Feast of the Presentation
February 02 2020 – 10:30 AM
Saint Cecilia Catholic Community
Malachi 3:1-4 | Psalm 24:7-10
Hebrews 2:14-18 | Luke 2:22-40
+ In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, AMEN.
One of the characteristics of Saint Cecilia Catholic Community is that we are highly ritualistic. We walk in processions. We use incense and bells, wear vestments, sing and chant, bow and genuflect, sit and stand, light candles, make the sign of the cross, and bow to the Altar. Many other churches have similar rituals, but usually not to the extent that we do here. The only churches here in the Coachella Valley where there is probably more ritual are our Eastern Orthodox sisters and brothers in the Greek, Coptic, Romanian, and Armenian churches. Just like us, they sing the entire liturgy and use incense, but their liturgies are three to four hours long. So be thankful that our Mass is a little over one hour most Sundays!
The Christian attraction to ritual comes from our Jewish forebears. Judaism is a highly-ritualized religion. The Old Testament is packed with ritual. If you don’t believe me, read the first five books of the Bible, in particular, Exodus and Leviticus. The books of Kings, Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah also contain detailed descriptions of Jewish worship rituals.
Many of our own traditions originated in Jewish rituals. The first Eucharist was a Passover meal. The Jewish Shabbat ritual involves bread, wine and candles. You will recall that a few weeks ago, I preached on the Jewish origins of Baptism as an initiation and purification ritual. The forerunner of Pentecost Sunday was the Jewish Feast of Weeks. Bar Mitzvah for boys, and Bat Mitzvah for girls, were the forerunners of our Sacrament of Confirmation.
Jesus was Jewish, so Jesus knew all about ritual and respected it as can be seen from his participation in it throughout his life. The Feast we celebrate today has Jesus, his parents, and people in the Temple participating in a Jewish ritual. Actually, it was two rituals, the Purification of Mary as well as the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple. Today’s feast has been known by both names in the Church calendar. So what exactly was happening from the perspective of the Holy Family in the Temple that day?
In the twelfth chapter of Leviticus, which predated contemporary science and today’s gender expectations, a woman who birthed a male child was considered impure for forty days thereafter. February second is exactly forty days after Christmas, so Mary, being a Jewish woman at the end of the last century before Jesus, went to the Temple to go through the purification ritual by immersing herself in water. It was customary to offer to the Temple priest a lamb as a burnt offering and a pigeon or turtledove as a sin offering. But if the family was too poor to afford a lamb, they could offer two turtledoves of two pigeons. Mary chose the latter option. That tells us Jesus was not a child of wealth and privilege. But Jesus was special in another way. He was a first-born child, and according to the Jewish tradition that you will find in the thirteenth chapter of Exodus, a first-born child was specially consecrated to God and was presented in the Temple as such.
What was significant about today’s events as described in the Gospel is that they marked important events in the lives of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. Ritual and important life events go together. Even for unchurched people, rituals mark the important events of life. New mothers get baby showers. Birthdays have their own rituals of cake and song. And there are rituals that go with weddings, Christmas, and funerals.
God created us as ritualistic beings. Ritual is all around us, everywhere, in our homes, in courts of law, and on the job. God made us to participate in rituals. This is even true for the animal kingdom, where each species has its own rituals for food gathering, eating, mating, birthing, and coming of age as an adult.
For human persons, the need for and participation in rituals is independent of any religion. Rituals are a feature of all known human societies. Look once again at the secular world. Baseball games have the first pitch thrown by a celebrity and the exchange of lineup cards at home plate. Football has its coin toss and kickoff. Basketball starts with a jump ball. At many sporting events and public meetings, everyone stands for the Star Spangled Banner. When I attended public elementary school as a child, the class saluted the American Flag and recite the Pledge of Allegiance to start the day. College graduations usually include a procession with the music called “Pomp and Circumstance” by Edward Elgar, speeches, and the presentation of diplomas. Nations celebrate rituals to inaugurate presidents and crown monarchs. Even common actions like hand-shaking and saying \”hello\” may be termed as rituals. Ritual is everywhere.
Ritual, by its nature, is a communal endeavor that draws meaning from the context in which it is celebrated. Ritual gives meaning to its participants as part of their relationship to the community of which they are part. Nowhere is this more true than for the two other people mentioned in today’s Gospel besides Mary, Joseph, and Jesus. The appearance of the Holy Family was not just something else meaningful to them but also to Simeon and Anna. Who were these folks?
In Eastern Christian tradition, today is called “The Meeting of Our Lord and God and Savior.” Jesus met with his people, Israel, in the persons of the Prophet Simeon and the Prophetess Anna. The Greek word Eastern Christians use is “hypapante”, which means “meeting.” It is the first time the Jesus went to the Temple and participated in its activities. Eastern Christians will celebrate the Feast of Simeon and Anna tomorrow on February third.
Today’s Gospel describes Simeon as righteous and devout, filled with the Holy Spirit, and awaiting the salvation of Israel. Extra-biblical sources describe him as over a hundred years of age and a priest of the Temple. Indeed, some of the artwork depicting him shows him wearing the robes of a Temple priest. Legend also has it that he was one of the seventy-two scholars who in the third century before the birth of Jesus translated the Hebrew scriptures into Greek, which would make him very old indeed. But what is significant is that God promised Simeon he would not die until he had seen Jesus the Messiah. He took Jesus into his arms and expressed gratitude that God had kept his promise to him, and delivered what the church calls the Song of Simeon, or Nunc Dimittis, which we sang today before the Gospel. In the devotional life of the Church, this song is sung after the Second Reading at Evening Prayer. Some Lutherans use it as a dismissal. The Nunc Dimittis has special meaning for me personally because it was the last song I sang to my mother before she died on the last day she was still conscious.
And what about Anna? She was described as a prophetess, eighty-four years of age, widowed after a seven year marriage. After her husband died, she spent all her time in the Temple. Anna was probably the quintessential church mouse, the kind that sets up the altar, serves the priest during Mass, and cleans up afterwards. No church is complete without one. When Anna met the baby Jesus, she saw that God had kept God’s promise of a redeemer for Israel, and she worshiped him.
The participation of Simeon and Anna in the rituals involving the Holy Family resulted in a spiritual benefit. They encountered Jesus! Spiritual benefits are at the heart of all our rituals. Religious rituals give our lives meaning. Rituals are, by nature, repetitive. They happen over and over again as the appropriate situation presents itself. Hence, rituals arise from tradition, and in the case of Christians, the tradition of the Church. Rituals bridge the transcendent realm of God with the earthly realm of humankind. The need for ritual is a basic human instinct. It is as real, as urgent and as raw as our need for food, shelter and love. And it is every bit as crucial to our survival. As a compelling urge to merge our immediate self with the infinite nature of God, ritual reminds us of a larger, archetypal reality. Ritual invokes in us a visceral understanding of such universal paradigms as unity, continuity, connectivity, reverence and awe. Ceremonies offer us a way to relate intimately with primordial universal forces and allow us to embrace that sacred power which informs and fuels all existence.
Ritual is our lifeline to the divine. You can take people away from ritual, but you can’t take ritual out of people. That might be one of many reasons why church attendance is not what it used to be as churches disregard the human hunger for ritual which makes sense out of human life and its relationship with God.
The human hunger for ritual led to the development of ritual as part of the tradition of the church. Yet there are some Christians who view ritual as obstructing their relationship to God. I’ve never understood the mindset of people who want church with less ritual. I can’t relate to this idea at all. Although this view is commonly associated with the protestant reformation, it has its adherents within the Western constituents of the greater church Catholic, encompassing Old Catholic, like we are, plus Anglicans, Lutherans, Methodists, and our Roman sisters and brothers. This viewpoint is commonly known as “low church” and is characterized by an informal approach to liturgy, such as doing away with vestments and using praise bands instead of choirs. Their idea is to make church look like the secular world. Allegedly, the congregation will be more comfortable in that setting. But shouldn’t church be special, something set apart from the world, a sacred place where a community encounters God?
While in the short term the clergy who push the “low church” approach might attract curiosity seekers, centuries from now, those clergy will be forgotten, while the ritual that has stood the test of time will live eternally. Because of the way God constructed people, those who want to eliminate ritual in church are playing a losing game. The instincts of human persons that give life to ritual will not ever die.
Traditional ritual is meant to connect humanity to the eternalness of the divinity of God rather than appeal to immediate needs. The rituals of traditional worship are centered on God, just like the worship of God in heaven described in the Book of Revelation. Read through it, and you will find references to music for singers, trumpets, and harps, plus incense and robes. In contrast to those contemporary liturgists who want worship to imitate the human secular world as an exercise in human solidarity, the worship in heaven is directed to God.
God’s eternal divinity is the glue that holds the church together. Without God’s divinity, there is no church, but just a human institution like a business, a sports team or a political party. Jesus came to bridge the gap between heaven and earth, between the divinity of God and the flesh of humankind. Church is where Jesus gets that done.
In today’s gospel, the human Jesus comes to the Temple of God as but one more manifestation of the two simultaneous natures of Jesus, divine and human. The divine nature of Jesus met the human natures of Simeon and Anna, who recognized the divine mission of Jesus as savior for humanity. Ritual was what made that encounter possible. Other than to perform rituals, the Holy Family had no reason to go to the Temple on the particular day they were there.
This brings up the question, “Why do we go to Mass?” Mass, of course, is a ritual. We go to Mass to connect to God through ritual. That is what makes Mass unique. If all you want is information about church history or doctrine, you don’t have to go to Mass. You can do internet and/or library research. If all you want is socializing with other people, you don’t have to go to Mass. You can go to any number of secular events such as parties or bars. If all you want is music, you don’t have to go to Mass. You can go to a concert. But the ritual that is Mass connects us to our fellow Christians and to God at the same time. That doesn’t happen on the Internet, at libraries, at a bar, or at a concert. Jesus is not present in any of those places the same way Jesus is present at Mass, where Jesus is physically present in the form of Bread and Wine.
Mass connects us simultaneously with our fellow Christians and with God. When we celebrate Mass, we tangibly encounter Jesus Himself. What is human and what is divine are inseparably present in the same place at the same time, just like Jesus Himself. The elements of the Eucharist have the physical properties of ordinary bread and wine, but are, in substance, the Body and Blood of Jesus. Only at Mass do you encounter Jesus in that way. The benefit from going to Mass is a tangible meeting with Jesus through ritual, just like Simeon and Anna met the human baby Jesus in the course of a Temple rituals of purification and presentation. Mass is our hypapante with Jesus and with our fellow Christians.
Jesus and his family, who were observant Jews throughout their lives, respected and practiced the rituals of their very formalized religion. The benefits of Jesus doing that can be seen throughout His life as described in the gospels. Think about it. If Jesus did not celebrate the Passover ritual on the night before He died, we would not be doing what we are doing here right now today, that is, celebrating Mass. Ritual matters. Ritual mattered to Jesus, and it should matter as well to us. AMEN.