Readings: Presentation of Christ in the Temple

26 January 2015

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Presentation of Christ in the Temple
Candlemas 

Malachi 3.1-5; Psalm 24 (or 24.7-end); Hebrews 2.14-end; Luke 2.22-40

Almighty and ever-living God, clothed in majesty, whose beloved Son was this day presented in the Temple, in substance of our flesh: grant that we may be presented to you with pure and clean hearts, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

THE Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple is also known by other names - the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and Candlemas. Three titles (with their hinterland of tradition, and doctrinal development) gesture towards the complexity of the event recorded in Luke's Gospel (Luke 2.22-40). Luke compresses into the visit of Mary and Joseph to the Temple, with their baby son, the statutory purification of the mother, the symbolic ransom of the firstborn (Exodus 13.2), and the dedication of a child to the Lord's service (echoes of Samuel are probably not accidental). The luminous treatment of this dense material turns narrative into prophecy, and dramatic irony.

So Mary and Joseph offer the sacrifice prescribed for those unable to afford a lamb (Leviticus 12.8), but they have brought with them the Lamb of God (John 1.29-30). For John, this is the Passover lamb, whose blood marks God's people for liberation. Luke's treatment will suggest that this firstborn child is offered to ransom all of God's later children (Hebrews 1.2 and 1.6; also Romans 8.29, Colossians 1.15 and 18). Simeon now makes his entry, his greeting confirming that the child is a sign of salvation, "a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel" (Luke 2.32; Isaiah 49.5-6). Perhaps Luke allows himself a little wordplay, associating Simeon's name (Greek: Sumeōn) with the Greek word for "sign" (sēmeion).

Artistic representations fix Simeon in our imaginations as a high-priestly figure, gorgeously robed and majestically bearded. This is not what Luke tells us. All we know about Simeon, is that he is an inhabitant of Jerusalem who exemplifies the faithfulness of waiting. A lifetime of longing and praying for "the consolation of Israel" (Luke 2.25) is being concluded as the Spirit guides him to the Temple. Yet his words to Mary (Luke 2.35), still digesting the testimony of the shepherds (Luke 2.8-19), are stark. It is left to Anna, the model of devoted worship, to restore a note of joy, praising God, and excitedly sharing the news of the child with other visitors to the Temple (Luke 2.38). Once again, the Evangelist seems to be at play, his earlier reference to the birth of Samuel (Luke 1.46-55; 1 Samuel 2.1-10) completed here, with the appearance of another [H]anna[h] to greet and encourage this mother of a much greater son.

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But greatness is necessarily deferred. The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews explains that Christ did not come "to help angels but the descendants of Abraham" (Hebrews 2.16) and, for that reason, "had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect" (Hebrews 2.17). The "Lord" who will "suddenly come to his temple" and purify the corruption of the priestly order (Malachi 3.1) learns first to be human, before assuming the role of high priest and judge. And this has given generations of Christians confidence to pray that, as God's "beloved Son was this day presented in the Temple, in substance of our flesh", so they also "may be presented to [God] with pure and clean hearts" (Collect of the Day).

This great movement from humility to glory, from humanity to divinity, is captured exquisitely by the 19th-century hymnographer, John Ellerton (1826-93) in his Candlemas hymn, "Hail to the Lord who comes, comes to his temple gate" (see Psalm 24.7-10). The hymn draws on all the human emotion in the presentation scene: the young mother with her first child; Joseph overawed; Simeon holding up the baby to proclaim him "the glory of all lands" as they stand by, anxious in case the old man drops him. The fourth verse hails "the great First-born" and hints that Ellerton had recognised another connection. Later in Luke's Gospel, the newborn Lord returns to his Temple city (Luke 19.28-40; see also Matthew 21.1-11, Mark 11.1-10, John 12.12-19). This time, he is acclaimed by shouting crowds, but he has come to die. The liturgical provision for the Presentation marks this eloquently, as candles are extinguished, and the Church prepares for Lent and Passiontide (Common Worship: Times and Seasons):

Hail to the great First-born,

Whose ransom-price they pay!

The Son before all worlds,

The Child of man to-day,

That he might ransom us

Who still in bondage lay.

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