Thursday 6 February 2014

Presenting Jesus in the Temple - Mary's story

An address given at Templederry & Nenagh on Sunday 2nd February 2014, the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, commonly called Candlemas

So often at Candlemas the whole focus is on Jesus, ‘the light to lighten the gentiles’.
After all the proper title of the festival in the church calendar is ‘The Presentation of Christ in the Temple’. We heard about it in today’s reading from Luke’s Gospel (Luke 2:22-40).

I think Luke has woven into his account of the Presentation an authentic story from Mary’s own lips, based on her own memories of that day.
·          Luke was not an eyewitness of Jesus’s life, and he probably wrote his Gospel at least 30 years after the resurrection, but he tells us himself that he carefully gathered his material from eyewitnesses.
·          Of the principal characters, Simeon and Anna would have been long dead by the time of Jesus’s death, and Joseph too. The story also contains words probably spoken privately to Mary, so bystanders are unlikely to be Luke’s source.
·          That leaves Mary as Luke’s likely source, whether in person or at one remove through an eyewitness, who heard her tell the story sometime after Jesus’s death and resurrection.

So today I’m going to focus on Mary for a change, not Jesus. I invite you to enter into the story of the Presentation in your imagination, to put yourself in the shoes that day of Mary, the young wife of Joseph, and the new mother of the baby Jesus.

Why did Mary and Joseph bring Jesus to the Temple?
Luke gives us two Jewish religious reasons: 1st for ‘their purification’, and 2nd to fulfil the Jewish law that ‘Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord’.

Hebrew law was obsessed with purity. It defined in excruciating detail what makes a person clean or unclean. God’s favour depends on your being clean, it was believed, and any contact with someone who was unclean made you unclean, as if un-cleanliness was a contagious disease. Leviticus laid down the law that a woman was unclean for 40 days after the birth of a male child. If the child was a girl, the mother was unclean for twice as long - 80 days! The only way for a mother to become clean again was to make a prescribed sacrifice at a sanctuary – in Mary’s time this was in the Temple.

We have, thank God, long abandoned this and other ancient Hebrew purity taboos. Nowadays we find the idea that birth makes a woman unclean quite repulsive. But did Mary really feel she needed to be purified, or was she simply following ancient tradition? She certainly had important practical reasons to fulfil the requirements of the law - pious Jews would shun Mary and her husband unless she had been purified in this way. And it saved a journey to bring Jesus to the Temple at the same time to present him to God as the law also required.

But perhaps Mary and Joseph also had another reason to bring Jesus to the Temple - to give joyful thanks to God for her safe delivery and for the great gift of her healthy son Jesus. This was an opportunity for Mary to show off her new baby, as women still do when they first come to church after giving birth - such a lovely opportunity for a bit of baby-worship! And perhaps they combined it with a family celebration.

In the Church of Ireland BCP we still have special prayers of thanksgiving for childbirth, which once served this purpose. Originally they were used 40 days or so after birth, in church after MP, in what was commonly called ‘Churching a Woman’. In the new BCP the word ‘Churching’ has been dropped, and the prayers are recommended for use in hospital or at home. I don’t think they are used very much now, perhaps because of some association with the repulsive idea that women need purification. But I think it is a shame not to use the prayers - they carry no implication of impurity, and would fit beautifully at the end of a service before the Blessing.

Simeon was one of the priests on duty in the Temple that day.
He was ‘righteous and devout’, we are told, ‘looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him’. He must have been a well known and popular priest, I think, or his name would not have come down to us – did Mary choose him specially, I wonder?
He certainly had a wonderful gift with words in his priestly role, as he pronounced over Jesus that great prayer of joy we still use as the canticle ‘Nunc Dimittis’ – ‘Lord now letest thou thy servant depart in peace…’ It’s odd, isn’t it, that this cry of joy is now mostly heard amidst the sadness of funerals. Mary and Joseph were amazed by his words, we’re told. But I wonder if it was Simeon’s pastorally sensitive custom to greet every new child in this joyful way.

Notice that the sacrifice Mary and Joseph gave was two pigeons. The standard sacrifice was a lamb and a pigeon, but Leviticus allowed those who could not afford a lamb to offer two pigeons. Mary and Joseph were not wealthy, just ordinary people who had to live on a budget like the rest of us.

At the end of the ceremony, after blessing them, Simeon spoke to Mary, quietly and privately I think, since Joseph’s name is not mentioned. ‘This child is destined’, he said, ‘for the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed – and a sword will pierce your own soul too.’  What was Mary to make of his cryptic words? We’ll come back to that.

Then the old widow Anna came up to them. Like Simeon she would have been well known to everyone who came to the Temple, because she was always there, and had been for many years. And as she praises God she just gushes over Jesus to everyone in the Temple. Could Mary possibly have felt a bit embarrassed by her gushing, proud as she was of her baby?

Looking back on it later, surely Mary felt the trip to the Temple had gone swimmingly.
The ceremony had gone well; Simeon had conducted it beautifully; even Anna had said nice things about Jesus. She could go out again in public now everyone recognised she was pure again. And she could resume normal relations with her husband without transmitting impurity to him.

No doubt Mary pondered Simeon’s obscure words in her heart for a while, as Luke tells us she did the Shepherds’ words a few weeks before. I imagine her saying to herself, ‘What did that nice Simeon mean? I understand that every child causes pain to a mother, once in a while. Which of us hasn’t? But what about the rest of what he said?’ But quite soon these questions would have been pressed to the back of her mind by her busy duties as wife and mother.

Meanwhile Jesus, oh so quickly, ‘grew, became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favour of God was upon him’.

Perhaps it was only after Jesus’s death and resurrection that Simeon’s words came back to Mary.
Only then could she properly understand them. Jesus’s ministry in life confirmed his destiny. His crucifixion pierced her soul like a sword, so much worse than she could possibly have imagined. His resurrection revealed him to be the Messiah, the Saviour over whom Simeon had prayed so joyfully as a baby.

The Spirit moved her to tell her story to Jesus’s disciples. Maybe Luke heard her do so, or perhaps one of the disciples passed it on to him. In any case, Luke collected the story and passed it on in turn to us.

Let us give thanks for Luke’s telling of Mary’s story and particularly for Simeon’s joyful prayer, which I shall finish by praying:

Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace: according to thy word.
For mine eyes have seen thy salvation, which thou hast prepared before the face of all people;
To be a light to lighten the Gentiles, and to be the glory of thy people Israel.