First preached as a sermon in Croydon Minster at Evensong on 3 February 2019, the transferred celebration of Candlemas, The Presentation of the Lord in the Temple. The readings were Haggai 2.1-9 and John 2.18-22.
Today is the feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, an event described in St Luke’s Gospel when Jesus’ parents brought the 40 day old child to the Temple to make a sacrificial offering, according to Jewish Law, at which point Simeon and Anna recognised him as the consolation of Israel and Simeon spoke the words we know as the Nunc Dimittis.
Our two readings this evening draw further on the theme of the presence of Christ in the Temple: this is Jesus Christ the great disruptor, as well as the embodiment, of the Temple.
Embodiment. The Collect for the Presentation of Christ notes that Christ was presented, ‘in substance of flesh’, in other words presented as fully human, sharing our flesh and our blood: what we doctrinally name as the Incarnation: the fullness of God dwelling in the human body: Jesus Christ. As St John puts it, ‘the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us’ (John 1.14). He is a human body: God, embodied in human flesh.
Disruption. The prophet Haggai describes a great shaking up, not just of a building on earth, the Temple in Jerusalem, but a shaking up of the heavens and earth, because the Temple, the meeting place of God, humanity and all creation, is construed as something far more expansive than the focal point of that one building. And that shaking up will lead to a greater glory of the Temple. That promise of prophecy is left hanging, as it were, and is picked up again and brought to fruition in our second reading.
The disruptor of the Temple, and the embodiment of it: Jesus overturned the tables of the money changers in the Temple and then declared: ‘destroy this temple and, and in three days I will raise it up’. (John 2.19). He then conflates his body with the Temple, as the disciples realised later, for he was speaking of the Temple of his body: destroyed on the cross, raised in God’s resurrection power.
You and I are members of the body of Christ through baptism; so our bodies are holy, presented to the Lord and precious, in his sight. So Paul writes ‘Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you? (1 Corinthians 6.19)
That is why Christians are careful about how the body is treated and viewed. We must care for our bodies, and value the bodies of others. The body is not an object; it is the essential dwelling of a person. As Thomas Merton puts it, ‘to love another as an object is to love them as a ‘thing’, as a commodity which can be used, exploited, enjoyed, then cast off.’ (The power and Meaning of Love, pp. 6-8). This is what pornography does. It makes the body a ‘thing’ to be looked at, not the intimacy of a person to be adored.
One of the dangers of modern life, when we are told that we makes us human is our capacity to think - I think, therefore I am – is that our bodies become optional extras. Our identity is thought to be in our minds not in and with our bodies, and so we can do what we like with them.
The body is more precious than that. The body is not just like an old pair of shoes to be cast off when we die, not just an inconvenient vehicle for the mind. The promise of the Resurrection of the Body is a body transformed not disposed of.
So where does that connect with our readings tonight and the Presentation of Christ in the Temple; the Temple which he disrupts and embodies?
St Paul writes in his letter to the Romans, ‘By the mercies of God, present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is spiritual worship’ (Romans 12.1)
The language of presentation and sacrifice is the language of the Temple, the place of encounter with God. Our understanding as Christians is that the Temple is not located in one place geographically but rather the expanse of the Temple wraps the whole world which God fills. As the psalm puts it, ‘The earth is the Lord’s, and all that therein is: the compass of the world, and they that dwell therein’ (Psalm 24.1).
What we do tonight, and every morning and evening, is re-place ourselves in Christ our Temple through whom we encounter the Living God. The Communion Service in the Book of Common Prayer uses this powerful phrase: ‘And here we offer and present unto thee, O Lord, ourselves, our souls and bodies to be a reasonable, holy, and lively sacrifice unto thee’. So may our prayer in this temple ‘rise before [the Lord] as incense, the lifting up of our hands as the evening sacrifice’. (Psalm 141.2)
© Andrew Bishop, 2019