The Rev Cynthia KR Banks; 2/2/14; The Feast of the Presentation—Year A; Malachi 3:1-4; Hebrews 2:14-18; Psalm 84; Luke 2:22-40
Today is part sermon and part history lesson.
The Feast of the Presentation. It doesn’t often happen that this feast, which takes place on February 2nd, actually lands on a Sunday and gets to take precedence over our normally assigned lessons for today. These are the kinds of things that make a priest’s heart leap for joy—like how to calculate the date of Easter in any given year by finding the Golden Number and the Sunday Letter—yes, it’s true, and if you ever get really bored with a sermon go to page 880 in the Book of Common Prayer, and it tells you all about these magical calculations, but don’t do it today.
But back to The Feast of the Presentation. In the 1549 Prayer Book, the very first prayer book in our tradition, and in the all the prayer books since—1552, 1559, 1662, 1789, 1892, all the way up to the 1928 Prayer Book, there was a little service called The Order for the Purification of Women, a.k.a. The Thanksgiving of Women after Child-birth commonly called The Churching of Women. It’s been transformed in our prayer book into A Thanksgiving for the Birth or Adoption of a Child. You can find it on page 439 sandwiched in between the Marriage service and the service for The Reconciliation of a Penitent, and it is a lovely, powerful service to do.
Now, the hearts of those who penned the prayer books, their hearts were in the right place. The Order for the Purification of Women was a service for the woman to give thanks for having survived the pain and perils of childbirth. By the 1928 prayer book, an instruction was added that the Woman needed to come decently apparelled and a blessing for the child was added that the child of this thy servant may daily increase in wisdom and stature, and grow in thy love and service. The rubric that then followed that prayer (a rubric is like a little instruction or stage direction), said the following: The Woman, that cometh to give her Thanks, must offer accustomed offerings, which shall be applied by the Minister and the Church-wardens (heads-up Sr. and Jr. Warden) to the relief of distressed women in child-bed; and if there be a Communion, it is convenient that she receive the Holy Communion—because of course, the woman wasn’t in church prior to this service and would not have been receiving communion.
It all seems a bit antiquated now, but in those days when many women did not survive childbirth, well, you can see why giving thanks for having survived was a big deal. And the offerings were kind of a way for the women to pay it forward and care for other women who were struggling with their pregnancy—kind of a community commitment to the pre-natal care of all women—that’s cool.
The roots of this ritual go all way back to Leviticus 12:1-8. Here, the woman was ceremonially unclean after childbirth—7 days for a male child and 14 days for a female child, and her time of blood purification was 33 days for a male child and 66 days for a female child. When the days of her purification were completed, whether for a son or a daughter, she was to bring to the priest at the entrance of the tent of meeting a lamb in its first year for a burnt offering, and a pigeon or a turtledove for a sin offering. The priest would then offer it before the LORD, and make atonement on her behalf; then she would be clean from her flow of blood. If she couldn’t afford a sheep, then she was to take two turtledoves or two pigeons, the priest would make the offering, and she would be made clean.
Okay, would all the women in the room take a deep breath and scream now?
These rituals have fallen out of use, but we have to understand that gender bias is deep, deep, deep in our tradition, we have to understand that women have always had this added weight of being called “unclean” simply because of the natural rhythms of their bodies, and that from the beginning, boys were valued more highly than girls. And if we think we are not still dealing with the damaging shockwaves of these beliefs, we are kidding ourselves. Hold that thought.
So, this is what Mary, mother of Jesus, has come to do this morning in our passage from Luke. She and, to his enormous credit, her husband Joseph have come to offer the appointed sacrifice, and since they offered the pair of birds, we know that they were on the lower end of the economic spectrum. They have the added impetus of coming to offer the appointed sacrifice for their firstborn son in accordance with the law. According to Exodus 13:11-16, one was to offer every firstborn male, whether animal or human, except you got to substitute an animal for the human so you weren’t actually practicing child sacrifice. One might ask, “What is all this about? Why do this?” And the law anticipates these questions. It says, “When in the future your child asks, ‘What does this mean?’ you shall answer, ‘By the strength of hand the LORD brought us out of Egypt, from the house of slavery. When Pharaoh stubbornly refused to let us go, the LORD killed all the firstborn in the land of Egypt from human firstborn to the firstborn of animals. Therefore I sacrifice to the LORD every male that first opens the womb, but the firstborn of my sons, I redeem.’ It shall serve as a sign on your hand and as an emblem on your forehead that by the strength of hand the LORD brought us out of Egypt.”
So, firstborn male animals had to be sacrificed and firstborn male humans had to be redeemed, which meant they were offered but not killed—the animal took the son’s place in the actual act of sacrifice. Now, all of this harkened back to a liberating event—the Exodus—but that liberation was wrought at such a huge, unbelievable cost—the death of so many firstborn sons of the land of Egypt. And so it has been ever since—we sacrifice our sons on the altar of war, we sacrifice our sons on the altar of a version of manhood that says “boys don’t cry” or “man-up,” we sacrifice our sons when we don’t allow them the full range of human feelings because some of those feelings don’t seem very manly or, at the other end, when we tell them that some of their feelings are way too powerful for our comfort—the now infamous Richard Sherman football interview of two weeks ago being a case in point. We have been sacrificing our men for a long, long time.
Okay, would all the men in the room take a deep breath and scream now?
And then there is the whole animal sacrifice thing where animals are completely expendable. The sacrificial system of the temple was violent and bloody and severed the connection between humanity and their kin in the animal kingdom, all of whom God created and all of whom God called “good.”
Would all the animal lovers in the room take a deep breath and scream now?
There is a way in which we all have been harmed by these rituals that are in the marrow of our tradition. Women have been harmed. Men have been harmed. Animals have been harmed. We need to see this harm for what it is, name it, and resist it whenever and wherever it rears its head in today’s world. Take a moment. Look across our culture. Look across the world.
Where is violence against women still raging? Where are women still valued less than men? What ways of being a woman are offered to our daughters?
How are we locking our sons away? It what ways are we pushing or constraining them? What ways of being a man are being offered to our sons?
And how do we understand our care of our animal kin? I never used to think much about this until I had two experiences this past year. The first was seeing the absolute and blatant abuse of animals in India which felt so wrong and somehow seemed related to the unrelenting conditions of poverty that were everywhere—when people feel expendable, everything feels expendable. The second experience has been a weekly occurrence in our Wednesday Healing Service. Every week, faithfully, one person has felt called to stand in for all the abused animals and for those who care for them. Praying healing prayers every week for this has reminded me that we are made to be in relationship with the animals with whom we share this Godgiven creation.
So, what does The Feast of the Presentation say about any of this? It says a lot. Mary and Joseph participate in the traditions of their faith, yes; they are faithful to the law, but as they enter this tradition, and as Jesus embodies this tradition in his flesh, he upends it completely. Those great elders, Simeon and Anna, witness this and immediately see the power of what is happening before their eyes. Simeon praises God saying, “Master, Lord, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” Simeon then turns to Mary and says, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.” The prophet Anna can’t stop praising God, and she heads out to speak about this child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.
When Simeon speaks of being dismissed, the greek carries the sense of “a slave being set free.” In Jesus, Simeon sees the salvation that God intends—we are set free from all these things that have enslaved us, and set free for wholeness, for healing, for the binding up of wounds, for the reconciling of what has been rent apart. And this healing, this wholeness is for all people—it’s for women, it’s for men, it’s for Gentiles, it’s for Jews, it’s for all of creation. And you can see this as Jesus moves through the gospels in his adult ministry—he’s lifting up women, he’s speaking to the heart of men, he’s crossing every ethnic and racial boundary imaginable, and he has a profound love of lost sheep and things of the earth, which show up rather prominently in his storytelling.
But Jesus’ way of being in the world is not the way the world works. His sheer presence pulls back the curtain on all the ways the world diminishes women and men and all the other ways we divide up and exploit creation—humans, animals, the ground under our feet, the water we drink. His presence will be a sign always revealing how far short we have fallen of the wholeness that God intends for the world. Jesus’ presence will be a sign that will draw opposition from those voices, those powers-that-be, who benefit from, in the words of our baptismal renunciation, “corrupting and destroying the creatures of God.” And we have to be honest, sometimes, those voices live deep inside of us; we have internalized these voices by virtue of the fact that our tradition has perpetuated these distinctions for thousands of years; it is the air we have breathed.
But this morning, Jesus, in his infant flesh, is lifted up, and his presence declares, “No more. In me, there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female, for all are one in me. All of creation has dignity and worth. All are beloved in God’s sight. All are declared, at the moment of their creation, ‘tov’, ‘good’.”
So, our work is cut out for us today.
We’ve got to come face-to-face with the dark side of our tradition; we have to come clean about how women have been devalued, how men have been sacrificed, and how animals have been treated as expendable means to an end.
We need to lay claim to the wholeness embodied in Jesus and understand than nothing less than salvation for all of creation is at stake—the prophet Anna is right—the redemption of our world is to be found in this child who makes whole all that is not.
We need to renounce any powers, out there (in the world) or in here (in our heart) that corrupt, destroy, or diminish the creatures of God, and we need to speak and enact Jesus’ vision of oneness, equality, healing and wholeness in all of our words, in all of our deeds. We need to embody the wholeness that Jesus embodies—giving our hearts to that which increases it, withdrawing our energy from that which diminishes it.
And, we need to know that if we go down this path, our own soul, just like Mary’s, will be pierced, but that is how a heart and soul grow tender—such piercing always births a deeper compassion.
Name, claim, proclaim, with all your heart and mind and body and spirit, the good news that is all tied up in the flesh of this child lifted up before God this day. Join Simeon in blessing. Join Anna in sharing the good news. This Feast of the Presentation isn’t just an outdated, archaic, antiquated ritual, but it is hope for the salvation of our daughters and our sons, it is healing for women and men, it is reconciliation for our divisions across the world, it is a weaving back together of the torn fabric of our creation. It is all of this, if we will hear its deeper call and heed it. Amen.
The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
February 2, 2014