Today we mark a Church Feast which is known as either Candlemas or the Feast of the Presentation of Christ at the Temple. I doubt if any of us will be feasting – after all, few of us mark other aspects of the Church Year with fasting, and today there are significantly fewer links between ordinary and religious culture. Candlemas was named because the candles used in Church were traditionally blessed on this day in the Catholic tradition. There were a variety of other traditions associated with the day – some pre-Christian customs and superstitions – on a day which sits midway between Christmas and the Spring equinox.
It was a festival of light, and some people leave Christmas decorations up until today. Most are, of course, lucky to make New Year’s Day. It has diminished in the folk memory. Even if you know about it, I doubt any of you will be studying the dripping of candle wax and seeking to divine the nature of the coming year from traditional beliefs about it. If the wax fell in a certain way, it was once thought death in the family might follow. We can probably manage without those aspects.
Can we make something more substantial out of the Presentation of Christ? I think we can, but we need to do it in two stages: first, looking at Jewish tradition, and then seeing how Christ’s rather passive involvement in this story nevertheless makes a considerable difference. When one appreciates that his mere presence is so decisive it will, I believe, infuse important meaning into our lives today.
In the Jewish tradition, there was great importance attached to ritual uncleanliness. The Temple was an incredibly exclusive place. You didn’t let foreigners in, you didn’t let anybody in to the Inner Sanctum, and only the High Priest could enter the Holy of Holies where the Ark of the Covenant was kept.
The High Priest alone approached this place which God might inhabit, and that only once a year at Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement). The High Priest had to be descended from the Tribe of Levi, who was a son of Aaron. When the children of Israel rebelled against Moses while he was away receiving the Ten Commandments, they built their false representation of God, a statue of the golden calf (presumably a representation of the perfect animal, ritually slaughtered in sacrifice), and only the sons of Levi stood back and had nothing to do with the blasphemy. So it was that the Levites became a priestly privileged caste. Their people exclusively provided the priests worthy to perform ritual in the Temple.
There were – are – many Levite names; some will be familiar: Epstein, Levin, Horowitz…
Lest you are beginning to glaze over at all this Jewish ritualism, let me remind you that there is a remnant of this thinking in many churches. The oil used for anointing, and any consecrated bread or wine which may be left unconsumed after communion, will be kept in a tabernacle, which may have a curtain within – a mini Holy of Holies.
The more Protestant amongst us might scoff at such ritualism, but do pause, for all this is prescribed in the book of Leviticus. Those who are less attached to Church ritual practice often stand on the principle of ‘Sola Scriptura‘ – ‘by Scripture alone’, yet that very scripture is what prescribed these practices.
These extensive rules contained exclusions which few of us comply with today. We do not ensure the word of God is constantly before us by wearing a phylactery, in accordance with Deuteronomy 11:18. Nor do some of us have any hesitation about having tattoos. The rules are wide-ranging. And they continue to offer a challenge to the modern Church. Leviticus’ prescribed behaviours operated as excluders to all but a few. Do not approach the Holy of Holies if you are foreign; do not come if you are ritually unclean; do not approach too close if you are a woman or disabled.
Listen to the Levitican prohibition which was reportedly invoked against a disabled priest, who spoke movingly at the General Synod of having his calling denied:
For no one who has a blemish shall draw near, a man blind or lame, or one who has a mutilated face or a limb too long, or a man who has an injured foot or an injured hand, or a hunchback or a dwarf or a man with a defect in his sight or an itching disease or scabs or crushed testicles. No man of the offspring of Aaron the priest who has a blemish shall come near to offer the Lord’s food offerings; since he has a blemish, he shall not come near to offer the bread of his God.
The same rule-set that excluded the disabled also kept you out if you were a woman – or gay. Only the ‘perfect’ were welcome in the sanctuary.
So how did we get from there to the Archbishop of Canterbury calling us to develop a church of “Radical Inclusion”.
I think it begins with the Presentation of Christ at the Temple. His parents, being observant Jews, bring him to comply with the Law and social custom 40 days after his birth. Had he not been the first born, it would have been 47 days; a girl would have been brought and presented 60 days after her birth. His mother would have been ritually purified after the ‘uncleanliness’ of childbirth, and we are told two doves were sacrificed. They could not afford a more expensive lamb. So far, this is all very orthodox; all very excluding of the many. Yet what happens next?
The very exclusiveness of the proceedings gets hijacked by ‘radical inclusion’. Simeon, who is basically waiting to die, is inspired to declare a hymn of praise which Christians continue to use daily at Evensong – the Nunc Dimittis. Having seen the Christ child as he had been promised, Simeon can die happy. Yet look how he subverts Levitican legalism.
He lets the bloody foreigners in!
‘To be a light to lighten the gentiles, and to be the glory of thy people Israel.’ Here, in place of exclusivity, Simeon prophesies that this child will open the door to the outsider as well as the Jews. Jesus enters the house of a Roman Centurion and cures his daughter. He will introduce Gentiles to God and welcome the ritually impure – the uncircumcised – to share in the messianic banquet.
And if Simeon’s prophecies aren’t bad enough, a woman gets in on the act. Anna begins to prophesy and speaks of the redemption of Jerusalem.
This is getting outrageous. Does Jerusalem need redemption? Doesn’t God dwell here in this solid Temple built by Solomon himself to last for eternity? It gets worse. This child will prophesy the end of the Temple; he will cure a chronically menstruating woman of her affliction without even thinking about it. He’ll be embracing a leper next, or a naked madman… Oh, wait – he does! He will not let an adulteress be stoned according to the Law; he will initiate a private conversation with a Samaritan at a well, and she will become a mini-evangelist, returning to her live-in-lover without admonition, and sharing the good news with her Samaritan friends and neighbours.
In one of his most famous stories, he cast the disliked Samaritan as the hero, and who is the bad guy? It is the Levite, the stiff-necked ritualist who is too holy to get his hands dirty doing God’s real work of loving thy neighbour as thyself.
And to cap it all, this presented child will subvert the ritual sacrifice itself. The perfect sacrifice offered once and for all will not be offered in the Temple, but outside the City walls. God’s own perfect son will be sacrificed in a thoroughly ritually unclean way by foreign occupiers before Passover, lest he taint those proceedings. The priests and the Levites don’t want to soil their hands even to kill him. They let the filthy foreigner do that.
God shows what he thinks of that kind of worship. He tears the curtain of the Holy of Holies on the way out, and a few years later he casts down the Temple itself. If only they knew who they we receiving when he was presented as an infant.
The Presentation of Christ at the Temple calls us to understand the context of the faith into which he came, but not to be overly constrained by the texts or the practices described therein. Radical inclusion may require us to embrace the spirit of the elderly Simeon and Anna, who seem to have grasped the true character of redemption which this child will bring in unexpected ways.
We are at the end of a week in which the Church of England badly mis-stepped, requiring our episcopal leadership to issue an urgent and embarrassing apology for undermining its own research into difficult questions of interpreting Scripture in a faithful fashion – yet also an inclusive fashion – in the vexed question of sex and sexuality. Let us hope and pray that the lively prophetic spirit which inspired of Simeon and Anna infuses the work of the teams struggling to bring us to accord through the initiative ‘Living in Love and Faith‘.