The Presentation of Jesus In The Temple – December 31, 2017
You heard me read a different Gospel than the one in your scripture insert. With the Revised Common Lectionary the wider Church reads the passage you just heard, Luke 2:22-40. That’s how the Gospel of Luke continues the story beyond Jesus’ birth. In the Episcopal Lectionary this Gospel is read on the Feast of the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple on February 2. Since that feast day is on a Friday I thought this would be a good chance for all of us to hear it and join with the wider Church.
Many years ago I heard a fascinating dream related by a woman seminarian. It was a dream she’d had many years before and had told the story as part of a witness talk on renewal weekends. She dreamed that she was inside the heavenly temple. God was high up on the throne. Everything was golden. A bright light flowed from the throne at the center of the temple. There were clouds of incense and thousands and thousands of saints and angels worshipping. The sound of their praise was like the sound of thunder. She found herself inside the temple, feeling as out of place as a fish out of water, trembling with terror and shame. In her dream she ran and hid behind a pillar in the remotest corner of the vast heavenly temple. She was aware that Jesus had come down from the heavenly throne. He walked to the remote corner of the temple where she was hiding, came around the pillar, took her hands and lifted her to her feet. “But I’m so unworthy!” she protested. Taking her by the hand he walked her down the length of the vast temple and up to the heavenly throne. There Jesus embraced her. Tears were streaming down her face as Jesus presented her to the Father and said to her, “I have made you worthy.”
Today we heard the lesson and remember the presentation of Jesus, a tiny baby just 40 days old, in the Temple in Jerusalem. I’ve also shared a small print of a Greek Icon of the Presentation.
If you look at it you will see Mary having offered Jesus to the ancient prophet Simeon who is lifting him up. Joseph is the figure in the back holding two turtle doves. The Prophet Anna, is between them.
There are many layers of meaning and a rich symbolism in Jesus’ presentation in the temple. It is a meeting filled with irony and paradox. The Law prescribed that 40 days after childbirth a mother was to be presented to the Temple for ritual cleansing. The first-born son was at the same time to be “redeemed” through an offering on his behalf. A ram for those who could afford one, but a turtledove for the poor. With the offering of the poor Mary and Joseph fulfill the commandments of the Law. There were no doubt hundreds of other parents at the Temple making offerings for purification and redemption, presenting their sons and daughters in the temple. Joseph, Mary and Jesus wouldn’t have looked much different from the rest, but the eyes of faith see a much richer story.
Ancient Simeon and Anna represent the Old Covenant. Simeon represents the ancient prophecies and hopes of Israel. He has long waited for this day. Now that with his own eyes he has seen the promised fulfillment of Israel, he takes Jesus in his arms and proclaims: “Lord, you know have set your servant free to go in peace as you have promised; for these eyes of mine have seen the Savior, whom you have prepared for all the world to see: a Light to enlighten the nations, and the glory of your people Israel.” Anna represents the prayers and devotion to God of the faithful in Israel through the ages.
Jesus is the New Covenant meeting the Old. He is the fulfillment of all those Old Testament hopes and prophesies. He is the living Word of the Father. Jesus is God’s gift of Himself to the world. He is God’s own Son, God’s incarnation – His “enfleshment,” God revealing Himself in the life and person of Jesus.
The Eastern Orthodox Church sees in this story the fulfillment of the vision of Isaiah in the Temple.
Isaiah 6:1-6: In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. 2 Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. 3 And one called to another and said:
“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory.”
4 The pivots † on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. 5 And I said: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”
6 Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. 7 The seraph † touched my mouth with it and said: “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.”
Mary is seen as the tongs carried by the Seraphim. Jesus is the burning coal from the altar of God who will burn away our guilt and sin and shame.
The Jerusalem Temple is the place where the Meeting occurs, and where the various elements of the holy converge. There is the earthly site where the place and the people that are temples of God come together.
Jesus will one day replace the Temple. Jesus represents God’s living presence in the world. He will be the sacrifice offered once and for all for the sins of the world. There will be no need for continuing sacrifice after the cross. One of the accusations against Jesus before the Sanhedrin was that he had said, “tear down this temple and I will build it again in 3 days.” The moment Jesus died the Gospel of Matthew records that the curtain shrouding the holy of holies in the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. God’s holiest presence would no longer be shrouded behind thick curtains at the inner sanctum of the Temple but shared as new life in Christ for all the world to see and know.
As the Temple cradled the holy place of God, the Ark of the Covenant shrouded within the very center of the holy of holies, so too the Virgin Mary carried the holy life of God within her. She carried that life in her womb and gave birth, bringing forth the life of God’s own Son into the world. The baby she held in her arms was the living presence of God that the Temple only pointed to.
We too are God’s temple. In 1 Corinthians 3:16-17 Paul wrote:
Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.
We – both as individuals and together as Christ’s Church – are the Temple of God. His very life abides in us.
The presentation of Jesus in the Temple also emphasizes offering. Mary offers herself to be purified in fulfillment of the commandments. The Virgin whose openness to God allowed her to receive the gift of God’s Son offered herself and a dove for the rites of purification.
Mary and Joseph offer their son, making an offering and presenting him to God in the temple. They offer their son who is at the same time the offering of God’s Son for the life of the world. Simeon prophesies how the cost of this gift will pierce their souls with sorrow.
Simeon and Anna offer their years of waiting and yearning for God’s promise to take on life and form. They offer their faithfulness and the faithfulness of the Old Covenant.
Do you remember the dream of the seminarian of being presented by Jesus before the throne of God? “But I’m so unworthy,” she protested. “I have made you worthy,” Jesus told her. Today is New Year’s Eve, the cusp of a New Year. What would it mean for you to present your life to God in this Temple, in this Sanctuary built in Christ’s honor, as we start a New Year? What might you offer? How do you imagine God would receive you?
We are invited to offer our gifts and present ourselves as a living sacrifice on God’s altar. So we present to God our selves, our love, our worship, our prayers, our devotion. We present not only the positive but also the negative. We present our sins and failings, confessing them and asking forgiveness and healing. We present Jesus our willing hands and feet, our mouths to be instruments of God’s purpose. We present our tithes and offerings. We present our willingness to serve on Christ’s behalf. We present our resolutions and our hopes and dreams for the New Year to come.
Next to the offering of Jesus himself the two little turtledoves Joseph carried into the Temple seem so insignificant, but they are enough. So too the offerings we have to present seem so small in comparison with God’s gift of His Son. We are so unworthy and yet his love, his offering of his self on that cross, makes us worthy.
We meet in the Temple. Jesus is presented not only as Mary and Joseph’s son, but also God’s Son given for the life of the world. We meet the hope and promise of O.T. prophecy fulfilled. We meet the life of God’s Son given to us. We meet Christ in the offering of ourselves and our gifts. And in the Temple we meet God as Jesus presents us before the Father.