Catholic Contextual urban Theology, Mimetic Theory, Contemplative Prayer. And other random ramblings.

Saturday, 8 February 2014

Sermon at Parish Mass, The Presentation of the Lord 2014

Malachi 3:1-5
Hebrews 2:14-end
Luke 2:22-40

Although we are in the year of Matthew, today we have a little detour into Luke, as it is only Luke, the custodian of the childhood of Jesus, who gives us this story of the presentation in the temple, forty days after Jesus was born.

And there is much going on in this reading. The aged prophets Simeon and Anna are as it were representatives of Israel, faithfully waiting down the centuries for the promises of the Lord to be fulfilled. And today they see that promise, in person, entering the Temple. Jesus is both God’s presence in person, and the messenger of the covenant, suddenly coming to his temple, as the prophecy from Malachi foretold.

And Simeon responds in the beautiful hymn of praise which used to be so very well known, in the days when most parishes had choral evensong: the Nunc Dimittis. “Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace: according to Thy word”. 

Our modern translation sounds a bit more technical: “Master, now you are dismissing your slave in peace, according to your word”. Because in Greek it is “slave”, not “servant”, and this rather technical language uncovers the meaning. This is a formula spoken when a slave has been set free - which was quite a regular piece of business in the first century.

So the appearance of Jesus causes Simeon to proclaim that he has been set free from slavery, that is, he has been redeemed. This is one of St Luke’s “reversals”, as Jesus has been brought to the Temple for his own redemption. As part of the law of Moses, all first born sons were to be redeemed, bought back, from the Lord. This was to remind the people of Israel that they were set free from slavery in Egypt by the Lord, and that freedom is God’s gift.

So Jesus has come, under the law, to receive in a figurative sense his own freedom from slavery as a son of Israel. But once he is there he is revealed as the one who will bring about that freedom for others.

There is another reversal here also. Mary and Joseph have come to offer a sacrifice according to the Law of Moses - a pair of turtle doves or two young pigeons, which was the option allowed for the poor, in place of a lamb. But that sacrifice gives way to the greater offering, which is God’s offering of himself. Jesus himself is as it were offered to God in the Temple, just as God has given himself for the world in the coming of his Son.

This is the new “sacrifice of atonement” which our reading from Hebrews talks about, reconciling humanity and God. This is not a sacrifice inflicted on someone or something else, like the old sacrifices were. It is the Son freely offering himself to the Father, pouring himself out in love, just as God has emptied himself to take the form of a servant, being born in our human nature. 

When Jesus is presented in the Temple our human nature is presented with him, because he is both Divine and human in one person. Humanity is taken into the Divine outpouring of love of the persons of the Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And this presentation of Jesus as a child prefigures a greater and later return to the Father. In the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus our human nature is definitively and for ever taken into the life of God.

So the light of God shines in Jesus as he is presented to the Father. This light brings freedom from slavery, liberation from sin and death. It illuminates the types and shadows of older forms of worship, showing their meaning in the full light of God’s presence as he suddenly appears in his temple. 

And this light is not only for Israel. Simeon proclaims that Jesus is the Light for revelation to the Gentiles. According to the prophet Isaiah God’s light would one day shine from Israel and reach to the ends of the earth, to gather all peoples in to God’s kingdom of justice and peace. And Simeon proclaims that this is happening here and now with Jesus.

But the light of God does not only bring liberation. It also causes division: “‘This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed”. Why is this? It is because “the inner thoughts of many will be revealed”. The light shines in a sinful world. Jesus brings conflict because atonement - being reconciled with God - means becoming like God by accepting and reflecting his self-giving love. Which means rejecting self-will, the assertion of the self over against others, hatred, violence, envy. Which is how the world tends to run, but doesn’t really want that to be seen for what it is.

For those who stay faithful to the light this brings suffering and sorrow. Mary is told “a sword will pierce your own soul too”. She who stands in the Temple today is destined to be the sorrowful mother standing at the foot of the cross. She will receive the dead body of her Son in her arms, when finally the work of love is done in the only way it can be in a world that is deeply resistant to love. 

The light of Christ is like a double edged sword: it cuts both ways. It shows the path to liberation, to reconciliation with God. But it also reveals the fallen nature of humanity and the ugliness of sin. Once the light has come you cannot remain neutral. Once you see yourself in the light of Christ you face the choice to turn to him or to turn away. 

But Jesus has come as the Saviour. The Lord has entered his temple, the light for revelation to the Gentiles and the glory of his people Israel. A light that will not be put out. 

Jesus has come to redeem humanity from the slavery of sin and death. He has come with God’s gift of forgiveness, breaking the chains that have held humanity captive down the ages. He has come that the light and glory of God may shine in the hearts of all. He has come that all may forsake their sins and dwell in the love of God. We celebrate the coming of that light today. 

We know that following the light of Christ means that we must be prepared, like Jesus, to be a sign of contradiction in the world. We know that must be prepared, like Mary, for the suffering that may come when we commit ourselves to love come what may, whether the world wants to accept that love or not. But we know also that the light of Christ is the true light of liberation and freedom, that he is the way by which we, with all the world, are called to enter in to the life and love of God. So we do not need to be afraid to follow Jesus, and today as we celebrate the coming of his light we renew our decision to turn to him and open our hearts to that light, the light of God’s love shining in the darkness of the world.

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