St Francis, Terriers - The Presentation of Christ (29.01.2017)

Tony Dickinson

This is not what was expected. Nothing like. Malachi offers us a vision of the Lord coming to his temple to purify his people; coming "like a refiner's fire and like fuller's soap." This, the prophet's language suggests, this will be harder than the hardest Brexit. The Lord will sit as refiner and purifier, and he will keep on doing it until the people gets it right! “Until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness.” We're expecting a full-on revelation of God, right?

But nothing happens for about four hundred years. And when it does, it's not at all what was expected. Instead of a full-on revelation of God in his temple, two young people turn up with a six-week-old baby, to “do for him what was customary under the law” when a male child is born. Move on, please, ladies and gents. There’s nothing to see here.

Quite possibly, but, as St Luke tells the story, that isn't how it appeared to two of the locals. Most holy places have their fringe of hangers-on, very often beggars, but also other people whose need or whose circumstances give them the leisure to spend time consciously in the presence of God; people like Anna, who had probably lived off the generous hospitality of the temple since her husband’s death. Even today, in societies where there is no developed system providing social security, churches and other religious organisations, have a vitally important role to play – ask any American. And even where there is such a system, as in Germany and the Scandinavian countries, that system is often delivered by Churches in partnership with the state. Increasingly, too, in our own country, the Churches are having to pick up those who have fallen through the basic safety net, which has been, in Cardinal Vincent Nichols’ words, “torn apart”.

So Anna, and possibly Simeon, lived in and around the temple, waiting for God to act, waiting for that revelation of which Malachi had written, that moment when the Lord whom they sought would suddenly come to his temple. And there (so God showed them) he was: not with the blazing fire of a proper Theophany, but clasped in his parents' arms as they made the offering laid down in the Law of Moses, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”

Now, one of the great insights of the Franciscan tradition is that incarnation is already redemption. In other words, it is the birth of Jesus, and not his death, that saves us. It is God's entry into his world in a human life that affirms his boundless, unconditional love for that world – and for us, however unlovely and unlovable we might feel. As the letter to the Hebrews puts it, “he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people”. But that sacrifice was not made in order to change God’s mind about us. Crucifixion was accepted by Jesus in order to change our mind about God. The worst thing that could happen does happen – and God still says “I love you”. There is no mismatch between the birth of Jesus and his death. Both are for the healing of our humanity. To quote from our second reading again: “[Jesus] himself likewise shared [our flesh and blood] so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death.”

What creates that fear is the shadow cast by the awareness of our mortality. What frees us from fear is the light of Christ, “a light for revelation to the Gentiles”, in Simeon’s words, “and for glory to [God’s] people Israel,” the light that, according to the Christmas gospel, “shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” On this day, we commit ourselves to following the light. In the procession of candles at the end of this service, we take the light of Christ out to the door of the church – even though we rather spoil the effect by extinguishing them and dropping them back in the box they came from.

We take the light of Christ out to the door of the church and we pledge ourselves to live in that light, to walk in that light. We pledge ourselves, in short, to become part of that light. As darkness gathers on both sides of the Atlantic, we affirm that God’s light is greater, infinitely greater, that the “at-oneing” power of Christ’s self-offering renders useless the highest, the longest, walls of division.

The way of Christ is not easy. The piercing sword of sorrow is there for all who carry his light into the darkness. But Luke’s account of the presentation of Jesus in the temple reminds us that God does not put things right through a full-on, fiery revelation. The Lord’s Messiah comes to Simeon and Anna as a six-week-old baby. The righteousness which God seeks in his people is fulfilled by the actions of ordinary people resisting “those who swear falsely”, “those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, the widow and orphan”, “those who thrust aside the alien, and do not fear [God]”. To walk in the light of Christ is to refuse to accept a “post-truth” culture and “post-truth” politics. To walk in the light of Christ is to boycott goods and services offered by employers who exploit their workers, however much cheaper they may appear. To walk in the light of Christ is to speak up for the voiceless, to extend the hand of friendship to the friendless, to stand up against racist or xenophobic bullying, to remind the powerful that they must give an account for the ways in which they have used their power.

Where that way leads we shall discover in the coming weeks of our journey to Lent, and through Lent, and into the darkness of Holy Week. And we shall discover, perhaps for the first time, that it is precisely at the point of deepest darkness, in the cry of agony uttered by a crucified man, that we witness the authentic revelation of God. To him…