St Mary Lewisham
5th February 2012

All Present and Correct!

You may remember that my previous homily, a month ago, was about the Epiphany (or ‘The Discovery’) by the Wise Men, of God made Man. It ended with the following idea:

…there are no ‘ordinary’ people, not even you and I. Our worship of God, and the gifts each of us offers Him as our reasonable service, are, not only valuable; like our very selves they are unique.

Today we shall think about another Discovery – the Feast of the Presentation. We shall use John Ellerton’s magnificent hymn to help us in our thoughts. Verse One reads:

Hail to the Lord who comes / Comes to his temple gate! / Not with his Angel host /
Not in his kingly state; / No shouts proclaim him nigh, / No crowds his coming wait.

Just imagine you’re someone walking through Lewisham Market one day. As you see it, the Market is full of very ordinary, everyday people.

Then you notice just ahead of you a young couple with a pushchair. They both look slightly foreign – from the Middle East, you think. There is a small child, asleep in the pushchair and the man is carrying one of those baskets people use for taking their pets to be treated by the vet. The cage side of the basket is facing away from you so you can’t tell what kind of animal is in it: perhaps it’s a rabbit or a kitten or even a small puppy.

The couple are looking lost, and the woman addresses you as you approach them and says (in rather broken English) ‘Excuse me, please! We are looking for St Mary’s Church’. Well that may sound a bit unusual in this day and age, but there’s nothing very extraordinary about it. You point them down the High Street and tell them that St |Mary’s is on the right, just past Ladywell Road. They thank you, and go on their way. All very ordinary, you think.

Well that’s just what the ordinary shopper would have thought in Jerusalem two thousand years ago if a family like that had asked the way to the Temple. Nothing seems unusual, or extraordinary about that (or them). But the Ordinary Shopper would have been seriously mistaken. For the mother would have been the Virgin Mary, her husband St Joseph, and the child none other than God Incarnate Son, Jesus Christ, and they would have been going to the Temple to fulfil the duty laid upon them by God’s Law: to give thanks for God the Father’s gift of her child; and, by their symbolic offering of the pigeons in that basket, to dedicate the Child to His Heavenly Father as ‘a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God’ who miraculously gave Him to them (and to us!). Nothing ordinary about that! As the second verse says:

But borne upon the throne / Of Mary’s gentle breast / Watched by her duteous love /
In her fond arms at rest /Thus to His Father’s home / He comes, the heavenly Guest…

…in other words, at the Presentation something Extraordinary happened – whereas most people could only see the Ordinary.

No less extraordinary is what happens when we come together to celebrate the Eucharist. We, like Joseph and Mary, are obeying God’s commandment to ‘Do this’; but for His part the Word Made Flesh becomes miraculously present amongst us in the Bread and Wine.

Most of the onlookers who saw the Holy Family in Jerusalem thought they were looking at a typical Middle Eastern family – two parents and a young child; in reality they were unknowingly in the presence of the Incarnate Word, born of a Virgin, begotten of His Father before all worlds, but living in their midst.

Likewise any stranger, who first wanders into St Mary’s during our Sunday Mass, though he would recognize it as a religious service, involving listening and singing, followed by some strange proceedings with bread and wine, might easily believe that we were doing it simply because ‘we really rather like that sort of thing’; yet that same stranger would almost certainly fail to realize that he, and we, are in the Real Presence of God Incarnate, and Whose Body and Blood we receive in the Holy Communion!

But not all of those who were in Jerusalem were so unwise: listen to the third verse:

There Joseph at her side / In reverent wonder stands; / And, filled with holy joy, /
Old Simeon in his hands / takes up the promised Child, / The glory of all lands.

Two people, Simeon and Anna, recognized the Holy Child. Two serious, God-fearing, and therefore wise people like those St Matthew told us about at the Epiphany. St Luke tells us that Anna was eight-four years old, and ‘never left the Temple serving God night and day with fasting and prayer’. Most people, including the author of our hymn, think that Simeon was an old man; but St Luke only says that the Holy Spirit had revealed to him that he wouldn’t die until he had set eyes on the Christ’. So he might equally well have been a young man suffering from a terminal illness knowing he had only a short time to live. It doesn’t really matter whether he was young or old, but the important thing about Simeon and Anna was that both of them knew that they hadn’t long to live, but nevertheless both believed God’s promise and so continually looked forward to seeing the coming of the Christ, the Deliverer, before they died.

It’s a sign of being wise when we are aware of the certainty of death, our own and other people’s – aware of it, that is, not just as a threat to our present security, which of course it is, but as a necessary step in brining each of us to perfection and thus the fulfilment of God’s individual Plan for us. As faithful Christians, young or old, we know there awaits us, beyond the grave, ‘a far greater weight of glory’ than any we have ever tasted during our earthly lifetime. The expectation that when we die we shall participate in the infinite and lasting joys of Heaven is what makes life on this Earth really worth living.

This great hymn ends by reminding us how St Paul referred to you and me as ‘God’s Temples on Earth’, and of our final destiny – our Presentation to God:

Hail to the great First-born / Whose ransom-price they pay! /The Son before all worlds /
The Child of man to-day / That He might ransom us / Who still in bondage lay.

O Light of all the earth / Thy children wait for thee! / Come to Thy temples here, /
That we from sin set free, / Before Thy Father’s face / May all presented be!

That really says it all, doesn’t it?

 

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