Sermon for Candlemas 2020

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

We celebrate today a great feast of the Church, and I refer neither to Groundhog Day nor to Super Bowl Sunday, though the former actually has its origins in Pennsylvania German celebrations of the religious feast. The holiday which we’re observing in church today is the Feast of the Presentation of our Lord in the Temple, commonly referred to as Candlemas, as it is traditionally the day on which the candles to be used in church during the coming year were blessed by the parish priest. Another bit of trivia is that at least until the Seventeenth Century Christmas greenery was left up until Candlemas instead of being taken down on Epiphany, which is why we’ve opted to do the same this year!

Trivia aside, this is an improtant feast day as it observes a critical shift in salvation history. Much of what we celebrate at Christmas and Epiphanytide – the miracle of the Incarnation, the expansion of the Covenant to the Gentiles as implied by the visit of the Magi, the transformation of religious norms suggested by our Lord’s Baptism at the Jordan – is rendered tangible (“made manifest” to use more religious language) in the events described by St. Luke in this morning’s Gospel. Specifically, we see here the transformation of Judaism from a tribal, relatively exclusive religion into a universal, radically inclusive religion.

Now, we’ve heard time and time again how the New Covenant replaces the Old in its sacrificial requirements. Whereas offering of livestock were required by God to expiate sin or acknowledge gratitude, Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross made such offerings unecessary. This is like the basic Sunday School lesson about the difference between the Old and New Testaments and it’s absolutely correct. But I don’t want to belabor this point since it’s so familiar. Rather, I want to focus on three aspects of the New Covenant which this morning’s Gospel seems to me to highlight and which we 21st Century people still have a long way to go in addressing – namely that in Christ barriers are broken between groups which have long been divided, especially along the lines of race, gender, and class.

Firstly, let’s consider race, because it’s the most obvious in the text. I mentioned earlier that the Old Covenant presented a tribal, relatively exclusive religious system. It was a religion given for the children of Abraham, and it did not (at least in the ancient world) claim universal applicability. The radical monotheism which would later define the three great Abrahamic Religions which claims that there is but one God over all the earth and available to all people regardless of their heritage was the result of a slow process of evolution. It always strikes me when reading something in some of the older books of the Old Testament, particularly the psalms, when God is described as being “in the council of the gods” or as “greater than the gods of the nations.” In fact, ancient Israelite religion (before the more-or-less modern, rabbinical Judaism which developed from the return from exile and into the beginning of the Common Era) was what religious scholars would call henotheistic rather than monotheistic. The God of Israel, Yahweh, was no doubt the best of all gods but not the only god out there. Other tribes had their own gods, but the God of Israel was the most powerful and thus the Children of Israel were a special people, set apart from other nations and races and their puny gods.

Now by the time of the Old Testament prophets (and certainly by Jesus’ time) this had changed, either by means of natural philosophical progress or by the activity of the Holy Spirit; I, by the way, think it was probably both. In any event, God was reckoned to be the only god who actually existed. Even so, some of the trappings of the belief in a tribal God persisted despite this development. The prophets, particularly Isaiah, had certainly envisioned a future in which all nations would look to Israel and her God for redemption, but First Century Judaism remained for the most part a religion for a particular nation- Israel.

When the Holy Family goes into the temple to do what had been commanded by the Law for their people, the Jewish people, another devout Jew, Simeon, changes the tone of the proceedings. He proclaims that the child, the Messiah, was not only “the Glory of [God’s] people, Israel,” but “[God’s] salvation… for all people, a light to enlighten the Gentiles.” As I mentioned earlier, this is implied by the worship of the Wise Men from the East, but Simeon made it explicit.

This might not be news to any of us, but its implications have been ignored far too often. While the spread of Christianity to people of many nations and tongues is, I’d maintain, a good thing, the rationale for and methods of evangelization through the centuries have left much to be desired. Too often, Christianity has been seen as a so-called “civilizing force” among people whom Westerners viewed as something less than fully human. The same ships which sent missionaries around the world in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries were transporting slaves to the West Indies and North America. In other places, notably India in the Nineteenth Century, missionaries with more sympathetic worldviews had to travel overseas as chaplains to trading companies before breaking the rules by sneaking out of port cities and telling the “natives” that God already considered them just as lovable and worthy of Grace as white folk.

Secondly, let’s look at gender dynamics in the story. The Gospel tells us that Jesus, Mary, and Joseph went to the temple for their purification as demanded by the Law of Moses. In fact there were two seperate rituals that were to take place on this visit – namely the Purification of Mary and the Presentation of Jesus. The former was required because women were considered ritually unclean and thus unable to take part in temple worship after having given birth. This requirement, I have to say, suggests a somewhat backward view of women which unfortunately carried over into Christianity. Our own Church included the rite for the “Churching of Women” up until the 1979 Book of Common Prayer excised it and replaced it with the “Thanksgiving for the Birth or Adoption of a Child.”

Now note that after the most unequivocal note of joyful affirmation in this story comes neither from a temple priest (who doesn’t even figure directly into the story as Luke tells it) nor Simeon (whose declaration of Jesus was tempered by a foreboding message about “the falling… of many in Israel” and a sword piercing the heart of the Blessed Virgin) but from the Prophet Anna, who recognized the Christ Child as the redeemer of Jerusalem.

I think Luke meant to include a female prophet in his telling of this story as a counterpoint to the (let’s face it) apparently mysoginistic practice of purifying women from their supposedly unclean biological processes. I’m not implying that the authors of the books of the New Testament would pass muster with modern feminist literary criticism; there is still a great deal of husk surrounding the radically inclusive kernel of the Gospel. Even so, just as St. Paul (by no means the most “woke” thinker by modern standards) proclaimed that in Christ there is neither male nor female, I think Luke presents a sort of feminist dyptich in this story to drive home the point that gender has nothing to do with how worthy one is of God’s Grace or how potentially competent one can be as a minister of that Grace. How long it’s taken us to start to come to terms with that. Indeed, just about a week ago was the anniversary of the ordination of Florence Li Tim-Oi, the first female Anglican priest, who was ordained to minister to the Christians of Hong Kong and Macau during the Japanese invasion of China. How wonderful that we recognize her now, but how terrible that it took 1900 years for anybody in the Church to get the message which seems so clear, at least to me, in the Gospel.

Thirdly, while it may not be obvious to us, to a First Century Jewish readership economic class would have been an obvious theme in this morning’s Gospel. We are told that the Holy Family brought “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons” to make the required sacrifice. What Luke does not make explicit, but what any good Jew would have known, is that the Book of Leviticus required a lamb for such a sacrifice, but made an exception for the poorest of the poor who were only required to bring two pigeons.

To get a sense of just how poor someone had to be for such a sacrifice to be acceptable we need only look to Matthew’s Gospel, in which Jesus asks “are not two sparrows sold for a farthing?” Looking at all the biblical and extrabiblical references sparrows and doves were, for sacrifical purposes, considered the same, though of course they are completely different types of birds. It is likely that the Holy Family bought and sacrificed these inexpensive birds on their visit to the temple.

Now, what is the worth of a farthing (or a “penny” as more modern translations put it)? Well, it was a tenth of a denarius, and a denarius was a common laborer’s daily wage. It doesn’t make much sense to translate this into modern currency, as economic circumstances in First Century Palestine were so different, but it will suffice to say that it’s a very small amount of money, and if people as faithful as Mary and Joseph opted to give a sacrifice of this value they must have been destitute.

Consider also, once again, the prophet Anna. We are told that she was a widow and that she more-or-less lived in the temple. She was of great age, too old to work, and likely lived off of whatever scraps those who came to make sacrifice would give her. It was this impoverished woman who recognized the great hope the Christ Child would bring to the Children of Israel, because it was this sort of person He came especially to save.

This is more a continuation of a concern of the Old Convenant into the New rather than a shift, though the focus we see on it in the New Testament is sharpened and expanded. Throughout Scripture, special preference is given to the concerns of the poor. Not only are Old Testament sacrificial obligations responsive to the poor, but those with means are required to share them. Farmers were required to leave part of their crop unharvested for the sake of the sojourner. Interest on debts held by the poor were outlawed, such debts were to be forgiven every seven years, and special assistance from tithes were to be given every three years.

Jesus expanded these obligations. Not only were we to support the poor; he told us to identify with them, to become poor for the sake of the Kingdom. As I’ve said before from this pulpit, the test by which our Lord promised to hold us accountable on the day of judgment found in St. Matthew’s Gospel was not whether we had some kind of religious experience or said some particular prayer, but whether we cared for the poor and the orphan and the widow. In caring for them, we care for him who became poor and an outcast for our sake.

Perhaps our greatest sin as a society has been ignoring this call, failing to love those whose lives most reflect the life our Lord led. Even those who give of their time and their wealth to alleviate the suffering of the poor can sometimes harbor a sense of superiority to them- believing them to be lazy or stupid or simply not somebody worthy or genuine friendship. My friends, we cannot simply view the poor as objects of our charity, but as fellow children of God, just as lovable as those with whom we more easily identify, because in the final analysis, they are more like the God we claim to serve than any of us is.

This Candlemas, let us endeavor not only to recognize the universality and radical inclusivity of the Gospel but to live as if we believe it. Just as it is for God, may it be for us – there is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, black or white, poor or rich. We’re all one in Christ Jesus, so let’s start acting like it.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.