Today we are celebrating the Feast of Candlemas, also known as ‘The Presentation of Christ in the Temple’ and ‘The Purification of Mary’. Each one of these names places the emphasis on a different aspect of it, but they all draw on the same occasion described in Luke’s Gospel (2:22-40), which we just heard read, though Luke seems to have conflated two events: the purifying of his mother and the presenting the first born (Exodus 13:2, 13; Numbers 18:15-18). Forty days after his birth, Mary and Joseph brought Jesus to the Temple for a ceremony set out in the Law. We have jumped back to an infant Jesus, having been looking at bible stories of Jesus as an adult over the last few weeks – though last week we took a brief excursion to celebrate the Conversion of St Paul.
The events described are strange to our ears. They are rooted in the Old Testament Hebrew faith and practice set out in the book of Leviticus (12:1-8). And note it’s just the mother who is purified, not the child and not Joseph. The use of ‘their’ in the Greek is odd here and may reflect the conflation of the two events. The Law in Leviticus prescribes that for a male child the period of uncleanness for the mother was to be 40 days whereas for a girl it was doubled. If it wasn’t bad enough that this is about women being seen as unclean after childbirth, the clear message is that a girl child makes you more unclean than giving birth to a boy does. The Book of Common Prayer has a service for the Churching of Women, or their purification after childbirth. In over 20 years I’ve never been asked to conduct such a service, though I was once asked by a man to say some prayers with his daughter when he was bringing her home from the maternity hospital. There was an echo of all of this, for he had a deep sense that the first house the mother and her child should go into was God’s house. Giving birth is precarious and makes mother and baby vulnerable, even with all the medical care we have available today. More so 2,000 years ago. Even 60 years ago infant mortality was much higher than it is today and we see this in the TV drama ‘Call the Midwife’. These kinds of rituals have their roots in recognizing this and wanting to acknowledge it.
There is though a shadow side to this commemoration, which we cannot escape. While cleanliness laws probably have a root in some practical considerations, with some misunderstood biology thrown in, regarding women as unclean, and the birth of girls as making you more unclean than a boy, has a sexist ring to it; it is abusive and it affects how people regard themselves, their self-esteem. It also feeds into how people are treated and valued, and we know that has a very dark side. Purification after childbirth is a concept we have abandoned as we have rejected the notion and the misunderstood biology behind it, though we know not everyone rejects it. The origin of regarding a nursing mother as being unclean might again be rooted in facing the reality of childbirth and in this case telling men to respect the mother’s need to recover, what some years ago one woman rather delicately referred to as ‘not bothering her’. We still see quite a lot of domestic abuse and ironically such rituals, even though they carry derogatory undertones, may actually protect where being more egalitarian might not, at least when nothing else is put in its place. To our ears it is a shame that it was couched in terms of uncleanness, though it was a culture that saw all sorts of things as making people unclean, probably for some practical reasons.
The sacrificial offering set down in the book of Leviticus to restore her to cleanliness was either a lamb, in its first year for a burnt offering, and a pigeon or turtledove, for a sin offering or if the mother couldn’t afford a sheep she may bring either 2 turtledoves or 2 pigeons, one each for a burnt offering and a sin offering. Uncleanness now has sin added to the charge sheet. The offering in Luke’s gospel made for Mary is the poor person’s offering: 2 turtledoves or 2 pigeons. (And those of us who have to deal with the consequences of pigeon infestation in the city centre can appreciate them being on the list. They make a mess and are a nuisance!) The child who had a borrowed crib at his birth, and will be laid in a borrowed tomb at his death, has the poor person’s offering for the purification of his mother. Jesus of Nazareth identifies with the poor not just in spirit but in how he lives. The poor are blessed and included where so often they are excluded and ignored. Those pigeons mean the poor are brought centre stage.
A book has just been published called ‘On Rock or Sand?’. This is a collection of essays edited by the Archbishop of York on the moral shape of our national life. It asks questions about social justice and the tone to shape our economic and political life as we approach the general election. Writing in this the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, talks about two Christian principles, those of ‘gratuitousness’ and ‘solidarity’. Gratuitiousness is a phrase borrowed from Roman Catholic social teaching and refers to the gracious love of God, which feely confers being and life on everything without obligations. Everything is gift, and gift shared at that. So being in solidarity with someone doesn’t just mean standing alongside them it means that we share a fundamental dignity and worth, inherent in each human being however rich or poor they may be. The poor are easily and often overlooked, even ignored, and so the poor person’s offering shifts the balance of our perspective, of our concern, of how we value those we might otherwise ignore. If that is us, then we find that we have an advocate who raises our heads. This is not merely a call for charity but for solidarity, for recognizing that we are equal and intimately connected, that our life shares in the gift, the grace of God; it has its origin in it. This comes out of respect for the inherent dignity we all share. People are not economic units of production but loved by God equally. The affect of the poor person’s sacrifice is exactly the same as the rich person’s. One is not better than the other for both bring purity; the difference is merely about means. We are called to gracious living, respecting the inherent dignity, worth and value of everyone.
Justin Welby goes on to spell out four areas where he feels solidarity and gratuitousness (gracious living) will be expressed for the common good. He talks about the living wage, the need for good housing, education and training, and greater financial access. These are themes he has spoken about quite a bit previously, not least on credit unions and how finance so often does not work in people’s favour, so it is not surprising he should bring them together in this collection. We might have others that we’d like to add such as care for the elderly and the infirm, both of which have been at the forefront of the news this week. They are about respecting the inherent dignity, worth and value of everyone.
Briefly, then, the rest of the story. Two elderly people come into the Temple and give thanks for this child. Simeon speaks of him as a light for all peoples. He is the fulfillment of the promise and the long hoped for salvation. Jesus shines a light on the darkest places, principally the darkness of death, which our first reading touched on (Hebrews 2:14-end). The inherent dignity of all people is held by God so dearly that not even death can end it. Grace loving us without limit. This is why today is also called Candlemas. It is a festival of light in darkness, of hope wherever there is despair, of inclusion where there may be exclusion, of life and love over death. There was also a warning of what was ahead. He will be a sign rejected, inner thoughts will be exposed and for his mother a sword will pierce her inner being to its core. Hers will be the deepest tears, the rawest and the most desolate as she receives his lifeless body from the cross. Solidarity with the poor and lowly brings those who have been touched by the deepest grief to this festival of light and hope. Anna sums this up praising God for redemption.
Candlemas brings the vulnerability and dignity of human life to the fore. It brings protection for the vulnerable and includes all who would otherwise be shut out. It is at its heart about the gratuitous, gracious love of God for creation. As we approach an election the Christ presented in the Temple displays a bias for the poor, requiring us to redress the balance so that we shape our policies for the good of all, living his grace and hope.
Sermon preached in Peterborough Cathedral, Sunday 1st February 2015