the child and future prophet Samuel.So the scene is set with Mary and Joseph performing the correct rites laid down in Judaism. There is a wonderful contrast between the grand architecture of the temple and the couple of visitors with their baby, dwarfed by the building, and yet holding in their arms the Salvation of the World.
The reading from Malachi contained the prophecy that the Lord would come to his Temple. In the time of the writer of that passage the Jews had returned from exile in Babylon and rebuilt the temple, but the Temple priesthood had become corrupt and Malachi sounds a note of warning. The messenger that God will send to prepare his way is identified as Elijah at the end of the book, and we may remember that the Jews of Jesus’ time were expecting the return of Elijah, though in the New Testament the description is applied to John the Baptist. God himself will come and purify the Levites so that their sacrifices will be pleasing to him.
Malachi prophesies that the Lord will come to his Temple and now he has done so. It is one of the paradoxes of the Christian story that the Lord comes not as a mighty warrior but as a little baby in the arms of his mother (just as the King of All Creation was born in a stable and not in a royal palace). Yet faithful Simeon and Anna recognise him for who he is.
Our reading from Hebrews also presents Jesus’ mission in a Jewish context. Just as the High Priest would offer sacrifice to God in the temple, so now Jesus as the High Priest of the new Covenant offers a sacrifice of his own life for the sins of the people. Simeon’s words to Mary remind us that there will be sorrow and pain in Jesus’ story as well as glory and triumph.
So this section of the Gospel according to Luke plays an important part in establishing Jesus’ Jewish credentials. It also carries a simple message for us. We are to emulate Simeon and Anna. Faithful Simeon has been promised by God that he will not die until he sees the Messiah. He trusted in God and kept his eyes open. Now he has recognised the Light of the World in the most unlikely place, in a little baby held in his mother’s arms. He takes the baby and proclaims him to be God’s salvation, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to God’s people Israel.The words of Simeon are regularly used in Christian worship. Known in Latin as the Nunc Dimittis they appear in the office of Compline and in Anglican Evensong, and have been set wonderfully to music by many composers down the ages. They are also often used in funerals as the coffin is carried out of the church. Yet the words remain a direct and vivid response of one faithful individual to God’s revelation, words which all Christians may take and use on their own behalf.
Anna the prophetess has been worshipping in the Temple for years. Now the moment has come when she sees the Messiah. She praises God and tells others what she has seen.On this Feast of the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple we recall the ceremony when a Jewish baby was presented to God. Yet Jesus is also presented to Simeon and Anna. They receive and welcome the Messiah. Simeon proclaims him as the light of the world and Anna makes haste to tell others of what she has seen. Simeon and Anna have both received Jesus and they both pass on what they have received. In other words they are early Evangelists, proclaiming the Good News.
Simeon and Anna stand as examples for us both in their past and in their present actions. For years they have shown trust in God’s promises and in his faithfulness. There may well have been moments when they felt tired and old, when it was snowing and they did not appreciate the cold weather, when the political situation seemed depressing and insoluble, when they wondered if God would ever reveal his plan, yet they persevered in trust and obedience. So are we Christians to persevere: whatever the weather God has the whole world in his hands and that includes us.Simeon and Anna receive the Light of the World in their lives as they welcome the baby Jesus in the Temple and they are happy to share this with others. As Christians we also have seen in our lives the Light of the World. Sometimes it may seem dim and unclear, sometimes we may wonder if we can see it properly, but we have seen it. That is why we are here. It is for us in turn to present that light to others by our words and by our deeds. The Presentation of Christ in the Temple may seem rather a mouthful for us to remember. If you want the message of today’s Feast in a nutshell say “Pass the parcel!” and you won’t be far wrong.