How romantic it all seems, as recorded in Luke’s Gospel. The baby Jesus brought by Mary and Joseph to the Temple for the final act marking his birth, according to the Law of Moses. On the eighth day came the circumcision, then thirty-three days later the presentation, or sometimes known as the purification, a ritual that seems unbelievably quaint now. How romantic, and in a way the sense of romance is heightened by the procession at the end of Masses on this day, with candles much in evidence, for the traditional name of this Feast is of course Candlemas, a reminder that, as old Simeon proclaimed, the child Jesus is the light of the nations. But however romantic it seems, however much we would long to have been there in the Temple to witness these events for ourselves, yet there are serious messages contained in these verses.

Guido Da Siena: Presentation of Jesus at the Temple (Public domain)

Where to begin? With Simeon’s prophesy to Mary that this child will overturn the existing order and in so doing bring her great suffering? Or with the sacrifice that the Holy Family brings, a pair of pigeons? For remember, this was the let-out for the poor – the offering was supposed to be a lamb and a pigeon. What a lesson to us, with our obsession with material things – Jesus was born in poverty, he lived with nowhere to lay his head, and he died an outcast – though he was rich, he became poor for our sakes, writes St Paul. It puts our preoccupations with status and possessions to shame, doesn’t it? But the essential message here is that the Holy Family were obedient and God-fearing: this duty was laid upon them by the Law of Moses, so they did it. No record of anguished debate about priorities, about all the other more immediately useful things that Joseph and Mary could have been doing. The Law said do it, their faith enjoined this upon them and so they did it. No argument. It puts us all to shame, doesn’t it?

It reminds one of the story of Cain and Abel: what was Cain’s sin? He very kindly decided to give God some of the left overs of what he had produced: and God was not amused. The Holy Family fulfilled their duty, Cain did not. Do we really expect God to be pleased with us when we condescend to give him the left overs of our lives? Hardly. God is not mocked. The Holy Family did as their faith commanded them, with no talk from Joseph about how he’d rather be back at his carpentering, and no complaints from Mary about how purification was demeaning to women and a male conspiracy.

Of course, put like that it sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it, but just consider the kinds of excuses we make: pray more? I’m too busy. Read the Bible more? That’s the clergy’s job, and, let me say this, if they did, then we’d certainly notice an improvement in their sermons. Give more to the church? I’ve got better things to do with my money than that – I’ve just been given this red hot share tip by my stock broker. In the haunting words of the old hymn: nothing in my hand I bring, simply to thy cross I cling. Foul I to the fountain fly, wash me Saviour or I die. The Presentation is not about soft focused romance, it is about unquestioning commitment: God deserves, God requires nothing less, from you and from me.

Fr. Edward Bryant

A Meditation for Epiphany

Is it true? Is it true, this fantastic story of wise men from the East coming to worship the baby Jesus? Before we simply dismiss this as a piece of beautiful but fanciful writing on the part of St Matthew in his Gospel, we do need to remind ourselves that the Middle Eastern world of two thousand years ago was very different from Western Europe in 2020.

Gentile da Fabriano: Adorazione dei Magi [Public domain]

There were Wise Men – Magi, astrologers – in abundance in the ancient world, they did study the stars, they did believe that important messages came to them in that way, they were prepared to travel long distances in search of the truth; further, it appears that at about the time of Jesus» birth, there were strange phenomena apparent in the stars, even if we now know that a star would not literally go in front of people to guide them; we also know that Herod the king really was paranoid – he trusted no one and in the process had his wife and mother in law and three of his sons assassinated.

For all these reasons, therefore, and, yes, recognising that to the modern mind there are problems with the story, we still should not be too ready to dismiss it as a mere flight of fancy.

Further, beyond the literal level of the text, there are important religious truths contained in this passage. To take just one: to state the obvious, these men were not Jews. It is one of the wonders of Christianity that it exists at all. At the time of the first Pentecost, and for some years afterwards, it was really little more than a Jewish sect. Had it remained so, it would almost without question have died out when the Romans smashed the Jewish nation in the year AD70. But before then, men of vision, and notably St Paul, had helped the new faith to break the bonds of Judaism and set it on the path to becoming a faith for the whole world.

The point about the Epiphany is that, right from his birth, the Lord Jesus is shown to be Lord of all creation, and not simply another Jewish prophet. The Wise Men come looking for the one born King of the Jews, but they acknowledge his dominion over them as non-Jews also as they present their gifts to him. This child born in obscurity to a humble Jewish family is to change the world, and the world, in the shape of the Wise Men comes to pay him homage.

Our task is twofold: first to join with the Wise Men in the symbolic offering of our lives to the Lord Jesus, but second to play our part in the ongoing revealing of Jesus to the world, for there is great ignorance about who he is, ignorance as great as that shown by Herod. And we will be doing our part by the kinds of lives we lead and by the words we say.

As St Paul puts it, by virtue of our baptism we are all ambassadors for Christ, and we must take this calling not as an imposition but as a wonderful opportunity to bring Christ to the world, and the world to Christ.

Fr Edward Bryant,