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

Saturday, 11 February 2017

Sermon at Parish Mass, Presentation of Christ in the Temple 2017

Malachi 3:1-5
Hebrews 2:14-end
Luke 2:22-40
A couple of weeks ago we welcomed Year One from Hollickwood School on a visit to the Church. It was great fun and the children had a very educational hands-on visit.
Now I knew from previous school visits that one of the first things the children would notice and ask questions about was the great crucifix that hangs over the altar. “Why is Jesus on the cross?”, they would ask, and they did. But it’s not really possible to answer that question without talking about who Christians believe that Jesus is, and the story of his life and teaching.
The Cross is part of that story, but not the whole. So we also got out the figure of Baby Jesus from the Christmas Crib, and the statue of the risen Jesus that stands in the Easter garden.
All of the events of the life of Jesus are part of the story of who he is and how he is redeeming us. The event we commemorate today is part of that, the presentation of Jesus in the Temple, forty days after he was born.
The liturgy takes us through all the events of our salvation, year by year. And the forty days of Christmas are occupied chiefly with Christ’s infancy: his incarnation in the womb of Mary, his birth at Bethlehem, his circumcision, the visit of the Magi, the flight into Egypt, and now finally his Presentation. Jesus arrives in the Temple. He is recognized by Simeon and Anna as the Messiah, the hope of Israel and the light of the nations. But he is also the Son of Man, the new Adam, the representative human. In him all of humanity is presented to the Father as an acceptable offering, and by that offering all of humanity is redeemed.
The whole of Christ’s life is redemptive. Not just his atoning death on the cross and his glorious resurrection, though that is the culmination of his work. His incarnation itself is the foundational work of our redemption, God becoming human, God meeting us where we are. It is a truth of faith that in all the events of his life Christ was working our redemption[1].
This goes hand in hand with another truth of faith, that the whole of human nature is joined to God in the incarnation of Jesus, and raised in his resurrection.
In time we experience our lives as sequential moments, one after another. But in eternity all moments are equally present, and God is all in all. It follows then that all of the life of Christ and his whole saving work from beginning to end is included in his resurrection and is present in eternity.
This is why the liturgy takes us through all the events of the life of Christ in the course of a year. We are not simply recalling these as events in the past; we are accessing them by grace as present realities. The virtue and saving power of Christ’s redeeming work is communicated to us as we meditate on all its different aspects through the course of the liturgy.
From this follows a third great truth of faith: because God has joined all of human nature to himself in Jesus, the whole of human life from beginning to end is invested with immense and eternal dignity.
One of the most revolutionary ideas of Christianity was that all human beings equally were invited into the new relationship with God that Jesus makes possible. Including those whom the ancient world regarded as non-people: slaves; subjugated peoples; to some extent women; and children. The slave or the child can attain to union with God just as much as the Emperor on his throne. In fact, rather more easily, as God in Jesus shows himself to be on the side of the weak, the powerless and the excluded. As Jesus said, if you do not change and become like little children, you cannot enter the Kingdom of God.
When Jesus is presented in the Temple, all of human nature is presented in him and made an acceptable offering to his Father, and in particular those who by faith and baptism are adopted in Christ as children of God.
Children are just as much part of that offering as adults and everyone else. All the baptized are fully members of the Church of Jesus Christ, without distinction. Children just as much as adults. After all, it is Christ the forty-day old child who presents humanity to his Father in the Temple today.
If baptized children are fully part of the new life in Christ, then they should take part in that new life as fully as their age and understanding permits. Especially in the celebration of the Eucharist, the Sacrament of the Body of Christ.
In ancient times, children were admitted to communion from the moment of their baptism, and this is still the practice in the Eastern Orthodox Churches. But the Western Church moved away from this over the centuries, so it became the normal pattern for communion to follow confirmation, usually from the teenage years onwards.
There has now been a partial move back towards the ancient practice. The Roman Catholic Church for about a century has admitted children to communion before confirmation, from around the age of seven, that is, as soon as they can understand the difference between the Eucharist and ordinary food and drink.
This was also the position of the great Anglican Divine George Herbert in the 17th Century. “The time of every ones first receiving is not so much by yeers, as by understanding: particularly, the rule may be this: When any one can distinguish the Sacramentall from common bread… hee ought to receive, of what age soever.”[2]
This is now increasingly the practice of the Church of England. Admission to Communion before confirmation is allowed parish by parish, with the bishop’s permission, and following appropriate preparation for the children. Bishop Rob in our own area is very keen to encourage this, and our PCC is planning to ask him for permission. But first it does need to be explained to the parish, and people need to be happy with the idea.
This feast day seems a good occasion for setting out the thinking behind this. After Mass, please join us for coffee and we can talk through the practicalities, and answer any questions that people may have. For now, we continue with our celebration of the Eucharist. Today Jesus the child presents the whole of humanity to his Father as an acceptable offering. The whole church, in him, is called to participate as fully as possible in the life of grace. And that includes our children.

[1] As set forth, for example, in the Litany in the Book of Common Prayer:
‘By the mystery of thy holy Incarnation; by thy holy Nativity and Circumcision; by thy Baptism, Fasting, and Temptation, Good Lord, deliver us.
‘By thine Agony and bloody Sweat; by thy Cross and Passion; by thy precious Death and Burial; by thy glorious Resurrection and Ascension; and by the coming of the Holy Ghost, Good Lord, deliver us.’

[2] George Herbert, “The Country Parson”, Chapter XXII.

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