Father THOMAS IDERGARD SJ
Homily for the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord – Candlemas
Malachi 3:1-4; Ps 24 (parts of Ps 118 sung); Hebrews 2:14-18; Luke 2:22-40
St. Eugenia Catholic Church, Stockholm (English Mass)
Dear sisters and brothers in Christ,
The traditional Jewish rituals that Blessed Virgin Mary and St. Joseph performed 40 days after the birth of Jesus seem strange to us. But when we interpret the Bible, we must start by finding out what the narrated actions, concepts and words signified when they once were performed or spoken. Only then, we can grasp what they tell us today. When we do it the other way round, starting by our contemporaryperceptions, the divine message will never be unfolded.
To ancient Jews, the temple of Jerusalem was the most important place in the world. A microcosm, a dwelling place of the Lord in his creation, where humans would encounter God and be re-established as servers of his will. The liturgical worship of the temple ultimately expressed the vision and hope that the people of Israel, through God’s election of them, would carry God’s light to all the nations so that God eventually could gather humanity scattered by sin and divisions, and establish his eternal kingdom of peace and justice beginning in the existing creation and finally fulfilled in a new. A kingdom whose boundaries would no longer be defined by ethnicity, nationality, culture, or any other human identity ground, no matter how important or loved, but solely by true faith and right worship of the only God.
The Jewish prophetic tradition however came to point out, that Israel had gone away from the right worship of God. The sacrificial cult had become corrupted, lost its spiritual meaning and become reduced to empty rituals that were less and less reflected in people’s lives. One of the prophets, Ezekiel, concluded that God’s glory had left the temple.
But as we heard in our first reading today from the prophet Malachi, in the same prophetic tradition, God also promised that he one day “would enter his temple” again and “purify” and “refine” his people so that they would become able to “make the offering to the Lord as it should be made” and the order of God therethrough permeate the world.
Jesus Christisthe union between divine and human. He brings humanity back on line with God. When the Christ child enters the temple, the words of Malachi are fulfilled. And this is exactly what old Simeon sees. Here is not only God entering the old temple of stone, but the new, true, living and eternal temple, as Jesus later will designate himself and his own body, becoming visible. Here is the fulfilled form of worship and of God’s promises; the true and only path to God, opened by God, through himself for all nations. Simeon’s proclamation thus concludes all prophets. All thanks to the sacrifice this child will do, around 30 years ahead. A sacrifice of himself to open a way beyond sin, suffering and death for all who believe, and so finally reconcile humans with God.
By coming to the temple in human form, “completely like” us, as today’s second reading from the Letter to the Hebrews stated, God acts both as someone who will perform a sacrifice, i.e. as a priest, and as the concrete sacrificial matter in which other humans can partake by faith. A true sacrifice, unlike all others that have been mere symbols, truly accomplishing its aim: reconciliation and a share in God’s eternal life, starting here and now.
Thus, we see the inner unity of today’s feast and the Holy Eucharist where the true, one and final sacrifice brought about by Jesus Christ becomes present, not as symbol but real under the veil of bread and wine, to nourish us so that we increasingly will be drawn into the Son’s communion with the Father in the Holy Spirit and able to sacrifice what we have and are for the sake of his kingdom.
“Eucharist” is Greek for thanksgiving. And this is precisely what Anna in the temple expresses in today’s gospel, as she begins to “praise God” in gratitude for having seen the child. But Anna does something more that is linked to “Eucharist”, thanksgiving. She then speaks “of the child to all”. And so we learn that there is a continuation of the reception of the Lord as he constantly gives himself to us in the Eucharist, in our flesh, in our matter, through the temple of our time, his Church: Mission, evangelisation, to speak of him to all, through our words and deeds. That is what he wants us to do!
And for this, we are prepared by Simeon’s prophecy that the Christ child “is destined for the fall and for the rising of many … to be a sign that is rejected”. To ancient Jewish and pagan conceptions, it was something unthinkable that God would become man to die. But also today in a secularist environment like contemporary Sweden it is provocative to profess the faith in Jesus Christ as the one he claimed to be; the one the historical sources, i.e. the New Testament, testify about and the Church proclaims – i.e. God as man; something completely different and much more than a peace prophet or a teacher. If you don’t believe me, try next time to mention Jesus Christ at a dinner in a normal Swedish context and see the different reactions if you e.g. mention Buddha!
Being the true divine light, the source and objective of all existence, entering the world, calling us to reflect him, Jesus does not come with cosiness or feelgood. But with the truth about God and us all, also when our immediate impulses would like it to be differently. And so, the resistance to Jesus Christ as he truly is, i.e. someone else than a Gandhi of the Middle East, is revealed as the resistance to the change and transformation of each one of us that he wants to bring about. A change and transformation into more of holiness, a life more profoundly with and for God. A change, for which he, as help, gives of himself to us, i.e. gives his grace, in the seven sacraments of the Church.
Today’s feast finally puts the question to you and me: How do I cooperate with His Light for my own transformation? What areas of my life do I still try to hide from the Light to permeate? Where do I need to let him conquer my resistance? And where and how can I increasingly better reflect the Light of Christ to the world, particularly when it requires sacrifices or makes me unpopular? I.e. when it calls me to follow him, Christ, the Lord of the universe, who as a child entered his creation, his temple, and who later, as the king of glory, was crowned on a cross?