The Presentation of Christ in the Temple
The Purification of St. Mary the Virgin
Luke 2: 22-40
Grace and peace this morning, the 40th and last day of Christmas, really and truly, and as our Groundhog friend up in Punxatawney will have noticed this morning from the old English song, as Bill Ghrist reminded us at Bible Study this past Wednesday, “
In any event, whether in bright sunshine or under dense cloud cover, the midnight songs of the Angels over the shepherds and their flock have faded away into the distance, disappearing, and the sounds we are hearing if we listen carefully this morning are a deep grinding, the machinery of the Church Calendar, this great and deep pivot just now beginning to wake up in the cold winter, to turn our perspective and point of view. Away from Bethlehem, the Manger, the Holy Family, and on to that far horizon where before we know it, just a couple of weeks now, it will be Septuagesima, the first pre-Lenten rising in the grade of the road that will lead us in a slow, deliberate march up to Jerusalem, and Holy Week, and Good Friday, and the Cross.
In the year I turned 13 my family drove across country from California to the East Coast, and I remember a lunch stop along the way at a point along the Continental Divide. A sign indicated the place, and each of us in turn had our picture taken with one foot on one side, one on the other. If it had been raining that day, I guess, the rain falling on my left hand side, if I was facing North, would have found its way gradually to the Pacific, while any rain dripping on my right would have run on through the great Mississippi Watershed and the Gulf and finally to the Atlantic. The image certainly caught my imagination. And that’s where we are today, for this watershed moment, Candlemas, turning from Bethlehem and one foot forward now onto the Road to Jerusalem.
For St. Luke the story of Christmas ends right where it begins. Echoes of T.S. Eliot and the beginning of his poem East Coker. “In my beginning is my end.”
We might remember with our Advent memories the beginning of the story in Luke, which is the prelude about the birth of John the Baptist. Beginning at the 5th verse of chapter 1, to read that again: “In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, of the division of Abijah; and he had a wife of the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. And they were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless. But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were advanced in years. Now while he was serving as a priest before God when his division was on duty, according to the custom of the priesthood, it fell to him by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense, and there appeared to him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense. And Zechariah was troubled when he saw him, and fear fell upon him. But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer is heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth.”
All that time ago. And remembering Zechariah’s great song at the birth of John. The Matins canticle, the Benedictus. “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people.” And now here at the end of Christmas. The world has kept on turning. But “in my beginning is my end.” And a husband and a wife to fulfill all righteousness, in accordance with the Law of Moses, make their appointed offering at the holy altar of the Temple of the Lord. And the Evensong canticle, from old Simeon. “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word. For my eyes have seen thy salvation, which though has prepared in the presence of all peoples.
From Simeon’s hymn in the Temple we get the name for the season. “A light to lighten the gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel.” The old custom of the blessing and distribution of candles, to be taken home and placed in all the windows of the village. A reminder of the one who is the Light of the World.
And then the turn, the pivot, as the baby is returned to the arms of his Blessed Mother. “Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is spoken against (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), that the thoughts out of many may be revealed.”
All Lent and Holy Week. You can almost hear the hammer pounding on the nails. The blending of musical chords. The last whisper of Silent Night giving way to the Good Friday hymn. O sorrow deep! Who would not weep, with heartfelt pain and sighing! God the Father’s only Son in the tomb is lying.” It hardly seems like we have time to blink, and beyond this mother and her precious Child we catch a fleeting glimpse of the Pieta. “A sword will pierce through your own soul also.”
All this, beginning and ending, the broad reach of the holy story that will come to frame each of our lives, to mark each of us, in the Temple of the Lord. “How lovely is thy dwelling place, O Lord of Hosts! My soul longs, yea, faints for the courts of the Lord; my heart and flesh sing for joy to the living God.” Where this story takes place. The beginning and ending. So Malachi, the Prophet whose name means God’s Messenger: “Thus says the Lord, See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple.” So the Letter to the Hebrews, “Therefore he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people.”
And as we hear the story once again this year come in our imaginations to the great Temple of Jerusalem and watch with Mary and Joseph in this last moment of Christmas and as the old bumper sticker would say, to know this Candlemas, this morning, February 2, “the first day of the rest of our lives,” to remember St. Paul as he wrote to the Christians of Corinth, “Do you not know that you are God’s temple, and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?”
This story not just about something that happened a long time ago and far away. True for us now, as we would open our eyes and our ears and our minds and our hearts to welcome him. Christmas ornaments boxed up and carried to the attic for another year. But even so--always Christmas, always Good Friday, always Easter. The great word of the Prophet Habbakkuk as we sometimes will hear at Morning Prayer, not in the past tense, put always in the present, here and now, with Ancient Israel, with the Holy Family, with you and me. The Lord is in his holy temple. Let all the earth keep silence before him.