Light that enlightens

Sermon for the fifth Sunday after Epiphany

It might seem a bit odd to once again be working with a text from the Gospel infancy narratives, given that it is almost a month and a half since we celebrated Christmas. Over the past several weeks, the lectionary has had us reading of an adult Jesus calling his first disciples and setting out on his ministry of teaching and healing, and suddenly we’re back hearing of an infant Jesus?

Well, there is a rationale for this, which actually makes a good deal of sense. We’re marking a day called “The Feast of the Presentation,” which strictly speaking falls on February 2 but which we have transferred to the closest Sunday. According to Luke, “when the time came” Mary and Joseph went up to the Jerusalem temple to fulfill the ritual requirements of the torah. “The time” would have been forty days after Mary gave birth, and so in the liturgical calendar this story is told forty days after Christmas.

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This feast day was traditionally known as Candlemas—a term not often used anymore— not only on account of reading Simeon’s words about Jesus being “light to lighten the Gentiles,” but also because on this day there was a tradition of blessing the candles that were to be used in the church over the coming year. In societies that lived without the luxury of light bulbs, candlelight was more than just decorative; it might well have been the only light you had. Think of it as a Christian version of a festival of lights; and as a nod to that tradition, you’ll see that we’ve set out a few more candles than is usual for a Sunday night.

So, on to tonight’s reading from the Gospel according to Luke.

When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought [the infant Jesus] up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord… and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, ‘a pair of turtle-doves or two young pigeons.’ (2:22-24)

In this passage Luke actually conflates two separate ritual ceremonies into one. Firstly, it wouldn’t have been their purification, but rather Mary’s ritual cleansing, in keeping with the traditions set out in Leviticus 12. It was this that required the offering of the two birds. Leviticus actually requires an offering of a lamb and a bird, but adds that “If she cannot afford a sheep, she shall take two turtle-doves or two pigeons;” Mary and Joseph are thus pictured as bringing the offering of those without means; the poor folks’ option.

The second ritual ceremony performed was the “presentation” of Jesus, in accordance with the requirements set out in Exodus 13. In a kind of re-enactment of the Passover story, the first male offspring—whether human or animal—was considered to be God’s property. In the case of animals, that first-born was offered for sacrifice. A human child, on the other hand, was to be “redeemed” through an offering of five shekels. It is a bit of a bait-and-switch game, in which the child was brought to the priest, but rather than leaving him at the temple an offering was made, and the parents happily returned home with their new baby safely in his mother’s arms. Years later when the child asks about the meaning of this ritual, the parents are to answer, “By strength of hand the Lord brought us out of Egypt, from the house of slavery,” and then retell the story of the Exodus. So typical of Israelite faith, ritual was accompanied by story telling meant to keep the deeper memory alive.

And so it is while Mary and Joseph are at the temple with their baby that they encounter two elders of the community; the prophet Anna and the priest Simeon. In different ways, these two represent the comprehensiveness of the tradition that is embracing the promise of this infant. Jesus is welcomed and acclaimed by both a woman and a man, but Luke is signaling something more here as well. Simeon is a priest—a recognized figure in the ritual life of the community, with a very clear role and credentials. Anna, on the other hand, is called a “prophet,” which is not a credentialed status but rather one based in a different kind of authority. The African-American theologian and culture critic Cornel West writes of how in his social context there is what he calls the “organic intellectual,” whose authority comes not from the formal academic world but rather through life in the community. In West’s African-American context, it is the preachers, novelists and musicians who most often function as “organic intellectuals;” in Luke’s context it is people like Anna, John the Baptist, and ultimately Jesus himself.

What we hear in the responses of these two elders—female and male, prophet and priest—is an exuberant and celebratory acclamation: this child is light to the Gentiles, glory for Israel, “the redemption of Jerusalem,” and salvation for the world. Again, notice the comprehensiveness; light to the Gentiles, without ceasing to be Israel’s glory. As David Neale observes in his commentary on this passage, “With Simeon’s psalm, Luke launches the main theological project of his Gospel—redefining the boundaries of salvation from the historic covenant community of Israel to the nonnational community of the repentant.” These new boundaries are so generous as to be unprecedented; previously unimaginable in fact, in the way in which the Gentiles are now included without excluding the covenant community that is Israel. That is part of why it is significant that this all plays out while Mary and Joseph are at the temple fulfilling the requirements of torah. This is no rejection of the old covenant, but rather a sign of its deepest fulfillment.

And yet the priest Simeon offers more than just words of recognition and acclamation, for after he blesses the family he looks at Mary and says to her,

This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.

This too is part of the launch of Luke’s theological project, for in the very redrawing of the boundaries of salvation there will be conflict and controversy. The redemption and salvation that this child will bring is going to be no easy thing; not for him, and not for those he meets, whose “inner thoughts” will be brought out into the light and exposed. Light, you see, not only “lightens” and “enlightens,” it also exposes and lays bare. Yet this too is Gospel. One of the central themes of this good news is that those who have the most to hide—prostitutes, tax collectors, and all manner of messy people collectively described as “sinners”—come into the light of Jesus and discover in it a freedom they’d never before imagined. Sort of like, “finally… I’ve been caught.” For them the light is filled with a surprising warmth, which Paul calls grace. Meanwhile those who imagine that they’ve got life all figured out—that by virtue of their morality, righteousness and religious devotion they’re doing just fine thank you very much… they find this light something that they need to oppose. They oppose it because they’re not so sure they like what they see, and they sure don’t like the fact that they’re standing in the very same light as those “sinners.” For them, the light is cold, clear, and penetrating, and they’d rather it just be put out so life can get back to normal.

“And a sword will pierce your own soul too,” Simeon says to Mary, which is his way of telling her that her own child’s life was going to break her heart. Beyond a doubt, Jesus’ path was a source of sorrow for Mary, and not simply because in the end he died in such a brutal way. Jesus ignored all of the social conventions that would have dictated he get married, have kids, and exercise a primary loyalty to his family. He did none of that, and in fact at one point rather bluntly declared that in his view blood ties didn’t actually define family. “Who are my mother and my brothers?” he asks rhetorically. “Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” (Mark 3:33, 35) Even Mary would have to wrestle with all that the light would lay bare.

And so do you see, then, why it makes so much sense to read this story at this point in the year? It invites us to look ahead just a few weeks toward the beginning of the season of Lent, in which we will be reminded both of the cost of it all for the One who is our light, and of the challenge of standing exposed before him. Yet in company with the priest Simeon and the prophet Anna, we also look back over our shoulders toward the light of Christmas, and are reminded of all that there is to celebrate in the very fact of the Incarnation of God; the coming of Light into darkness, in all of its promise and all of its truth.

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