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Thursday, February 2, 2012

The Light of Christ

Presentation of Our Lord is an ancient festival of the church, with many layers of tradition.  What are we actually celebrating?  We celebrate the vision and perception of Anna and Simeon, who knew Jesus as Messiah before his ministry even began.  The light of Christ, sparked in the manger, goes with us out into our life every day.

Vicar Erik Doughty, The Presentation of Our Lord; text: Luke 2:22-40

Welcome to a rather quirky festival of the Church! Candles blessed, prophets canticle-ing, processions, and other interesting stuff. Tonight you get a religious-history lesson, and then some Gospel, because we need to hear both.

First, some history. Why exactly are we here tonight? What are we having this little festival FOR?

We are not commemorating Jesus’ circumcision and naming-- that was last month. We are not commemorating Jesus’ bar mitzvah -- for one thing, he was way too young; for another, this is in the Jerusalem Temple, not a synagogue. Here’s the reason Joseph and Mary went to the temple in the first place:

Leviticus. 12:1 The LORD said to Moses, 2 “Say to the Israelites: ‘A woman who becomes pregnant and gives birth to a son will be ceremonially unclean for seven days, just as she is unclean during her monthly period. 3 On the eighth day the boy is to be circumcised. 4 Then the woman must wait thirty–three days to be purified from her bleeding. She must not touch anything sacred or go to the sanctuary until the days of her purification are over. 5 If she gives birth to a daughter, for two weeks the woman will be unclean, as during her period. Then she must wait sixty–six days to be purified from her bleeding.

Lev. 12:6 “‘When the days of her purification for a son or daughter are over, she is to bring to the priest at the entrance to the tent of meeting a year–old lamb for a burnt offering and a young pigeon or a dove for a sin offering.a 7 He shall offer them before the LORD to make atonement for her, and then she will be ceremonially clean from her flow of blood.

“‘These are the regulations for the woman who gives birth to a boy or a girl. 8 If she cannot afford a lamb, she is to bring two doves or two young pigeons, one for a burnt offering and the other for a sin offering. In this way the priest will make atonement for her, and she will be clean.’”

What all that means is this: in part, this worship service we’re having is about MARY’s ritual purity, now restored by the sacrifice of two pigeons, which she had formerly lost after giving birth to a son. And the date of this festival is 40 days after Christmas-- 7 days plus 33 days is 40.


In the book of Numbers, just after a whole lot of death and unpleasantness, due to Israelites who grumbled against Aaron and Moses and God -- go read Numbers chapter 17 and 18 if you want a sample-- the tribe of Levi is chosen to be priests in the temple, and they are given the first of everything -- crops, animals, and children. All firstborn are to be dedicated to God-- and if you’re not going to donate your child to be raised by the temple Levites, you pay money to the Levite tribe as “ransom” or “redemption”. Here’s what God tells the Levites:

Num. 18:14 “Everything in Israel that is devoted to the LORD is yours. 15 The first offspring of every womb, both human and animal, that is offered to the LORD is yours. But you must redeem [ransom] every firstborn son and every firstborn male of unclean animals. 16 When they are a month old, you must redeem them at the redemption price set at five shekels of silver, according to the sanctuary shekel, which weighs twenty gerahs.

Aren’t you glad you came to church tonight? Look how much you’re learning! Maybe some of you still owe some shekels! Except, well, we’re not Jews living in the time of the temple, are we? No.

Ok, so anyway, those two readings are from the first books of the Bible.

But what about the candles? No one really knows for sure. It could be a Christianization of pagan practices (which a Pope in the 1600s believed, among others). In any case, blessing of candles on this day is a pious tradition which WE choose to keep as a remembrance of Christ’s Epiphany light going out into the world. Armenian Christians have a similar practice, carrying lit candles home from this festival, light overcoming darkness. So now you know. But why the French eat crepes on this festival, I have no idea. You can research by eating lots of crepes.

But what on earth does this have to do with Good News for you and me? We’re not Jews; I hope we’re not pagans; we’re (mostly) not French (maybe a little). How does this all apply?

Here’s the good news, of that Epiphany light we celebrate this evening: It was not merely young zealous hotheaded 20-something Essenes and first-century fishermen who thought there was something special about Jesus. Even this early in his life, before his ministry started at all, before his baptism and before he called his very first disciple, the grizzled, blind, dedicated prophets in the Temple-- Simeon and Anna -- met Jesus in the course of their usual workday-- and old, blind Simeon burst into song, praising God for sending the Messiah; and Anna, who knew the Holy when she saw it-- Anna, who lived her life in the Temple day and night-- saw this small child and knew the redemption of Jerusalem had arrived, and she gave thanks.

Our Mount Olive member, Laila Malm, died this week after some time in memory-care and hospice; her funeral will be next Thursday, in this holy place. Already, other of our members rest in the columbarium in our side chapel in the transept. We mourn the loss of our beloved dead and yet we sing Alleluia, for Simeon and Anna were right. They did recognize the Messiah, the savior not only of Israel but also of you and me. A sword did pierce Mary’s heart, at Jesus’ crucifixion, and yet we rejoice that Christ, dying, destroyed death. And in Christ’s resurrection is the resurrection hope of all the baptized-- you, me, Laila too.

Our good news is that Christ came to be with Simeon and with Anna AND WITH US, to love us, to die for us, to be raised for us; our good news is that when the time comes for us to go to the heart of God and for our baptism to be completed in death, we may go in peace just like Simeon, with song on our lips, having seen the Lord; and still seeing the Lord calling us home. Until then, when we light these candles, we remember the light of Christ with us, first sparking from a manger in Bethlehem, and with us still. We give thanks for Simeon and Anna, old and faithful, and among the first to point to Jesus and see the light of salvation. This is the light we all bear with us out the church doors tonight. This is the light we praise as we light all the candles blessed tonight. This is the light shining into our lives and homes, all year: the light of Christ. Thanks be to God!

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