Sermon for the Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple
3rd Feb 2019
The Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple (Candlemass) 2019.
My eyes have seen the salvation which you have prepared for all nations to see.
Today’s great Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple extends and enriches the vision of the prophet Malachi that ‘The Lord you are seeking will suddenly come to his Temple’. In his prophecy lis the meeting of past and present realities; a meeting between Mary, Joseph and Jesus and old Simeon and between the Jesus who is presented to us this morning. In it, we are given a picture of the God who is close to us and who beckons us into his presence.
In London’s Cavendish Square, opposite John Lewis’ store, lies a great sculpture of the Virgin and Child covering the entrance to a narrow and winding street called Dean’s Mews. It is there to tell the visitor of what lies at the end of the street, a small Roman Catholic Women’s community, The Society of the Holy Child. The sculptor, Jacob Epstein, has Mary, standing behind her infant, with her hands open towards us in a gesture of generous giving and openness. The child at Mary’s feet has his arms open to greet us, waiting to hold us and embrace us. The image carries for us a meaning far beyond that of just any mother and child. It draws us toward it like a magnet because it speaks to us in the way it communicates the strong purposes of God in and beyond the surface meaning of stance and gesture. It has an everlasting quality in the way it promises something profoundly human and eternal. In it lies the promise of the presence of a God who is close by; very near us. He is not a God who is inert, but rather, One who beckons.
In today’s Gospel, Mary and Joseph and Jesus come to enter the Temple and to receive the purification rites as laid down in Jewish Law. The meaning of this event is made clearer to us in the telling of a second or background narrative concerning two elderly guardians of the Temple, Simeon, the old priest and the prophetess, Anna. Both are elderly. This couple provide a contrast in time and in place to the young family Mary and Joseph and their child Jesus. In the meeting of these two couples, Luke tells us that this is no chance or ordinary meeting, even though it was routine and traditional to present a boy child and for the mother to be ritually cleansed after the birth of her child. This purification had its equivalent in The Church of England not so long ago in the so-called ‘Churching’ of women following a pregnancy. In the blessing and the cleansing ceremony there includes a meeting and a greeting and taking place between two religious epochs…The Old and New Testament worlds are shown to us in the one time, the one place and in the one child, Jesus.
Luke paints this message on the broadest possible canvas : not only of history, but of the Divine purpose. The Old Testament man Simeon is more than a mere bystander. In the closing days of his life, he is privileged to utter prophecy in the recognition of the child as a prayer to God the Father: “Mine eyes save seen thy salvation” he cries “which thou hast prepared before the face of all people…” And this is very moving, as we see the old man, coming to the end of his life, meeting the new born baby and witnessing the outcome of his own life’s longing. He sees his own salvation. And TS Eliot marks, in a poem ‘A Song of Simeon’, the great themes of life and death in the immensity of time and sets them alongside Simeon's completed life.
Now at this birth season of decease,
Let the infant, the still unspeaking and unspoken Word,
Grant Israel’s consolation
To one who has eighty years and no tomorrow.
TS Eliot ‘A Song of Simeon’.
Today is a Feast Day of Candles. There is always intended to be a procession in our churches as we follow Mary and Joseph into the Temple. In the carrying of candles, we bring the story to life in the manner of what the French have called a tableau vivant. A coming to life in us of things done and spoken long ago, and of the holding in our hands, as Simeon held in his arms, ‘The Light to Lighten the nations, and the glory of God’s people’. By these means we, after all these years, claim ownership of those things which this meeting offers, for our world's posterity.
As the Christ was presented to God, to Simeon and to the world, so we in our procession present ourselves to Christ. In turn Christ is presented to us, just as he is and just as we are, rather like that sculpture in Cavendish Square. This is ‘God’s presence and his very self and essence all divine’ as the hymn reminds us. This is the God who is very close to us, as one prayer has it ‘closer is he than breathing; nearer than hands and feet’. Let us then enter into this closeness with God and abide in him, as he abides in us. At least let us be open to the idea of his closeness and open our hearts to greet him. Let be present to the sureness of his being, just like Simeon.
Another sculpture across Cavendish Square and down a side road takes you to John Lewis’ store in Oxford Street where Barbara Hepworth’s sculpture ‘Winged Figure’ is also a beckoning presence. It offers a response in kind to Epstein’s 'Mother and Child'. The little walk across the square and into Oxford Street might tell us that this beckoning God is for ever present to us. We are invited now to seek him, and if possible to find him, just as Mary and Joseph and Simeon did all those years ago. Go and see for yourselves. After all, it's not too far away...