By Peter Groves
The Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple comes six weeks after we marked the nativity of Christ. It is a day of endings as well as new birth. According to Jewish custom, there were forty days before a new mother could enter the temple and offer sacrifice. Mary, the mother of Jesus, has given birth to her first son, and she comes at the end of those forty days. And the son must be presented to the Lord at the beginning of his life. Every first-born male was set apart ever since that dreadful night when the first-born of Egypt was slain, but the angel of death passed over the houses of Moses and his people, their lintels marked with the blood of the sacrificial lamb.
This house now welcomes another first born son, and this house is the house of the Lord himself, the dwelling place of his presence and the centerpiece of Hebrew religion. Destroyed and rebuilt before, is destined for a more permanent end. Jesus’ own prophecy of the temple’s destruction, which will prefigure his passion in more ways than one, would come to grim fulfilment forty years after his own death and resurrection, when the armies of Titus brought to violent conclusion the life of Jerusalem’s sacred space.
The end of the temple which Jesus predicts, however, is not the Roman conquest yet to come. In fact, our celebration today is, perversely, a celebration of the temple’s own ending, a displacement of all that was thought and supposed about the presence of the God the creator. Our word presentation has a double sense. The presentation we are marking is both a giving, as with a gift, and a showing, as with a performance. However what we think we see is not what is being shown, and what we think is given is not what is being presented.
At first sight all seems very normal. We have a young couple, rejoicing at the birth of their first-born, and bringing him to Jerusalem in accordance with the Law. The mother comes to be purified, but in fact this mother is different. The young Nazarene girl who has made the journey to Jerusalem with her child, the latest girl to do as the law requires, she is in fact the purest of all God’s creatures, the Queen of Heaven herself, Mary the God-bearer who carried in her womb and brought into the world the very presence of God which the temple itself longs to own.
But this girl, and this baby, still come, in accordance with the law. Every first born male be offered to the Lord, and for the purification of the mother an offering must be made. “A lamb, a year old, for a burnt offering. Or, if she cannot afford a lamb, then she shall take a pair of turtle-doves and two young pigeons.” How ordinary it must have seemed. The couple walk towards the temple bearing the signs of their poverty. A lamb a year old was well beyond the means of a village carpenter and his young wife: that is why the Law provided the cheap alternative. And so the world looks on as they walk, and sees the pigeons, and the city types of Jerusalem smile smugly at the fact that this couple can’t afford to do things as well as they might.
Never was the cliché ‘appearances can be deceptive’ more appropriate. The world says that Mary and Joseph are too poor to afford a lamb, but the truth is of course that they are too rich to need one. For the bear in their hands not just the signs of their material poverty – the caged birds – but also the sign of their infinite wealth. Mary offers for her purification none other than the very Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, who renders sin offerings and temple sacrifice obsolete. Rather than the expected presentation of a son, this presentation in the temple is in fact a presentation of the temple. The child Jesus enters its precincts and the temple itself must acknowledge the presence of the God who dwells within it. Localized dwelling is now at an end, for in this child of just six weeks, the presence of the divine pours forth into all the world, into every life and every place, bringing light into every darkness.
God is at work turning worldly expectation on its heads. But our story does not end there, because this passing of an age is shown to us in another person, in the old man who greets them in the temple, the aged Simeon, whose words which we sing every time we celebrate evensong. Faithful, prayerful, exhausted Simeon, whose days and years of waiting are now at an end. He drags his venerable limbs into the temple and is confronted with his maker, a babe in arms just forty days old. The world looks on and sneers, because with all its functioning eyesight, it remains quite unable to see. Simeon’s eyes are dimmed and covered in cataracts, but he it is who perceives, he it is who understands God’s promise and at last can take his leave of the temple, of the world, of all he has ever known. “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace.”
“For mine eyes have seen thy salvation.” The temple has done its work. It has been the focus of worship of the God of Israel, the monument to a people’s faith and the unchanging love of their creator, the very best that humanity could do until that moment. But this good thing now comes to its end. The light of God’s presence is not in a place but in a person, in incarnation of God who offers himself eternally in love for the weakness of the world which he created.
With the arrival of these ordinary looking parents and their ordinary looking child, everything has changed. Christ has come to the temple, but the presence of God has gone out to every human being. Human nature is now hallowed by the presence of God among us, illumined by the light which shines out from the temple, out from Jerusalem and into the darkest corners of the world. This is no ordinary presentation.
The Rev. Canon Dr. Peter Groves is priest in charge of St. Mary Magdale’s, Oxford and a member of the Faculty of Theology of the University of Oxford.