Monday, February 4, 2013

A strange encounter

Sermon for The Presentation in the Temple

Presentation of Christ in the Temple: Mattins

Unless a visitor to the Cathedral this morning had a pretty good knowledge of what we know as the ‘Church Year’ they might wonder why we are celebrating the festival we call ‘The presentation in the temple’. 

This Feast is poised on the cusp of Lent with Ash Wednesday only 10 days away and it marks a decisive end to the Christmas and Epiphany seasons and the story they follow.   When the Virgin Mary visits the temple 40 days after giving birth she is following the requirements of Jewish law for women but when she hands the infants Jesus over to the old priest and prophet, Simeon, a new stage of the story begins.

Of course a natural response could be something along the lines of: ‘Well this might be interesting, but, to put it bluntly, so what?  What has this story, this incident, got to do with us?’

One way of responding to that question is to look at the scene and what is going on – this is certainly what western art and especially the icons of the Greek and Russian Orthodox churches have done – they give a stylized image to invite us to see, reflect and encounter the mystery and the strangeness of what we know of the event.

Most icons have Mary (and others) on the left, arriving at the temple.  Opposite them, to the right, greeting them on the temple steps is the ancient temple priest, Simeon and often, behind him, in some, the prophetess, Anna.  Between Mary and Simeon is set the infant Jesus and Simeon often is shown to reache out to embrace him.

In one sense this is a very ordinary event.  Any parent, any grandparent, can make sense of the general picture.  Take the scene (never mind the figures and who they represent) and we can grasp the human story it represents.  There at the centre is the baby, this new life, and on one side is the proud mother with friends or family and on the other side a welcoming human community gazing with interest, curiosity and perhaps delight or wonder.  If we contemplate that for a moment, one response would be to remember that whoever we are, we live in community and in relationships; our identity, what we might think of as who we are, is utterly interwoven with the identities of others and formed by them.  We may take this for granted: but in reality, without knowing it, we are on holy ground.  So, at the centre of this grouping is a baby, a mysterious new person, a vulnerable life, dependent upon these figures about it; offering for them, perhaps, a new chance in the world; presenting the question of what it will become. Implicit in this snapshot of our human community are all the things that make for a good family, for a good and fulfilling society; and as well as this also our human potential for harm, destructive conflict and distrust.

But this is also a unique and specific event: Mary has brought the baby Jesus to the Temple and knowing the characters and the story as Luke tells it we might wonder what else can be said or seen.  

This Feast that brings Jesus into the temple reminds us of something about God.  Jesus, as the Son of God, is coming into his own place – the Temple.  But he does not enter with trumpets and cosmic upheaval and signs in the heavens – he comes as an infant and vulnerable.  This reminds us that God immerses himself in our humanity, shares it; knows it; takes it into himself.  God relates to us in our humanity – and does not force us to an awareness of him.  You could say God conceals himself in our humanity and in our world – and waits for us to respond.

The other point that I think the Feast of the Presentation helps us grasp, perhaps less directly, is something about the Church.  When the infant Jesus is brought into the temple, it can be understood as a sign that something new is to happen – and that something new will eventually come to be known as the Church.  In all the icons and art of the Presentation, the infant Jesus is the agent or link that symbolically creates a new community – the two sectors of the icons meet in him.  In his adult life, Jesus continued to create a new community – for instance in those extraordinary fellowship meals where all sorts of people, respectable and otherwise, radical opposites, came together around the one table; also, after his death and resurrection, the new community continued to grow and continued to bring people together across cultures, races and belief systems and it spread around the world.

So here we are today: and as we talk about being the Church - I think it was Archbishop William Temple who said that the church is the only society that exists for those who don’t belong to it.  The marks of the Church as Catholic require that we include everyone and exclude no one.  We are radically inclusive.  But we make mistakes.  Church history is full of mistakes.  But we progress despite that; it was St Augustine who described the church as a ‘school’ with God as its teacher.  We are a community that continually has to learn and slowly grow into maturity, generation by generation, growing into the new humanity God created us to become, including all our diversity and allowing for the latitude and scope demanded by our human freedom. What begins in the Presentation in the Temple is part of God’s experiment with humankind and the creation of the church to be a ‘laboratory of the Spirit’.  The Church is not about maintaining some identity that is frozen in time but it is always about our human growth into fullness and maturity before God. 
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