How romantic it all seems, as recorded in Luke’s Gospel. The baby Jesus brought by Mary and Joseph to the Temple for the final act marking his birth, according to the Law of Moses. On the eighth day came the circumcision, then thirty-three days later the presentation, or sometimes known as the purification, a ritual that seems unbelievably quaint now. How romantic, and in a way the sense of romance is heightened by the procession at the end of Masses on this day, with candles much in evidence, for the traditional name of this Feast is of course Candlemas, a reminder that, as old Simeon proclaimed, the child Jesus is the light of the nations. But however romantic it seems, however much we would long to have been there in the Temple to witness these events for ourselves, yet there are serious messages contained in these verses.
Where to begin? With Simeon’s prophesy to Mary that this child will overturn the existing order and in so doing bring her great suffering? Or with the sacrifice that the Holy Family brings, a pair of pigeons? For remember, this was the let-out for the poor – the offering was supposed to be a lamb and a pigeon. What a lesson to us, with our obsession with material things – Jesus was born in poverty, he lived with nowhere to lay his head, and he died an outcast – though he was rich, he became poor for our sakes, writes St Paul. It puts our preoccupations with status and possessions to shame, doesn’t it? But the essential message here is that the Holy Family were obedient and God-fearing: this duty was laid upon them by the Law of Moses, so they did it. No record of anguished debate about priorities, about all the other more immediately useful things that Joseph and Mary could have been doing. The Law said do it, their faith enjoined this upon them and so they did it. No argument. It puts us all to shame, doesn’t it?
It reminds one of the story of Cain and Abel: what was Cain’s sin? He very kindly decided to give God some of the left overs of what he had produced: and God was not amused. The Holy Family fulfilled their duty, Cain did not. Do we really expect God to be pleased with us when we condescend to give him the left overs of our lives? Hardly. God is not mocked. The Holy Family did as their faith commanded them, with no talk from Joseph about how he’d rather be back at his carpentering, and no complaints from Mary about how purification was demeaning to women and a male conspiracy.
Of course, put like that it sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it, but just consider the kinds of excuses we make: pray more? I’m too busy. Read the Bible more? That’s the clergy’s job, and, let me say this, if they did, then we’d certainly notice an improvement in their sermons. Give more to the church? I’ve got better things to do with my money than that – I’ve just been given this red hot share tip by my stock broker. In the haunting words of the old hymn: nothing in my hand I bring, simply to thy cross I cling. Foul I to the fountain fly, wash me Saviour or I die. The Presentation is not about soft focused romance, it is about unquestioning commitment: God deserves, God requires nothing less, from you and from me.
Fr. Edward Bryant