Today, we conclude the church’s season of Epiphany—the revelation of God’s light among us in the person of Jesus Christ—with the feast of the Presentation in the Temple. This is the final episode in the Church year linked to Christmas.
Conveniently, this feast on February 2 coincides with Groundhog Day. Both mark the time when–no matter how cold winter seems to be, light is returning and brings the promise of renewed life. So we bless candles and read about how Jesus is praised at the very beginning of HIS earthly life as the very source of light.
It’s a feast both of dedication and revelation.
[I could preach an entirely different sermon about how Jesus’ and his parents obedience to Jewish Law invite a long and complicated understanding of how Judaism and Christianity, their scriptures and their traditions, relate to each other. That would be interesting but it’s not this sermon. Suffice to say that]
Jesus parents, as portrayed in Luke’s gospel () are observant Jews. When they bring him to the Temple, following the tradition, the family encounters two devout elderly Jewish worshippers, Simeon and Anna.
If Anna were a Roman Catholic in Quebec we might call her Quebec une grenouille de baptême—an elderly ladies who just about lives in the church. She’s one of the women whose names only Luke gives us and whose stories surround Jesus during his life. She and Simeon have been hoping all their days to lay eyes on God’s anointed one, and they find their heart’s desire in this baby.
It’s a beautiful moment. Its significance is mirrored at the start of the psalm appointed for today, “How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord of Hosts.”
The word translated as “dwelling” here is the verb form of the word “tabernacle”—the Hebrew word for the Tent of Meeting that the Jewish people carried with them to house the Ark of the Covenant as they travelled towards the Holy Land.
So this term, “dwelling place,” was definitely understood by the early Christians to have several layers of meaning. [Compare John 1:14, “the Word was made flesh and dwelled among us.”]
In Jesus, God arrives to dwell with us. To “tabernacle…” i.e. to go with us along our journey.
As Christians, we believe that the arrival of Christ does not introduce us to a relationship with God that is performative or transactional. We don’t need to measure up in order to deserve God’s loving presence. We might be moved to want to measure up—that’s not a mistake, it’s entirely natural—but it’s more of a consequence of our relationship with God, not the core of it. Because God’s model of mercy isn’t some sort of “pardon,” the kind of deal we might hope to get from a judge or after spending time in the jailhouse.
No, Jesus comes to “tabernacle with us”—to be with us right where we are. The relationship calls us to experience and share this new way of living. God’s presence with us is incarnational and transformative.
God is going to be with us every step of our way.
This also means that God’s dwelling place isn’t just a dot on the globe, a spot on the surface of the earth that we can make a pilgrimage to once in our lifetime if we are fortunate.
Much less is it an experience we will only have after our bodies are dead. We have the capacity now, in this life, to at least glimpse that dwelling place.
Mind you, I don’t want to imply that earthly places of worship are antithetical to God. Luke has many references to the traditional piety of Jesus parents, and this Gospel is also structured by a repeating movement of Jesus TO Jerusalem, beginning with this first incident.
In fact, the whole movement in Luke and Acts is the movement of Jesus towards Jerusalem—where he ultimately replaces the Temple itself as the locus of God’s dwelling with us. Then his followers receive the “great commission” to spread this Good News FROM Jerusalem TO the whole world. It’s a powerful drawing towards, and sending forth from, this spiritual centre.
I think this pattern—Jerusalem as a centre that draws the faithful in and sends them forth—is an important touchstone for us. Not just geographically, but as a spiritual function in several different dimensions–whether we are travelling to the Holy Land, or coming to church on a Sunday, or, for that matter, coming to our own prayer space or meditation practice.
After all, we do “travel” here to church, don’t we—and here in this this building, where the holiest part is traditionally called the “East end” no matter what the geography of the place, we liturgically “turn our eyes towards” Jerusalem every Sunday, as a sign of that orientation.
Churchgoing is part of the rhythm of our lives—a rhythm that Christ celebrated and took part in, too, in large and in small.
He travelled to Jerusalem each year for Passover, according to Luke.
And I think it might not be a coincidence that Luke’s Gospel also describes Jesus life of prayer in greater detail than any of the other Gospels.
Jesus took time to “be apart” not particularly on the Sabbath but with great regularity—and apparently when he was busiest and most in demand!
Perhaps you have a spot in your home that you return to regularly to read or pray. If you use it regularly for that purpose, you know how it becomes a home base, helping you to remember and re-enter your own prayer practice.
This place functions as a sign of your intention and commitment to acknowledge The Holy One who “dwells with you”. The ability to set down worldly concerns and burdens for a moment—or at least gather them up and hold them in God’s presence. To find peace.
This discipline is not just for fanatics, or for mystics. Sitting with God can take an astonishing variety of forms, too, traditional and otherwise. For some people, making music, or knitting, or writing, or painting, sets them at “the threshold of the house of our God” as surely as sitting still or saying a mantra does for others.
I chose to address specifically this quality of God’s indwelling in Jesus—and its availability to us—because this is what makes it possible for us to change and grow closer to God. It’s an intrinsic part of prayer. Even when we say our prayers “through Christ” we don’t always recall consciously that our life of prayer is informed by and sustained by that indwelling life.
If you have not tried to pray outside of church, or if your prayers tend to be blessed lists of people and things that deserve God’s attention, it can be helpful to be with others who are spending time “at the threshold,” … and to enjoy “God’s dwelling place” in the here and now.
That’s why we are planning a parish Quiet Day before Lent. This year we’ve been offered the use of a beautiful prayer space on a farm in the Townships. On Saturday, February 23, we will assemble in car pools and go out there together, and especially if you have not experienced a day of intentional quiet with God, I invite you to consider this opportunity.
Ann Elbourne has written about this in the parish Newsletter, and there are posters in the church giving details—or speak to me about it today.
I hope you will pray about it, and pray for all the participants.
And meanwhile, we continue with our Eucharist—still another demonstration that in Jesus Christ, God has truly come to dwell with us.
Thanks be to God!
Sermon for Candlemas 2019
Preaching at Christ Church Cathedral, Montreal
Sunday, Feb. 3 at 8 am and 10:30 am