PRESENTATION OF OUR LORD IN THE TEMPLE – 2nd February, 2014
ST BARNABAS’, RIVERVALE
Thirty-one years ago today, the Feast of the Presentation of Our Lord in the Temple, on a hot and windy evening in Holy Cross Cathedral, Geraldton, the Archdeacon formally presented me to Bishop Ged Muston, declaring me to have been examined and found to be “fit for the office” of deacon. There being no public objection to this, the Bishop laid hands on me and said, “Stephen, Take authority to execute the office of a Deacon in the church of God, now committed to you; in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” And everyone said, “Amen.” And I went away a newly-minted Deacon, let loose on the church as a sort of senior apprentice.
And a year later, on the eve of this same Feast, same climatic conditions, same Bishop, same Archdeacon, same declaration of my “fitness”, but this time as a Priest. This time, it was not just the Bishop laying hands on my head, but all of the clergy present – a dozen or so, according to the picture you’ll see in the church lobby this morning. And, believe me, the feeling of all those hands on my head and shoulders was weighty indeed, though probably not as weighty as had been the bishop’s statement of the “dignity and importance of this office”. After I had answered numerous questions about my commitment to serve God and the Church, all those hands were laid on, and the Bishop said, “Receive the Holy Spirit for the office and work of a Priest in the church of God”, and quite a bit more! And off we went to practise. And I guess that thirty years on, I’m still practising!
I’ve occasionally wondered if the Bishop had a particular reason for the deaconing and priesting’s happening on this feast of the Presentation of Christ, and long since decided that 1st/2nd of Feb was a convenient date because a number of the clergy were travelling through Geraldton about then to return to their far-flung parishes after the summer holiday.
Lest this become just a self-serving celebration of the “Feast of the Presentation of Steve in the Cathedral”, let’s think for a few minutes about the Feast which Mother Church has given us for today.
I want to suggest that we can talk of “presentation” on four levels:
Firstly, of course, we have Jesus being brought by Mary and Joseph to the Temple in Jerusalem. He is forty days old, and the Law and custom required two things to happen this day. One was the “purification” of his mother. Hebrew law declared every woman who gave birth “unclean” for a period of forty days after the birth. This had do with the shedding of blood in childbirth and meant that she was not allowed to attend the Temple for worship until she was “purified”.
The second part is that every first-born male child had to be brought to the Temple, presented to God, and “redeemed” with another sacrifice – usually that of a lamb, but Joseph and Mary, being probably not too well off and a long way from home, came with “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”, as we read in the Gospel. The son was therefore a gift from God, given to God, and given back to the parents and the world. This is a concept to which I’ll come back shortly.
The writer to the Hebrews from whose letter we read earlier, brings out some of the significance of this event. He stresses the humanity of Jesus, who shared in flesh and blood – was fully human like us – so that he could destroy death and all its power. We are left with no uncertainty that Jesus is any less human than we. The story of the Presentation celebrates One who, while fully divine, is equally fully human, fully Jewish and undergoing all that both humanity and Jewish law require. The Hebrews’ writer goes on to tell us that “he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people”.
The old man, Simeon, and the probably-even-older Anna, understand something of this. They have been waiting many years to see God’s Messiah. Simeon says of Jesus that he is:
which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel.”
Jesus is God’s “gift that keep on giving”. He is presented to God in the Temple; redeemed at the cost of a couple of pigeons; given back to his parents; given as a sacrifice on the cross to restore us to relationship with God; and given back to us in the resurrection; so that, again to quote our Hebrews passage, “Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested”.
This principle of sacrifice – of giving and being given back can be seen in that many, if not most, sacrifices in the Jewish Law were “fellowship offerings” – that is, the animal (lamb, goat or bull) would be killed and put in the fire on the altar. Some parts would be totally destroyed, but most of it would be carved up and served to the worshippers present. They got back their sacrifice – perhaps with roast potatoes! Give to God and God gives back in spades!
The principle carries through somewhat in our practice of ordination. The late great Howell Witt was my Bishop in the Diocese of North-West Australia, when we lived in Paraburdoo. When I spoke to him about offering for Ordination, I remember him telling me that I could feel called, but it was the church which chooses – both, we hope, under the direction of God who is always the caller and chooser. And we got though the process of a Selection Conference in Perth under the direction of Archbishop Geoffrey Sambell, who sent us to Melbourne to study. And the rest, as they say, is history!
So there is a sense in which, at an ordination both the candidate and the church present a person not just to the Bishop, but to God. This is an offering which we believe God accepts and then gives to the church and the world in service.
Carrying on with this theme of presenting offerings to God, let’s think about what is happening at this and every Sunday Eucharist. Before the Great Thanksgiving, we sing the “offertory hymn” and the “gifts of the people” are brought to and presented at the altar – gifts of bread and wine, and gifts of money. These are our offerings, our sacrifices, giving to God some of what God has given us.
So we pray, “Through your goodness we have these gifts to share.
Accept and use our offerings for your glory
and for the service of your kingdom.”
And the offerings – money, bread and wine – do not simply vanish in a cloud of smoke, never to be seen again. In fact the money is taken and used by Parish Council to enable God’s work in the parish and beyond. I’m very proud that, as a parish, we give away a significant portion of our income for God’s work beyond our boundaries.
And the bread and wine, symbols of our life and labour, become for us the Body and Blood of Christ – taken, blessed, broken and shared, giving us life and hope and renewal week after week until Jesus returns.
Which bring us to the final “presentation” for today. After everyone has received the bread and wine, we pray together,
“Father, we offer ourselves to you as a living sacrifice
through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Send us out in the power of your Spirit
to live and work to your praise and glory.”
You see, we all – not just those ordained or otherwise specially set apart by the Church – are a sacrifice, an offering to God. And God accepts that offering and gives us back to the world to be light and salt and leaven – to make a difference, and to do works of love which will continue to build God’s kingdom here on earth and in heaven.
Today, then, I give thanks to God, to whom I was “dedicated” as a baby, called in baptism a child of God, called and chosen and ordained to serve.
Today, I give thanks to God for you, my brothers and sisters in the faith, called to mutual love and service, and to whom I happily continue to pledge my love and service.
Today, I give thanks to God who has abundantly blessed me – and us all – with life and health and material and spiritual blessings.
And, above all, I give thanks to God for the “inexpressible gift” of Jesus, Messiah and Lord, through whose great sacrifice we all are “redeemed” and reconciled with God and one another.