St Michael and All Angels

Observatory, Cape Town

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Candlemass, 2016

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 Today we celebrate the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord, the end of our Christmas liturgies, in which the Gospel of S Luke describes how the parents of Jesus bring him to be presented in the temple. We are told, in S Luke 2:23 that they are following the Jewish practice according to which ‘every first-born male must be consecrated to the Lord’. This act of presentation happens at the beginning of life because at this point the child is an open book to be filled with God’s law, to be dedicated to God. The child’s life now belongs to the Lord. In the Gospel lection for today S Luke has run together two legal observances from the Old Testament that Mary and Joseph fulfilled.
 
According to Exodus 13, there is the law to which I have referred, that every first-born male belonged to God. God delights to create human life, and does not want human sacrifice, so a human child had to be 'ransomed' - his life was 'bought' from God. The 'price' was due on the thirtieth day after birth, and did not require attendance at the Temple.
 
Leviticus 12 prescribes a purification sacrifice in the Temple forty days after birth (eighty days for a girl). This does not imply there is something 'wrong' with giving birth. Giving birth is a wondrous thing.  Jesus was brought to the Temple on the fortieth day, and welcomed by Simeon and Anna, two elderly people who summed up the long ages of hope sustained by prophecy. They stand for those many people to whom the Holy Spirit spoke God's promises, either in the depths of their hearts, or in the words of prophecy and in the rituals of the Law. To Simeon it had been revealed by the Holy Spirit that he would not die until he had seen the Christ of the Lord. Anna had spent most of her life praying in the temple. These two venerable prophets proclaim that the child being presented in the temple is God’s salvation, the Christ who will free Israel and be a light to the pagans. Here is more than optimism, for this is a real hope. Through this child God will restore us to the faithful friendship we have lost by sinning. More than that, God will offer us adoption as his sons and daughters, to share fully in his joy.
 
This real hope, however, had been mingled with fear. The Lord would come to his Temple - but who could endure the day of his coming? The Lord comes to his Temple - as a Child. He dispels our fear by his gentle 'homeliness', this Jesus of the Christmas crib. On the other hand he deepens our 'fear', for we recognise that this is both the Lord's Anointed - and the Light that enlightens everyone, the Creator whom the highest heavens cannot contain. This is Jesus the Lord whose presence is salvation. This is the Eternal Wisdom, who is God's beloved Child, who makes all things new and without whom the world would grow old and decay.
In the Holy Spirit, Simeon points to the unexpected - even ironic - way in which Jesus will vindicate the hope of Israel and invite all nations to welcome the promise. Even Mary and Joseph must marvel. Jesus will show up the depth of human sin. Jesus, by whom and through whom all things are made, will let them kill him. Mary's First-Born, who on this day was 'ransomed', will make himself a ransom for the many. At the cost of his human life, which he would lay down for his friends he would set us free from slavery and make us God's beloved children.
 
By handing himself over into his enemies' hands, Jesus would make himself the sacrifice that truly has the power to undo our sins and turn us into God's friends. The sacrifice Jesus was to offer on the Cross was to mark the transition into a new age: as a result we can follow Jesus the High Priest into the very presence of God and into the resurrection world.
 
[The Church's liturgy for today incorporates a procession that was celebrated at this time of year in pagan Rome - a procession with lights for the purification of sins. The candles we carry in Church today recall Mary carrying Jesus the Light of the World to the Temple. The candles call us to follow Jesus into the divine glory we glimpse in our Liturgy. A candle gives light by expending itself, reminding us of how Jesus sacrificed himself to 'purchase' the world.] 
 
Today we can truly join in the song of Simeon when leaving the Altar after Mass: Mine eyes have seen Thy Salvation. 
 
May the God disclosed in Jesus bless you as you prepare for Lent.
 
 

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