Sunday, February 2, 2014

The Prophet Anna

Today is the Feast of the Presentation of Jesus, or perhaps more accurately the Feast of The Purification of the Virgin Mary. It is also sometimes called Candlemas. 

My journeys as an itinerant member of the bishop's staff take me today to St. Mark's Church in Leominster where the Rev. Jim Craig serves as rector.

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This past June, I accepted Bishop Fisher’s invitation to join his executive staff as Canon to the Ordinary. Before that, I served as the rector of St. Francis Church in Holden for more than fifteen years.

Just a few years after I arrived in Holden, in 2002, St. Francis celebrated its fiftieth anniversary. They had begun as a mission of St. John’s in Worcester and officially became a parish in their own right in October 1952. The young families, mostly, who began that parish did so pretty much from scratch, with the support and prayers and encouragement of St. John’s and the rest of the diocese and the bishop at the time, William Appleton Lawrence. So in 2002 when the parish turned fifty we invited some old rectors back, including my two immediate predecessors. (The Rt. Rev'd) Gordon Scruton who was then bishop of this diocese presided at the Eucharist and his predecessor, (The Very Rev'd) Earl Whepley, preached. It was a wonderful celebration. But they were not the real stars of the show. The real stars were those founding lay people, now in their seventies and eighties, who had guided a fledgling house-church into a thriving, dynamic parish.

One of the sad aspects of my time in Holden over the next decade after that celebration was to bury many from that founding generation. But one who is still alive today, now in her nineties, is Helen. Helen was one of those amazing saints that you pray every congregation has at least one of. Like so many saints she was not unacquainted with sorrow and grief; while I was in Holden we buried both her husband and her son. She was a long time choir member until she just couldn’t do it anymore. But I think her greatest ministry of all was this: she adored young people. Every time we had a baptism—no matter how loud the baptismal candidate was—Helen would say, “so beautiful, so amazing.” Every time we had the youth lead worship and would bring out the bass guitars and drums, Helen would say the same thing: “they are so beautiful, just so amazing.”

She was rooted firmly in the history of St. Francis. But she was never one to hold onto the past or talk nostalgically about the glory days. Helen was there to cheer on and encourage every change that unfolded while I was rector of St. Francis. While rooted in the past, she was always looking at our youth and seeing a yet more glorious future, embodying the Biblical witness to share that heritage with our children and our children’s children.

So here is the thing: to pass on the faith of our fathers and mothers to a new generation is to recognize that it is “living still.” We don’t pass the faith on like a carefully wrapped package. We pass on a living faith and as it is embodied in a new generation, in a new context, a new day dawns as we are guided by the Holy Spirit into all truth. When that happens it is always “so amazing and so beautiful.”

And when the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord.

It’s tempting for 21st century Christians to see this moment as something like a Baptism : Mary and Joseph bring baby Jesus to the Temple forty days after his birth. Calling this day the Feast of the Presentation reinforces that reading. And I’m sure that’s a part of it all. But the truth is that this journey is more about Mary than it is about Jesus.  As Luke tells us, they came because of the Torah of Moses. What would happen if we called this day the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin Mary, as some Christians do?

They were, after all, first-century Jews , not twenty-first century Christians. They didn’t know yet they would be the stars of something called the “new” testament; they just had The Testament – the Word of the Lord given in the call of Abraham and Sarah and in the Torah given to Moses on Sinai, and in the promise made to King David, the Word of the Lord in prophets like Isaiah and Amos and in the writings like Job and Qoheleth. And in the twelfth chapter of Leviticus it says this: after a woman gives birth to a son she is to go to the temple to be made ritually clean again and to “present a lamb for a burnt offering and a pigeon or turtledove for a sin offering.” The assumption was that childbirth made her “unclean.”

Understanding that concept in English and within our Christian world-view is a real challenge. Unclean sounds like dirty to our ears, but this is easy for us to misunderstand. The Hebrew word, tum’ah, is all over the Book of Leviticus – and central to the priestly worldview. It doesn’t mean impure or contaminate or defiled, even though all those words get used sometimes in English. Without getting too crass here, it’s helpful to remember that in the Leviticus world-view, excrement is not tum’ah, for example, because tum’ah is not about dirt. It’s about “life forces.” It’s a sense that blood, literally the life-force running through our veins, when it escapes (as in birth) leaves a kind of residue behind. And before one encounters the Holy again one needs to acknowledge this ritually.

Now let me just say that I don’t pretend to grasp that worldview completely or even to share it, so it’s not the task of this sermon to defend it. But it’s a way of thinking about things that is about the call of God’s people to holiness. And in this understanding the ordinary stuff of day-to-day life—and of birth and death—leave a kind of residue behind. And so before one can be restored to holiness, and made a holy people before God, they need to be made ritually pure again in order to encounter the Holy One.

It’s not the only view in the Old Testament, however, nor in the New. In fact in his public ministry at least part of the conflict that Jesus seems to have with the scribes and Pharisees is that they seem to be the upholders of that Leviticus worldview, while he argues again and again that compassion trumps holiness. Or to say that more accurately, that an obsession with defining who is in and who is out, who is clean and who is unclean, often leaves whole bunches of people permanently on the outside.

This feast of the Presentation comes in the midst of this long Epiphany season, reminding us that we are called to let our light shine in the darkness. The problem is that sometimes we aren’t so sure we have that light, or at the very least that it’s gotten pretty dim. We may feel like we don’t bring much to the Table, or even that we are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs underneath it. But here’s the deal: we are made worthy, we are holy enough, good enough, to let our little light shine in the darkness because that light of Christ refuses to be overcome by the darkness of this world.

There is a provision in the Torah for people who cannot afford a lamb as a sacrifice for this ritual: “if her means do not suffice for a sheep, she shall take two turtledoves or two pigeons.” (Leviticus 12:8) Since Luke tells us that Mary and Joseph took that second option, he is telling us that they couldn’t afford the sheep. He’s telling us that Jesus grew up poor, that this man acquainted with sorrow and grief did not grow up with a silver spoon in his mouth. That should catch the attention of us, who are called to follow him, because when we encounter the poor in our own day we are meant to see the face of Jesus. It should catch our attention because Jesus didn’t scapegoat the poor or call them lazy; he loved them and stood in solidarity with them.  
Anyway, Mary and Joseph and forty-day old baby Jesus arrive at the Temple in Jerusalem, some sixty miles or so from home in the days before interstate highways and automobiles. And there they encounter two senior citizens, Simeon and Anna. As we heard, Simeon was “on duty” as a priest. It was a rotating job, not like being a permanent rector. So he happened to be the guy there for this event—or maybe if we don’t believe in coincidences we might say, he was destined to be the priest on duty. He recognizes at some deep intuitive mystical level that as a Jew who has spent his life waiting for messiah he can now depart in peace. This is the one. His eyes have seen.

                                Lord, you now have set your servant free
                             to go in peace as you have promised.
                   For these eyes of mine have seen the Savior
                             whom you have prepared for all the world to see:
                   A Light to enlighten the nations,
                             and the glory of your people Israel.

It’s the last prayer that we pray at the end of each day at Compline. It’s like an adult version of “now I lay me down to sleep…” really it’s almost exactly the same prayer. If we should die before we wake it is without fear, for we are a people who have seen and known and loved this Jesus and even more importantly have been seen and been known and been loved by this one whose love is deep and wide.

And there was also a prophet there: Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of great age...having lived with her husband just seven years after they were married, she was now an eighty-four year old widow who never left the temple. She was on Altar Guild, attended every Bible Study, made dinner for the homeless and casseroles for the grieving. you know her, I'm sure...

So at that very moment she came by too, and she began to praise God and to speak about this child to anyone who would listen - to all who were looking for the redemption of Israel. 

Anna is the first in a line of prophetic disciples who will preach about Jesus to all who were looking for the redemption of Israel: messiah has arrived, bringing about a new era and the dawn of a new day. This old lady in her mid-eighties - who has spent her whole life steeped in a rich tradition - this daughter of Abraham sees something new and life-changing about to happen. And so she goes and tells others what she has seen. And I wonder, if when it's all done if she doesn't turn to old Simeon to say: "so beautiful."

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