The Real Story

The First Sunday after Christmas

Isaiah 61:10-62:3; Ps 148; Gal 4:4-7; Luke 2:22-40

The Rev’d Dr. Deborah Meister, ODM

Yesterday, I came across a picture of a red clay tile from ancient Rome, dating from about the time that Jesus was a baby. The tile bore the clear impression of a toddler’s footprint, echoing the plaster casts of footprints or handprints I’ve seen in so many homes during my lifetime. The imprint of the toes was deeper than that of the heel, suggesting that a parent made the prints deliberately, as an act of love, yearning to be able to touch their beloved baby even once he or she had grown.

Today’s Gospel takes us into another story of being marked by love: the story of the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple. Presentation was an initiation rite, like the baptisms we are going to carry out for Diana and Jude. Initiation is about belonging, and, for human beings, belonging has a lot to do with story: learning the stories of our people, being made part of the story. It is a good time to consider what stories we have become part of, what stories we are passing on to the next generation.

One of the most important — and sometimes maddening — books I read during the lockdowns was Nesrine Malik’s We Need New Stories. Malik argues that the stories which have become central to our culture are no longer doing the work they were intended to do. In fact, some of them have folded back upon themselves, stories of liberation becoming a means of preventing us from seeing or acting upon a continued reality of oppression. Malik writes, “Myths are spun out of several skilfully [sic] woven untruths that cumulatively tug the scales in favour [sic] of not necessarily those who are in power — it is less calculated than that — but those who benefit from power….They are myths that divide and instill a sense of superiority over others” (pp.7,6.) Instead of helping us to pull together, these myths act to prevent the formation of solidarity.

The rite of Presentation (which is no longer practiced, by the way) was based upon the foundational stories of the Hebrew people, stories which are still central to us as Christians. Hebrew families had to bring their firstborn sons to the Temple in Jerusalem to be redeemed. The tradition evoked the Exodus, when God sent the angel of death to kill the firstborn children of the Egyptians, but spared the Hebrews; once they had been freed from slavery, God instructed them in perpetuity to sacrifice an animal for each firstborn son, buying his life back from God.

It’s easy to imagine the scene: the eager parents, proud and hesitant, braving the big city with their child held in their arms, entering the Temple, each couple certain that their child was the most wonderful child of all.  This time, when Jesus came, there was a welcoming party: Simeon, a devout old man who had been promised that he would not die until he saw the Lord’s Messiah. You can imagine Simeon waiting by the Temple door, gazing into the face of each infant, looking for the imprint of God in the tiny features, the waving hands. It is the very definition of living in hope: seeking the presence of God in each person we encounter.

And then, the sudden rush of joy and astonishment and wonder, lifting the child — this child — into his arms and dancing it around the room as if the baby were a living Torah scroll. And then Anna, that holy old woman, praising God for the birth of this little boy and rushing to tell everyone who hoped for a better world that a better world was here.

Can you imagine a world in which every child was held in that kind of love? Today, it is difficult even to hear the words of this story (at least, it is for me). We are all too aware of the price that cruelty and violence are taking on the children of the Holy Land, children who are at the mercy of national leaders, on both sides, who are choosing to repeat the same dynamic as the one which existed so long ago: my freedom requires your death.

It’s a powerful fantasy: that the world is divided into us and them, good and evil; that “we” will prosper only if “they” are gone — just as the ancient Egyptians tried to kill the  Hebrew children.  Autocrats around the world use it to lure people into subjugation, demonizing women and immigrants and foreigners and people of color — so many groups to choose from. So do religious leaders, tempting their people to despise everyone who is not in “our” fold. But the fact that a story is ancient does not mean that it is necessarily true.

In the last few months, people who are rightly horrified by the immense toll of child deaths in Gaza — as anyone should be — have been speaking of the issue in ways which themselves strengthen the us/them dynamic. We have seen those divisions playing out in our college campuses and our streets, each group acting as if those who are vulnerable matter to them supremely, and to the others, not at all. More than that, though, we who care have been talking of the deaths of those children — for which we are not culpable — while ignoring to the suffering of other children. According to The Lancet, more than half of those living in extreme poverty worldwide are children; of those, more than 500 million are deprived not only financially, but also in terms of healthcare and education and freedom. (Vol VII, Issue11,11/23) These are the children who suffer the consequences of colonialism and the capitalist system; in other words, they are paying the price for our lifestyle.  We are skilled at turning our eyes from them, but they are part of a similar equation: our comfort requires your suffering.

This partial truth — that we care supremely about the well-being of the vulnerable, while we continue to benefit every day from systems of exploitation — runs through modern Christianity like a massive fault line. It prompts us to ask what Jesus was doing, and what we, his followers, have made of his work. When the prophet Isaiah sang, “I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness,” he was rejoicing in the prospect of an entirely new humanity. (Is 61:10) And when Anna and Simeon rejoiced, when Mary sang the Magnificat, they were all three proclaiming that the new thing had arrived. Not just the birth of a child, but creation itself made entirely new.

The birth of Jesus was not meant to be a tweak to our belief system, a garnish added to an otherwise-full life, like a juicy olive plunked into a martini. It was a re-establishment of the earthly order of things — a new story, although there were hints all along. When God called Abraham into covenant, God led him away from the land of his ancestors — the place where he might have had power — into a land in which he would live as a stranger. Moses, the great leader of God’s people, was a prophet, not a warrior.  Even David, the great warrior-king of Israel, was not permitted to build God’s Temple. Instead, when David yearned to build it, God sent the prophet Nathan to hold him off, saying, “You must not build a house for My name, because you are a man of war and blood.” (I Chron 28:3) Each of these stories points toward a central truth: in Jesus, God was not coming to use earthly power, but to replace it with the power of the Spirit.

Tucked among the parables of Jesus is a mysterious pair of stories, one about sewing new fabric onto an old cloak, and another about putting new wine into old wineskins. In each case, what is new is spoilt (Matt 9:16-17; Mark 2:21-22; Luke 5:36-38). But we, the church, have been and continue to be guilty of such an error. In its first centuries, when the church was utterly disempowered, Christians did live as those without power, devoting themselves to caring for those who, like themselves, had none. But once Constantine established Christianity as the faith of the Roman Empire, it became all too tempting to see the power of Rome as the way to bring in the Kingdom of God. To use the tools of domination and to pretend to ourselves that what we were engaged in was liberation. To care about the spirit, while ignoring the continued reality of deeply unequal suffering.

My friends, such is not the way of Christ. We gather today, at the turning of the year, deeply aware that the old stories have run us aground. Autocracy, endemic poverty, and the destruction of climate stalk the globe. The old ways have failed, definitively. We need new stories. We need Jesus’ story, the real one, not what we have made of it.

Before the Presentation came a different kind of initiation, a harder one. Immediately before today’s Gospel reading, Luke writes, “At the end of eight days, when [the child] was circumcised, he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.” (Luke 2:21)  We don’t talk much about circumcision; it’s an uncomfortable topic. It’s also an important one: when God made the covenant with Abraham, he chose to require that each male bear in his flesh a visible and lasting sign that lives are consecrated to God by self-sacrifice. Lives are not made holy by sacrificing others to suit our own desires; they are made holy by curbing our desires so that all might live.

That’s what we are given in baptism: the Spirit of God pressing its marks into the soft clay of our hearts, to allow us to live in love. The person we would have been without Jesus in our lives dies; a new person is born, one able to imagine a new world. St. Paul writes, “God has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the Kingdom of his beloved Son.” (Col 1:13) But it is up to us to live as if that were true; not to graft our faith onto the rootstock of this world, but to have the courage to live on God’s terms, “completely unintelligible, defying all explanation — unless the explanation is God.” (Myers, “Saints, p.81)

The priest/poet R.S. Thomas wrote of that life, saying:

It’s a long way off but inside it
There are quite different things going on:
Festivals at which the poor man
Is king and the consumptive is
Healed; mirrors in which the blind look
At themselves and love looks at them
Back; and industry is for mending
The bent bones and the minds fractured
By life. It’s a long way off, but to get
There takes no time and admission
Is free, if you purge yourself
Of desire, and present yourself with
Your need only and the simple offering
Of your faith, green as a leaf.

Shall we, then, begin?

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