Saturday, January 31, 2015

Reading 'When the time came'

The Presentation in the Temple (Choral Matins 1.2.15)

Reading: Luke 2 (vv. 22-40)

 ‘When the time came…’ is the opening phrase for the traditional reading associated with the Feast for The Presentation of the Lord.  ‘When the time came’ … and one might say that these words are merely a narrative link for the gospel to cover a certain space of time and keep the gospel story moving. 

But in this apparently simple phrase more than one thing is happening.  On the one hand ‘when the time came’ carries an implicit sense of duration; a potential wasteland of waiting, of enduring and longing; of tedium, uncertainty, hope and futility; of just getting from one day to another.  Might that sound familiar? On the other hand, the phrase also implies a sense of purpose, a recognition that all that has gone before has been leading to what happens now; that - concealed within the apparent randomness of all the time before - something has been leading to this moment; this is not random, this is purpose at work and now unfolding.

Is it too fanciful or just too difficult to make links or connections between this ancient phrase that opens the story of this Feast and our own lives, our own sense of time?  That might be so but such connections are I think vital for us as a people of faith to whom the gospel speaks of ‘when the time came’.

Alexis Tsipras, leader of the Syriza party
I have been watching the Greek elections with much interest and great hope. The situation in Europe is frightening, vulnerable, desperately uncertain, but after years of austerity simply not working, something has happened.  The social cost of the austerity measures imposed on Greece has been unsustainable for years as the unemployment figures alone show: 26% unemployment; 51% youth unemployment.  No society can live like that.  

At last the cry has been heard ‘Enough’ and there is a new government.  The French economist Thomas Piketty (author of best seller Capital in the Twenty-First Century) has described this result as ‘good news for Europe’.  But I think it reaches further than that.  

Even in New Zealand hope is needed.  Our neoliberal policies have failed: the ‘trickle down’ economics doesn't work; and the gap between affluent and poor continues to widen.  No society can flourish with growing poverty.  I see the Government talking about social housing and about making private charities take up responsibility for housing – but with no explanation why they should do this rather than government and no suggestion as to where the charities will get the money to purchase the properties.  It’s a big topic.  But in Europe now, however tentatively, and one day I hope here too, it may be possible to also say ‘When the time came’… and see a new hope born.

In the gospel narrative ‘when the time came’ is the phrase that launches the story we remember as the Feast of the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple (we also sometimes call it Candlemas - candles being often blessed at this time).  The Feast is so timed that it looks two ways: it points backward to Christmas and forward to the season of Lent and Easter.  It looks backwards to Christmas because this is the end of the Christmas season. Forty days after Christmas is the time for Mary’s purification and the parents attend the temple to make the ritual offering the law required.   But the Feast also looks forward to Lent and Easter: in the details of the sacrifice of thanksgiving to redeem a first born child ‘a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons’, Luke’s gently underscores the irony that such an offering is made on behalf of the one who is to redeem the world.

‘When the time came’ is the phrase that heralds a new agency at work in the world.  The moment has come as, in human form, God enters into our common human story and the redeeming work of Jesus begins even while immersed in the detail, complexity and contingency of our human condition. 

The Feast of the Presentation reminds us that we are a people who are called to daily practise a ‘double vision’ – not an ocular disturbance but a disciplined and nuanced view of time and our world.  

We live not just in the moment, from day to day, caught up in chaos (as it may often feel) but in time that coexists with an eternal shaping purpose.  That is what it means to understand our lives and our living through our faith in Jesus Christ.  Daily we take up the task of trying to discern the signs of the times, trying to read the events of our day against the great work of God in redeeming the world.  

There will always be those who consider us foolish in this and we may often think that of ourselves too. But this is the great wager of faith: always looking for signs of the Kingdom, always yearning  to recognise ‘When the time came’.
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