Candlemas, Sunday 2 February 2020, 1030 Eucharist
Preacher: Very Reverend Nicholas Papadopulos, Dean of Salisbury
Malachi 3: 1-5
Luke 2: 22-40
Developments in information technology and in pedagogical methodology mean that a feast of the ‘presentation’ is likely to puzzle denizens of the corporate world or the academic world who are unfamiliar with the intricacies of the liturgical calendar. They might be forgiven for assuming that a day dedicated to the ‘presentation’ will have been preceded by a day dedicated to the ‘strategy residential conference’ and followed by one dedicated to the ‘vision document’. The term ‘presentation’ today carries with it inescapable images of screens, of slides, and of roomfuls of bored people witnessing someone - otherwise competent - getting increasingly hot under the collar as the technology refuses to work.
The ‘presentation’ that we have come to know has the potential to be seriously slick. An array of templates, fonts and special effects means that it can overwhelm its viewers with its sheer dazzling fabulousness. I suspect that all of us have sat through presentations where the substance that is being delivered has been outweighed by the technical wizardry of the delivery. The attention that has been lavished on the bells and whistles has not been lavished on the messages that they are intended to support. It’s all about the presentation – it’s not about what’s being presented.
The reverse is true both of the historic Presentation that today’s feast celebrates, and of the future presentation to which it points. The prophet Malachi writes of the Lord coming to his temple He writes of the one for whom the temple has been built visiting the temple which has been built for him. Simeon understands that in the coming of Jesus that longed-for day has arrived. Anna rejoices in it.
Yet consider what Simeon and Anna see. Mary and Joseph come to the place that symbolizes the heart of their people’s faith. It is by far the largest building they have ever seen, far removed from their home in rural Galilee. They are newly married, and they bear a six-week old son. They are (I think we can assume) tired, anxious, and awe-struck. They make the offering that the Jewish law prescribes as appropriate for the poor. In other words, there is no ostentation in what Simeon and Anna see. It’s just another day in Jerusalem, and it’s happened on countless occasions. There’s nothing in the presentation (small ‘p’) that alerts them to the Presentation (capital ‘P’). It’s all about the substance.
The substance that Simeon and Anna perceive is the faithfulness that God shows to his people, and the trust that God places in his people. God has promised that he will come, and his faithfulness is evident in the coming of Jesus. In the manner of Jesus’s coming the trustfulness of God is evident. For he comes as one so tiny, so helpless, that, left to himself, he could not even have climbed the Temple’s steps. God relinquishes himself into the hands of those he has made; he trusts Mary and Joseph to carry him across the threshold; he trusts them with a child’s unforced, undefended, uncalculating trust.
The faith and trust of this Presentation set a pattern for everything that is to come in the life of the one presented. It’s Jesus’s first visit to the Temple. Nine weeks from today we will gather on Choristers’ Green to commemorate his last. He is carried into the temple on this first visit; he will be carried again on that last visit. The humility of the donkey he will ride on Palm Sunday recalls us to the the humility of the pauper’s pair of turtle-doves. On that last visit, as on this first, God’s faithfulness and trustfulness will be evident. Jerusalem at Passover-time is restive. Murderous violence is in the air as the Jerusalem authorities plot against the Galilean upstart; there are even mutterings of treachery among the Twelve. Yet still Jesus comes to the city; still he remains in the city; faithful to God’s will; trusting God’s purposes; awaiting the outcome that becomes increasingly inevitable as the days slip past.
Candlemas instructs we who celebrate it that God is faithful to his people and that God trusts his people. It is this that prompts Simeon’s dark and savage prophecy. A sword will pierce Mary’s heart because Simeon understands that the faith and trust that he glimpses at the Presentation will remain the hallmark of Jesus’s life, and that faith and trust are no defence against the violence and treachery of the world.
Yet it is the substance that is presented – the faith and trust of God – that is the substance of our hope. The Presentation of Christ in the Temple looks forward to our presentation before God’s throne, whenever that shall be. Our Collect, our hymns and our liturgy all speak of it. At our presentation before God’s throne the faith and trust of Jesus will be all that stand between us and the judgement of God. Most of us will spend our lives developing the most elaborate self-presentation imaginable. We may practice virtues and pursue good causes; we may have esoteric interests and exotic tastes; we may be terribly interesting, terribly accomplished, and terribly modest withal. But all that presentation, all those bells and whistles, will avail us little. The substance by which we will be judged will not be not ours. At least it will be ours only to the extent that we have allowed Christ’s faith and trust to become visible in our days, baptized as we have been into his life, his death, and his resurrection. The faith and trust of Jesus, so evident to Simeon and Anna, will be our substance.
Simeon prophesies that the secret thoughts of all will be revealed. So please allow me a digression. I spent three days of the last week of our membership of the European Union with Lutheran Christians in Germany, in the university towns of Erfurt and Jena, home to Meister Eckhart, to Martin Luther, and to Friedrich Schiller. I was privileged to participate in conversations about the issues that they face: constricted resources, declining numbers, public indifference. I was privileged to learn something of their ongoing struggle to overcome the bitter legacy of Nazism and of Communism. And I was reminded, time and time again, of how much we share and of how profoundly our stories overlap and how much they are profoundly connected.
If this sounds like the sermon of a Remoaner it’s not meant to. It was the last week of our membership, and now we face a new future, with new relationships to build, new alliances to forge, and new partnerships to make.
But…the feast of the Presentation compels you and me to reflect on what we can really, ultimately achieve by ourselves, and it compels us to conclude that the answer is - nothing. Most of us are far too good at presentation – at camouflaging our vanities, disguising our insecurities, and wrapping our fragilities. Most nations are far too good at all that, too. Bells and whistles. Smoke and mirrors. Puff and wind. Hope is born when we realize that we can’t do this on our own. Amen.