Sunday, February 2, 2014

Sermon for the Feast of the Presentation

"When the fulness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law, to redeem them that were under the law"

This morning we mark another important feast of the church year, the feast of the Presentation of the Infant Christ in the temple. Perhaps more than any other feast, this feast bears a variety of names. Historically, the feast was known as Candlemas, a joining of candle and mass, similar to the word Christmas, and reflecting the tradition of blessings candles on this day. The feast is also known as the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary. According to Old Testament ritual law, a mother was declared 'unclean' for a period of forty days after the birth of a male child. Being unclean meant that the woman could not enter the temple for formal worship. At the expiration of the forty days, the law mandated that she go to the temple to make a series of sacrifices. Today, the fortieth day after Christmas Day, the Church commemorates her sacrifice in the temple. As a side note, there is in the traditional prayer book a service known as the churching of women, which is basically the church's equivalent of this ritual. The service consists of a short series of prayers, thanking God for safely bringing mother and child through labor and delivery. Giving birth has became so mechanized in our society, but in a more rustic society, people had a strong sense that safely delivering a child was a true deliverance from mortal danger to mother and child.

All of this talk about uncleanness, sacrifices after giving birth, and special prayers for mothers might sound hopelessly antiquated. To the casual observer it might seem to confirm the modern secular criticism that the Bible is hateful towards women and Christianity inherently oppressive of women. Part of the problem is that as a culture we are so sensitized to this issue that if any difference is posited between men and women, there is an immediate distrust and suspicion. So what are all these sacrifices and uncleanness are about? Think about children and giving birth for a moment, apart from the religious aspect: every child is a blessing; a baby can steal the attention of just about anyone; people are by instinct drawn to them. Furthermore, the addition of children does not mean that each child gets a smaller portion of love. Rather, experience indicates that love does not diminish when given away; each new child is loved equally. While all this is true and good, it is also true that we live a difficult and complicated world, a world in which, let's be honest, there are plenty of sorrows and pains. The birth of a child not only means that he or she will have to face this reality--a fact that has prompted some modern people to forsake procreation altogether--but it also means that the new born child will have his portion of sorrow and pain to experience himself and to inflict on others.

The Bible says the same thing about the human condition but in slightly different terms. The Bible says that humans are made in the image of God, and that God made everything and declared it very good. The Bible also says that children are a blessing and heritage from the Lord. But the Bible also indicates that man's attempt to be his own lord, to be self-sufficient, has not only resulted in alienation from God but in suffering and pain and sorrow. This is illustrated in the opening chapters of Genesis when the disobedience of Adam and Eve is succeeded by the murder of Abel by his brother Cain. In the Bible's account, alienation from God is succeeded by discord in the human family and the disorder grows like a cancer. According to the Bible, each person born into the world bears a portion of responsibility for this destructive and disordered system. In theological terms this is known as original sin. Under the Old Covenant there were signs appointed to indicate that God was redeeming humanity and human nature despite original sin. Male infants were marked by circumcision and mothers were commanded to make the sacrifices mentioned earlier. The problem of course is that these outward rituals alone did not break the human heart and cause it to be consecrated to God's service.

This is where our Lord Jesus enters the picture. He is born into the world as every human child, knowing temptation and trial, and yet, as the author to the Hebrews puts it, "was without sin." Mary makes the sacrifices and our Lord is circumcised because in this new chapter of the human story, our Lord subjects himself fully to the law. By becoming one of us, even in being subject to the law, he rewrites the story of the fall and the disorder of our world, becoming a new and perfect Adam. On the cross, he bears the punishment and the curse of breaking the law, not of course because he was a law-breaker, but for us law-breakers. In the letter to the Galatians, Paul writes "Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us" and "when the fulness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law, to redeem them that were under the law" (3:13, 4:4-5). Our Lord remedies the central problem of human existence not by imposing a solution from the outside, but by taking our problem on as his own, becoming one of us, or in the words of the letter to the Hebrews, "taking our flesh and blood."

When Our Lord Jesus went into the temple, light began to break over the disorder and destruction of human sin and discord. The elder Simeon and the prophetess Anna could see this light and had faith that a new humanity was being engendered in this new Adam, our Lord Jesus, and this new Eve, the blessed virgin Mary. The kingdom of God was breaking in as Christ was subjected to the law for our sake. In him, the new Adam, the people of God are a new humanity. They bear that image of God in which they were created, but they are also forgiven and redeemed from original and actual sin. Every time we reject the transgression of Adam to be our own lord and master, we reflect this new humanity that freely loves and serves God. Every time we reject the discord and hatred of Cain, we reflect this new humanity that lives by the law of persevering love and service. The kingdom of God breaks into our broken and disordered world and the love and grace of God shines forth. "By the mystery of thy holy Incarnation; by thy holy Nativity and Circumcision; by thy Baptism, Fasting, and Temptation; Good Lord, deliver us."

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