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Monday, February 3, 2014

Fire, light, and glory (Presentation of the Lord)

It has been eleven years since the feast of the Presentation of the Lord fell on a Sunday, and you could tell that by the difficulty our priests had preaching on the subject. I heard about Pete Seeger, Boy Scouts, and Horton Hatches an Egg, but I'm not really sure anyone knew how to deal with the texts we had, and any notes they might have had from previous rounds through the lectionary were long lost in half a generation of filing. On a midwinter day where "glory" in America boiled down to the tantara and hype of the SuperBowl and its advertisers, "glory" might have been a good starting place, to keep us from completely consumed by our culture's preoccupation with consumption and glitz.

It has been traditional in most years for the Vatican to leave its large Nativity scene up until yesterday's feast day to emphasize that, while the liturgical season of the nativity ends on the feast of the Baptism of the Lord, there is an aspect of the nativity cycle that lasts the forty days from Christmas to this feast day. I thought of this at mass yesterday, and while we did not have much left in the main church by way of Christmas environment, the white poinsettias around the altar platform and the many red ones in the gathering space provided at least some visual context that linked the celebration to the Christmas season.

We blessed candles at all the masses, though we had no procession as such, people held lit candles in the pews for the blessing and singing of the Glory to God, and I admit to loving the ambience of all the lit tapers both for the sacramental effect of light, warmth, and beauty, but also for the visual memory of the Easter Vigil. These emotional linkages are somehow important, don't you think? Like Luke's prophecy of Simeon concerning the "sign that will be contradicted," and the pain that is in the future of the child and his mother, they connect the events of the Nativity with the events of the Passion-Resurrection narrative, and to the larger world of Acts. To some scholars, Crossan and Raymond Brown among them, this is the whole point: the infancy narratives are either "overtures" to the gospel, or even gospels-writ-small, a literary metaphor for the meaning of what will happen to the adult Jesus and the church.

We can't really hear that first reading from Malachi any more without hearing the corresponding aria and chorus in the Messiah, can we? To me, the reading suggests at least two connections to the feast day, first, that the Lord will come to the temple, and second, that the coming of the Lord will be like a "refiner's fire or fuller's lye," that is, a purifying event, that will change the "sons of Levi." This is not just a reference to Israel, but specifically to the priesthood of Israel. The purified priesthood will offer to God a pleasing sacrifice. Hebrews orients our attention to the life and death of Jesus as that sacrifice, which was for "the descendants of Abraham," the brothers and sisters of the Lord, to deliver us from slavery and the power of death.

The temple narrative of the Presentation in the gospel, and in particular, I think, the oracle of Simeon, pull all of this together. But we need to try to grapple with what the author of the third gospel means by words like "light" and "glory." It does help to orient our hearing to the infancy narratives, in which we recall that, at the birth of the Lord, the "glory of the Lord shone around" the shepherds at the appearance of an angel, then an army of angels, who sang that the "glory to God in the highest (is) peace on earth."

Simeon says,
“Now, Master, you may let your servant go in peace,
according to your word,
for my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you prepared in sight of all the peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and glory for your people Israel.”
The literary parallelism in those last two couplets equates what "my eyes have seen" with "in the sight of all peoples," that is, "your salvation." The nature of that "salvation," or making-healthy, is the child who is "light of revelation --> Gentiles" and "glory --> your people Israel." Again, parallelism like this implies a relationship of equality. The prophetess Anna spoke of Jesus to "all who looked forward to the redemption of Jerusalem." I took this to mean, "who looked for a political messiah". Already, the game is afoot. Luke has situated this entire story in the political context of the Roman empire, under the rule of Augustus and the governorship of Quirinius. It is going to be a political story, but it's not going to be politics as usual, neither for the Romans and other Gentile followers of Jesus, nor for the Jewish subjects of the empire, nor their priests, nor for their political agitators.

The culmination of the story? Jesus is taken home by his parents. It's as simple as that. He grows up like a normal kid in his home and on the village lanes of Nazareth.

I couldn't help but remember an episode of the old cop series NYPD Blue, in which Detective Sipowicz and his wife Sylvia Costas bring their newborn son Theo to their (Greek Orthodox) church for a "churching" ceremony, a service reminiscent of the presentation ceremony in Luke, which reunites the mother with the community, and introduces the child. (citation) The priest took the child from his parents, and carries him to different  places in the church, but what I recall most distinctly is that he held the baby up and spoke the words of Simeon, "Now, Master, you may let your servant go in peace, according to your word, for my eyes have seen your salvation..." In other words, this baby, today, is (also) your light of revelation and glory. Our baby. This ordinary baby from these ordinary people, is light and glory and salvation. Just like all the babies that passed through this door in the past, and will pass through it in the future.

So, on this day when everyone couldn't wait to get home to start millionaire-athlete worship, the competition, the "tailgating" glut, the cult of advertisement, need-making, and consumption, the Church was reintroducing us to the other "way," the way of ordinary life, salvation by relationship, and the rejection of competition among factions in favor of mutual service.

Since, it seems to me, that as long as they keep the SuperBowl on the first Sunday of February, the feast of the Presentation will, every dozen years or so necessarily coincide, we would do well to keep these things in mind, don't you think? Glory is not money, cars, power, influence, but peace among people. As long as we let the light and fire of God's word speak in the temple, and reflect on its meaning, we should have something to say to one another about Caesar's world, whether it's run by Augustus, Fox Sports, Anheuser-Busch, or Madison Avenue. "And he shall purify the sons of Levi." Priestly people, I think that's us.