Christ the Blessed

Text: Luke 2:22-32
Date: Presentation/Purification X 2/2/14

The great winter storm of 2014 reminds us that it has not been that long since our celebration of Christmas, “as the snow lay round about, deep and crisp and even.” So does today’s celebration of the Purification of Mary and the Presentation of Our Lord in the temple forty days after His birth. (Let’s see, December seven days, January thirty-one days, February two days—7 + 31 + 2 = 40!)

This is one of those feasts when Holy Church imitates the actual span of time of New Testament events. Though we make no article of faith about it or even claim that December 25 was the date of the birth of our Lord, we do claim that He, indeed, was born of the Virgin Mary on a particular day in the history of our world, in a particular place in the geography of our world. It is no accident, then, that the conception of our Lord is celebrated on March 25, exactly nine months before Christmas. Similarly, we celebrate the circumcision of our Lord on the eighth day after Christmas, January 1. So today we mark the 40th day after his birth when Mary and Joseph faithfully fulfilled the Law of the Torah for the rite of her purification and the presentation of their first-born son in the temple at Jerusalem. As Jesus was most surely circumcised in the town of his birth, Bethlehem, so this is His first visit to and appearance in the temple.

In a few articles I read they each stated that, though Mary didn’t need to attend the rite of purification, she nevertheless humbled herself to be like us. Then I realized those articles were from Roman Catholic sources meant to preserve the idea that Mary herself was holy, being immaculately conceived. But no. It was her Son that was immaculately conceived by the Holy Spirit, the sinless Son of God. Mary was a sinner and so needed to attend the rite of purification, which has come down to us as “The Churching of Women after childbirth.” The Rite of Purification takes seriously our sin with the result, says Genesis 3:16, “I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children,” and is called “the great danger of Child-birth” in the Book of Common Prayer rite, which, of course, it used to be to a greater extent in earlier days. That Mary was a sinner we with the Eastern Orthodox Church hold that she therefore died and was not simply assumed into heaven without dying.

St. Luke most certainly had in mind the prophecy of Malachi when he wrote his account of this day, “And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple” (Mal 3:1). And certainly God Himself had this in mind from eternity. Throughout the Old Testament God locates Himself for the benefit and salvation of His people—whether in a pillar of cloud by day or a pillar of fire by night in the Exodus, or over the ark in the tabernacle to guide Israel in her travels, or in the first Jerusalem temple. As the priests carried the ark of the covenant of God’s Presence through the Judean hill country to its place in the temple, so now Mary, the mother of our Lord, was the ark that brought forth the Lord’s presence, first going “into the hill country” (Luke 1:39) to visit her relative Elizabeth and today presenting Him in His true home, the rebuilt second temple that has been waiting all these years for the King of Glory to come in.

In Jesus, not only does the Lord come to His Temple, but Jesus Himself is the new temple as He would later refer to His death and resurrection in His own body. The Jerusalem temple would be forever destroyed in 70 ad as now God’s presence is to be found in no one else than Jesus—an echo of His glorious Transfiguration in which, after seeing Moses and Elijah and the bright cloud and hearing the Voice of the Majestic Glory, when the disciples lifted up their eyes they saw no one but Jesus only. It reminds me of the hymn, which can be found in English only in The Lutheran Hymnal of 1941 and, interestingly, Walther’s Hymnal of 1847.

Jesus, Jesus, only Jesus,
Can my heartfelt longing still.
Lo, I pledge myself to Jesus
What He wills alone to will.
For my heart, which He hath filled,
Ever cries, Lord, as Thou wilt.[1]

So where is Jesus today that we may find God’s presence for us? I was remembering the second stanza of the old hymn, “Built on the Rock the Church doth Stand,” where it boldly proclaims:

Surely in temples made with hands,
God the Most High, is not dwelling;
High above earth His temple stands,
All earthly temples excelling. (TLH 467:2)

Yet the very same hymn acknowledges that, “Still we our earthly temples rear…They are the homes where He draws near,” and speaks of the font, the altar, the pulpit and even the church bells as the place of God’s presence today.

It is only those whose eyes and hearts and minds have been enlightened by the operation of the Holy Spirit through His Word that are given to see. And that’s where blessed Simeon enters the picture. As the Holy Spirit revealed to him that Malachi’s prophecy was going to be fulfilled in his days and so was in the temple waiting for the consolation of Israel, so the Holy Spirit has revealed to you that it is here and wherever the gospel is preached in its purity and the sacraments administered according to Christ’s institution that we have the sure sign and certainty of the Lord’s gracious presence today, for us. The words are certain and personal: “I baptize YOU in the Name,” “receive the sign of the holy cross both upon YOUR forehead and upon YOUR breast,” “My body, my blood, given and shed FOR YOU,” “The Lord bless YOU and keep You….” If God could make His gracious presence known through a burning bush, pillars of cloud and fire, in the appearance of angels and finally in the Person of His Son, why not also in simple water poured, bread and wine set apart and words preached in His Name and at His institution and command?

Simeon saw. He saw the Christ and took Him in his arms and blessed God, saying, “Now, set free your servant, Master, according to your word in peace; because my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared before the face of all peoples.” Christ came to set people free from sin and death, to set you free from sin and death. It was faith grounded in God’s Word of promise that made Simeon see and believe and sing God’s praises. So with us. In one phrase he bore witness to God’s universal grace in Christ as “a light for revelation to the Gentiles,” as well as His presence in Christ as the “glory for your people Israel.” Today we celebrate that, in the infant Jesus, the glory of God’s presence had finally returned and entered the Jerusalem temple!

The glory was no longer in spectacular flashes of lightning or fire or cloud, but in the lowly Person of an infant. Could it not be that, when Mary and Joseph presented the alternate sacrifice of only two turtledoves or two pigeons (Lev. 12:8) instead of a lamb, it was for a reason more than that they only happened to be poor? For, as St. John the Baptist would proclaim, here was the very Lamb of God Himself. As His true glory and divine nature were hidden during the days of his humiliation, so are the days of the waiting Church throughout the ages—seemingly weak and lowly, the glory of God visible only to the eyes of faith.

Today we celebrate and proclaim, see and believe in the presence of God, his gracious presence by which He comes and sets us free, forgives our sins, creates in us new hearts, and sets our feet on the path of righteousness to lead us to our eternal dwelling where, gathered about God’s unveiled presence we shall sing His praises eternally with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven. Oh come, let us walk in the light of the Lord. Oh come, let us worship Him.

[1] The Lutheran Hymnal 348:1; Walther’s Hymnal 253:1.