It’s not often that I give a homily on the Feast of the Presentation. In fact I don’t remember ever having done it before. It’s just that today is the Second of February, forty days after Christmas, when St Luke tells us the parents of Jesus took him to the Temple to present him to the Lord as laid down by the Law of Moses. Christmas is a distant memory now, but, until we have celebrated today’s, the story is not complete, something that was brought home to me last week in Lytham where both the town square and the church next door still had their cribs up until after this weekend. So what is there in the story of the Presentation that has something of relevance to say to us today?
Well, look at it more closely and it’s a fascinating moment in the Jesus story. For centuries, prophets, like Malachi in the first reading, had dreamt of the day when God would enter his Temple and the peoples of the world would flock to Jerusalem to see him. The psalm today was one the people of the Old Testament sang every year on their annual visit to Jerusalem and the Temple which lay at the heart of it. Like people years ago here in Scotland singing hymns on the bus on the way to Whithorn or Carfin or some similar place, they would have chanted this psalm as they walked along “Who is the King of Glory?”, the leader would shout “The Lord is the King of Glory”, the people would reply. “O gates lift how your heads”, the leader would continue, “Let him enter the King of Glory”, the people would shout back, a more sophisticated version of our modern “What do we want.. when do we want it, ..Now”. For centuries this longing, this deep conviction that one day God would enter his Temple and show himself to the world, had sustained generations of Jews, and now, when it was finally happening, apart from a couple of old people, there was nobody there to witness the historic event. The Lord the King of Glory had entered his Temple while nobody was looking, like an old fashioned celebrity slipping in the back door of a theatre as crowds milled around the main entrance waiting to see her. God had entered his Temple right enough. But he had not done it the way everyone expected. And that, I think, is the relevance of today’s feast for us now.
As the catechism told those of us of a certain age all those years ago, we are God’s temple, temples of the Holy Spirit who lives and moves in us, entering into our lives in the same the way he entered into the Temple in Jerusalem that day. He slips in quietly. There will be a few occasions in our lives when we have had powerful, dramatic experiences of God. But these are the exception. Every day of our lives, over and over again, God enters into our lives the way he entered the Temple that day: quietly, gently and without fuss. He is immensely respectful of our freedom, never forcing himself on us, always leaving us free to respond or not. As the prophet Isaiah puts it, “ He does not shout aloud or make his voice heard in the street. He does not break the crushed reed or quench the wavering flame.” So respectful is God of our freedom that he can be at the door knocking for years and we are unaware of it, the result often of lives filled with noise and activity with little or no room for silence or reflection. If this had been true of Simeon, then he might never have noticed the prompting of the Spirit Luke speaks about and so would have missed the moment he had longed for all his life. The Temple would have been full of people that day, but the only other person in the crowd who was tuned into the momentous thing that was happening right before their eyes, was Anna, the daughter of Phanuel. And this because she was a woman of prayer who spent much of her life n prayer.
So what should we be looking for in ourselves if we want to be more sensitive to the times when God moves in us and enters into our Temple? How do we recognize such moments, of which there are many every single day of our lives. In the midst of all the thoughts, feelings, inclinations and desires which go inside us, how do we recognize the voice of God in ourselves? Well there is no simple answer to these questions, but I offer you a few reflections on some of the things to look out for.
First of all, beware of God’s who agree with you all the time and share your opinions and prejudices. This God does not exist. He is a figment of your imagination and when your hear his voice it is your own voice you are hearing. Jesus, it has been said, came to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable, so pay special attention to voices which challenge and say things you would prefer not to hear. Beware, too, of certainty. One of the great scourges of our time is religious fundamentalism which has no room for doubts or questions. This way of thinking is a refuge for those who, because they live in fear, cannot live with uncertainty and not knowing which are part and parcel of a life of faith and will always be there when it comes to the things of God. For me, one of the surest and most reliable signs that God has moved in us and entered into our temple is that, as soon as he has done so, we question the authenticity of the experience. Did it really happen? Did I imagine it? Did I make it up? Am I deluding myself? Whenever I hear someone say these words, the child in my womb leaps for joy. This is how God works. He reveals himself, but does not force himself on us, leaving us free to believe or not to believe. And so we can never be completely certain that God even exists and so have to trust and live with the uncertainty, the sometimes not knowing, that the fundamentalist cannot understand or live with. But the God who does exist is always there, whether we believe in him or not, longing and working for the moment when we finally meet him face to face
Simeon and Anna represent centuries of men and women who waited, wondered, sometimes doubted, often struggled but ultimately trusted. In that sense, they are very modern, saints for our time, and I invite you to see in them something of yourself.
Bidding Prayers :
We live in an age of uncertainty when things people once took for granted and thought were true are called into question. There was a time when atheism was almost unknown in society, and now it is one of the major religions of our time. And so we pray for the courage we need to embrace the challenges this presents to us as Catholics; to develop a more mature and adult faith fit for the times we are living through…. Lord hear us
When Joseph and Mary brought Jesus to the Temple that day, it would have been heaving with people performing traditional religious actions. And yet, as the words of the prophets were being fulfilled and God entered his Temple, they were not able recognize him. And so we pray that the religious actions we perform each week will help us, not prevent us, recognizing God’s presence with us in all that happens …. Lord hear us
If faith is to survive and grow in the world today, it must be personal. It is not enough to believe what our parents or grand-parents believed. It is not enough to believe because the Church says so. It is not enough to believe what we read in books. A faith fit for the twenty-first century must be a faith rooted in personal experience of God in our own lives. And so we pray that every person in our parish will come to such faith….. Lord hear us
One of the marks of personal faith today is the ability to live with doubt and uncertainty. Faith often raises more questions than it answers, and at the heart of mature faith lies a willingness to live with questions without having to have all the answers. This requires open-mindedness and humility. It means recognizing the limits of our own knowledge and understanding and the reality of mystery. And so we pray for such a faith…. Lord hear us
One of the reasons people were not open to what was happening that day in the Temple was the noise and activity that filled the place. We know that this angered Jesus years later when he cast out the buyers and sellers, reminding them that it was a place of prayer, not a market-place. And so we pray that the noisy world of today will rediscover the importance of silence and reflection if we are to live fully human lives….. Lord hear us