On Candlemas, The Presentation, 2/2/2020

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By Anonymous - http://kolizej.at.ua/photo/vizantija/knizhnaja_miniatjura/sretenie/133-0-2045#comments, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8915461

 

From the Rev. Clarence E. Butler

Malachi 3:1-4; Hebrews 2:14-18; Luke 2.22-40

If you have been following closely the gospel lessons since the beginning of the period which we call Epiphany, today’s gospel story may seem out of place.  I would place into context why I say this.  Advent and Christmas hang together: Advent the season to prepare for our remembrance of the birth of Jesus, and Christmas the season for the great celebration.  Epiphany, the liturgical season in which we now find ourselves, marks the appearance of the Three Kings or Magi who connect the birth to the wider world; and, it is the season for establishing the credential of Jesus as Messiah.  John baptizes Jesus and a dove alights on the Jesus’ head which John pronounces as the spirit of God recognizing Jesus as the Messiah of God.

 

But then, not quite in the middle of Epiphany, our gospel does a flashback, to use a modern term. The gospel returns us to the infancy of Jesus, which if we were telling the story in chronological order of Jesus’ would have been read weeks ago.  On 1 January, we celebrate each year the Feast of the Holy Name, when the gospels tell us that Jesus should be called Jesus, and not given the name of his father Joseph, which was Hebrew custom at the time.  Today we acknowledge his presentation, still an infant, in the Temple.  Again, this religious act followed the ancient Hebrew practice, established in the Book of Exodus.

 

For 7 days after giving birth, the woman is declared unclean and refrains from appearance in society; as a modern, I applaud this decision, not because of some notion of being unclean, but because it allowed new mothers to begin to regain their strength.  Birthing is indeed hard work, as I, a father who participated in the natural birthing of my two daughters can attest!  8 days after birth, a male child is circumcised.  Still, it is only after 33 days that the new mother is allowed to become active in society again and to do so, she presents herself and her newborn to the priest in the Temple.  In Hebraic Scriptures, specifics were given as to the kind of offering which she should make, among them 5 shekels for the upkeep of the Temple and the priests who worked in the Temple.

By Tangopaso - Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17792389

By Tangopaso – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17792389

If by now, I have lost you in numbers and a rehearsal of ancient Jewish traditions, I understand and forgive you.  But these two religious observances, the naming of a child and the presentation of that child in a public setting are not as foreign as you may on the surface think.  However ancient they may be to our modern sensibilities, they are closely intertwined and, in my mind, have direct bearing on who we are a human being and creature of the Creator God.

 

First, I look at the name.  I wish we, you and I, could be seated around a table, so that we could exchange ideas and personal reflections regarding the words of scripture which we have just heard.  I should dearly like to hear from each of you what the big fuss is about a name.  Especially is this a conundrum for me, when I recall, no matter the rite used, that we begin every Eucharistic celebration so: “Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, all desires know, and from you no secrets are hid…”  And the psalmist writes, 22.9: “thou art he that took me out of the womb.”  The prophet Isaiah, 49.1 and 5, among others is adamant regarding his origins and to what degree God knows him: “the Lord hath called me from the womb.” And, “the Lord that formed me from the womb.”

 

And if it be the case, if God knows us by name, even before we are born, why, then, do we need a name?  Could we not better use our time at other things, than worrying about how an all-knowing God will recognize us?  If biblical assertions be true, God does not need a name.

 

We Moderns are tempted to think of ourselves as the first ones who have ever confronted, or been confronted by, this dilemma.  In our liturgical context it may be informative to take a look at a few examples from the Bible.  First, not to my amazement, when I read about the naming of Jesus in the Temple, according to the Hebrew rite, there was and is nothing out of the ordinary in that ritual.  It was expected of all Hebrew boys that they would be presented in the Temple.

 

We Christians replicate this ritual in our own Baptismal Rite, when the celebrant says to the parents and godparents of the child “name this child.”  Clearly, the name of the person to be baptized is already known.  We record it, when we have initial conversations with the parents about the significant step which they are about to take on behalf of their child.  As was the case with the boy Jesus in the Temple, in our rite “the naming” signifies that the child/person is joining a community, with all its rights, privileges, and obligations.

 

Why, then, is a name necessary at all?  It becomes immediately clear.  A name is not needed for God’s sake, but for our own.  We need to know and understand each other, we need something by which and with which we avoid confusion and misunderstanding.  Simply stated, a name is ‘a word or phrase that constitutes the distinctive designation of a person or thing.’  A name is an intangible attribute, but is real, without which your and my interaction with each other could not take place.  And a name is not to be taken for granted.

 

The writer of the Book of Ecclesiastes (7.1) declares: A good name is better than precious ointments;’

 

Shakespeare, Othello, Act III, Sc. 3, line 131:

Good name in man and woman, dear, My lord,

Is the immediate jewel of their souls:

Who steals my purse steals trash; ‘tis something, nothing;

‘Twas mine, ‘tis his, and has been slave to thousands;

But he that filches from me my good name

Robs me of that which not enriches him,

And makes me poor indeed.

 

Over centuries, we in the west, in naming to our children, have lost some of the sense of uniqueness, still present in some Arabic and African names.  I recall from a book which I read recently “Americanah” that Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the Nigerian author, was proud of her name because it expressed her parents’ hopes for her when she was born.  I met recently on Harvard’s campus a young woman from Uganda who explained to me that such a practice takes place still.  Names have meaning.  In times past, they told us of professions or vocation.  When my wife and I lived still in Germany, one of our neighbors was a Frau Wagenknecht.  By our generation that name had entered into common usage, but originally it announced to the community that the bearer of that name was a coachman, someone who tended the carriages of the aristocracy.

 

However, a name, no matter today its origin or derivation, has another attribute which is in my estimation essential and has far-reaching implications.  A name, even a common name such as Jessica, Keith, Sarah, Helen, Bob, or Jim, carries a hint of intimacy, of approachability, of familiarity, of awe and of respect.  A name tells us that the individual before us is a unique being, not like the other Jessicas, Keiths, Sarahs, Helens, Bobs, or Jims whom we may know, even if that individual may be an identical twin.  There is something special about an ordinary name that makes is no longer ordinary.  A name reaffirms our individual humanity, a humanity which is in the image of the “I AM THAT I AM.”

 

God does not need a name in order to recognize or to know us, as the Psalmist reminds us.  It is we who need a name as a reminder that something unique, something special, has happened in the history of human kind, namely that God has chosen to reclaim the created order by choosing to come into our world in the form of Jesus, so that we no longer can cloak ourselves with the excuse that God is too removed to understand the human condition.

 

The Presentation and why is that important for me in my daily life, you may well ask?  The arrival of Mary and Joseph with the boy Jesus was not simply, or perhaps not even primarily, for benefit.  Rather, if we listen closely to the proclamation which Simeon made, Jesus had a peculiar and special role to play in God’s creation.  Having waited long for the Messiah from God who would restore the chosen people of God to their place as purveyors of the righteousness of God’s creative Covenant, Simeon declares the fulfillment of the promise of God.  Jesus is unique.

 

Why and how we are affected and challenged by the Presentation of the infant Jesus is, perhaps, not so immediately clear, especially as we do not normally see ourselves as a Messiah.  With that I agree totally.  However, you and I do have a ministry to perform, a ministry [that] is unique to each one of us.  To underscore my assertion, I direct your memory to the Church in Corinth, [that] was in the news […] in Paul’s Epistle.  I Cor. 12: 1ff.  I refresh your memory:  “Now concerning spiritual gifts,…I do not want you to be uninformed….There are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit…And there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of working, but it is the same God who inspires them all in every one…”

 

At our birth, you and I were endowed with a gift.  You have a gift and I have a gift.  Each gift is unique to the holder of that gift.  That each gift is unique and different does not place its holder at an advantage or disadvantage.  And in our presentation to the world, we are expected to make use of that gift.  To express our unique gift and ministry, Paul does what we moderns disdain.  He uses simple imagery, in spite of his status as a lawyer.  How much clearer could our acknowledgement of our unique gift be than how Paul reminds the Corinthians, to whom he writes the following?

 

“For the body does not consist of one member but of many…If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell?…If all were a single organ, where would he body be?…The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’ On the contrary, the parts of the body which seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those parts of the body which we think less honorable we invest with the greater honor…But God has so adjusted the body, that there be no discord in the body, but that the members may have the same care for on another.”  I Cor. 12:14ff – 26.

 

As we proceed further into the year 2020 with feelings of anxiety, trepidation, and uncertainty because of abusive name-calling and efforts to dehumanize and to disenfranchise that uniqueness which God has given each of us, I am especially grateful that we have this feast day as a reminder of something that is greater and more positive and more progressive than each of us individually can imagine or implement.  In your and my unique ministry, both the earlier Feast of the Holy Name and today the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple are not necessary for God, but for us humans, in order that we may be reminded of just how precious each and every one of us is in the sight of God.  And if we are, with all our successes and mistakes, with our joys and our sorrows—if we are important to God, ought we not see in the Other, not a stranger, someone before whom we ought to be afraid, but as someone who carries the form of God in human vesture?   God has chosen through the Messiah, to whom the name Jesus has been given, to reclaim us unto the Godhead.

 

At the Presentation, it is set out by Simeon that great things are expected of and shall come from that infant.  In the name Jesus, God has reaffirmed what a good and joyous thing it is to be human, to be born slightly lower than angels.  With that reminder, I bid you have faith and take care, that all may discern in our own individual action and interaction why we call ourselves Christians, a special name [that], in my opinion, is most powerful and effective when we bear it with humility, grace and love, and why, as that wonderful hymn causes us to sing, we bend our knee “at the name of Jesus!

 

AMEN

(Links added by editor. See By Tangopaso – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17792389 and

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Menologion_of_Basil_II#/media/File:Menologion_of_Basil_037.jpg)