In the name of God ☩ Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
February 2, the Feast of the Presentation, on which we remember that the infant Jesus was presented in the Temple and saw his shadow, meaning we have six more weeks of winter. Wait, that’s the wrong February 2nd holiday. In all seriousness though, February 2nd is always the Feast of the Presentation because February 2nd is always 40 days after December 25. Forty days was the amount of time prescribed by the Law for a new mother to wait before coming back to the Temple for the ritual of purification in which sacrifices would be offered. Normally, when such days fall on a Sunday, they are moved to the next weekday. But the Presentation is such an important event in our faith and the story of Jesus, that the Church calendar notes that this day takes precedence over what would have typically been the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany.
Before diving into the significance of this event, I want to briefly say why it’s so important that churches actually follow the Christian calendar and mark such days as the Presentation. Imagine what would happen to American culture if we stopped celebrating holidays – no Martin Luther King Day, no President’s Day, or Memorial Day, Independence Day, Veteran’s Day, Thanksgiving Day, Black Friday, or Election Day. If that happened, our nation would slowly begin to lose its sense of identity. Sure, we’d still celebrate seasons of the year with fall festivals and spring concerts, but we would start to forget what it means to be Americans. The same is true in the Church calendar – it reminds us who we are, it helps us to celebrate, it allows us to enter into the unfolding story of Church history. Even though very few churches will be marking the Presentation today, the fact that we are isn’t “precious” or idiosyncratic, it’s absolutely essential.
There are several things that the event of the Presentation shows us about the identity of Jesus. The first is that Jesus is thoroughly Jewish. Sometimes you’ll hear people say that Jesus and the New Testament abolish the Law of the Old Testament and render Judaism useless, or simply as a raft that got us across the river which can now be abandoned. But such belief is heresy – literally. It’s called Marcionism, and despite the fact that it was condemned as a heresy about 1,800 years ago, you can still find this heresy alive and well in the Church today.
If God’s intention was to overturn the traditions and laws of the Old Testament in Jesus, then we wouldn’t be reading about the Presentation. But we are. Jesus, Mary, Joseph, Peter, and Paul were all thoroughly Jewish. The Law is not rejected in Jesus, it is fulfilled. St. Paul tells us that salvation comes through Israel, and it is only by God’s grace that we, the outsiders, were grafted onto the vine of Israel. So even if we do not still practice rituals such as Temple sacrifices, they are a part of our legacy and ought to be respected. But the larger point is that the Presentation reminds us of why we must stand up and clearly denounce anti-Semitism wherever it rears its ugly head. Anti-Semitism isn’t only an insult to the image of God that our Jewish siblings share, it is also heretical and pernicious to our own faith in Jesus.
There is another interesting and important detail about the Presentation that we ought to know about and reflect upon. Luke tells us that the sacrifice offered was “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.” And that’s absolutely what Leviticus says is allowed, in special circumstances. The typical offering in Leviticus 12:6 is a lamb and a bird, but there is a provision that allows two birds to be given if the family cannot afford a lamb. Jesus didn’t grow up doing “reasonably well;” his family was poor. So poor that they couldn’t afford the regular offering. It gives a deeper layer of meaning to the words “Just as you did it to the least of these, you did it to me.” Jesus was the least of these. Pay attention to the poor, because that’s where we’ll find Jesus.
As these offerings are made, we are reminded of some of the most foundational aspects of our faith. These offerings were done for a few reasons. One is the purification of Mary. While it’s common to view this in a negative way, such as those ancient people being obsessed with cleanliness or misogynistically treating women as impure, such views are misinformed. Instead, better than we realize it, the Jewish people realized the sanctity of life and the holiness of childbirth. Today, many mothers give birth and are expected to be back at work within 30 days, perhaps checking emails within a few days after giving birth. The Purification about Mary is about her coming back into communal life after a period of rest and recovery, a lesson we would do well to learn from.
The offering is also about thanking and praising God for delivering us from sin. While the offering didn’t include a lamb because the Holy Family was poor, it’s also fitting that they don’t bring a lamb for the offering because Jesus is the Lamb who will be sacrificed for the sin of the world. Towards the end of the events in the Temple, Simeon tells Mary that a sword will pierce her soul. Jesus can never be separated from his Cross. Even here as an infant, Jesus is on the mission of delivering us from the bondage of sin and death. As we heard the prophet Malachi say, “the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple.” Jesus comes to the Temple and sin offerings are made, foreshadowing how Jesus will become the Temple of the New Creation where the ultimate offering for sin is made.
And the other element to this offering is rooted in Exodus, as Luke reminds us that “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord.” Again, this isn’t about sexism that it’s only males and not females. Well, maybe it’s sexist in so far as most cultures are, but it’s not that male children are seen as being better than female children. The point is that the firstborn male child, and therefore the entire family lineage, belongs to God. As we often say in our liturgy, quoting 1 Chronicles, “All things come of thee, O Lord.” Everything belongs to God – our past, our present, and our future. And as a way of remembering this, families would come to the Temple when the first male child was born to “buy back” this child and their family’s future.
This ritual in the Temple is so important because it reminds us that Jesus is a faithful and obedient Jew, that he is found among the least of these, that he takes away the sin of the world, and that God is creator of all things. This is certainly worthy of being marked in our calendar. But this event also has profound implications for us in our own day.
The response to this Presentation is one that we know well in the Episcopal tradition. The prophets Simeon and Anna meet the Christ-child and Simeon offers a poem or song often called the Nunc Dimittis, which are the first words of this song in Latin. We recite this song at Evening Prayer daily. Sometimes music is the only way to respond to such Good News. Thank God for the gift of music, for the talents of musicians, for the beauty of poetry. Music is a glorious gift from God that taps us into the beauty of God and we are blessed at St. Luke’s to have Matt Woods leading our music program and to have our dedicated Parish Choir, Canterbury Ringers, and parents and children of our St Dunstan’s choir. Like Simeon, they help our souls to sing and bring us closer to the bliss of encountering Jesus.
Simeon has been promised that we would not die before seeing God’s salvation in the flesh; and, upon seeing Jesus, he knows the promise has been fulfilled, and so he says “I’ve been dismissed, I can now die in peace.” And this salvation is not for Israel only, but for all the world. Jesus does not show us the path of salvation, he doesn’t tell us what we have to do in order to earn salvation, he is our salvation. He fulfilled the Law on our behalf. He absolves us of our sins. He defeats death so that we, like Simeon, can greet death with peace in our hearts.
While it’s important to appropriately mark the dates in the Church calendar, while the history of what happened in the Temple at the Presentation is interesting, what makes this feast so vitally important in your life and mine is that it communicates the comfort of the Gospel. Luke tells us that Simeon was “looking forward to the consolation of Israel” and Anna spoke words of hope to all who were “looking for the redemption of Israel.”
In Isaiah, we hear the words “‘Comfort, O comfort my people,’ says your God.” Jesus tells us that we can come to him and he will refresh us because his yoke is easy and burden light. Simeon says it perfectly – because of Jesus, we can go in peace. All has been taken care of. There is nothing that we have to do, or earn, or prove. Because of Jesus, we are given a peace which passes all understanding, we can trust that all shall be well, we are comforted. Simeon begins his song with the word “now,” and indeed, the peace of God is with us, even now.
Though the title of this feast, The Presentation, is usually meant to denote the Holy Family coming to the Temple to be presented after childbirth, there’s another way to interpret it. Jesus, the Lamb of God, the Redeemer of the world, the Savior of our souls, the Word made flesh, the Love come down, the Lord of all is being presented to us. Simeon held the Christ-child and found his meaning and his final peace. And just as we might hold an infant and immediately feel a sense of peace, joy, and love, this is what Jesus offers to us. Abundant life is being presented to us as a pure gift from God. Joy to the world, the Lord is come: let us receive our King, let every heart prepare him room, and heaven and nature sing.