Presentation of Jesus at the Temple: Encoded Language

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Malachi 3:1-4
Luke 2:22-40
“Pondering These Things” by Gay Hadley

“Neighbors said it first.
Surely this child
belongs to someone else.
Mary, too, when she held him,
sang him to sleep,
watched his deep, brooding eyes,
wondered where he came from.

We ponder our children,
blessed or not, depending
on your point of view.
We are afraid for the ones
who talk early, speak
with a shivering wisdom.

We fear the world
will be afraid.
And we know we may lose
them, not understanding
why, except to think
they must belong
to someone else.”


This sweet story of mom and dad
so pleased to present their new son at the temple,
has a shadow side
whispering in a language
only some listeners can recognize.

It is very phenomenon as American slaves
singing spirituals in the field
that spoke of their suffering and hope
in a language the task-masters could hear
but simply not understand.

Oppressed people everywhere
create metaphoric language
with a literal meaning heard by persecutors
and an actual meaning loud and clear to the tyrannized.

As 21st century readers,
we need to see the split-screen in which this story.
Luke is writing to his audience
fifteen or twenty years AFTER
the Romans destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem.

To non-Romans,
and even to Romans of a certain class,
the backdrop is a poignant reminder
of the imperial massacre
of Jews in Judah and Galilee.
It seems like a normal story
about a normal activity
but it would immediately trigger
grief and anger
and a molten cocktail of emotions.

Secondly, to go to the historic context of Luke’s story,
the hearers would also
travel much farther back in time – to the Exodus.
In the Exodus liberation story
set in the Egypt of Ramses II,
every Hebrew first-born son
was to be dedicated to God –
even though they belonged to Pharaoh.
That’s one of those public metaphors
that speak one thing to the oppressor
and another to the oppressed.

So, zooming forward
to the time of Tiberius Caesar and Herod Antipas,
Joseph and Mary bring their new-born
to the one-and-only house on earth
where God lives.
Once there, they do what the Egyptian Hebrews did,
dedicate their child to God –
not to Tiberius who was claimed as a god,
but to Yahweh who they know to be God.

Suddenly Luke has transported
Joseph & Mary back to Egypt
with a literary collapse of generations,
painting them into solidarity
with centuries of ancestors.

But wait, this story as told by Luke,
is being told at a time when all semblance of the Temple
and Israel, were gone – as in,
no more.

The two primary actors in this story,
other than the parents who presented their baby,
are two old people
who are dead by the time Luke writes his tale.

The first is Simeon, a man who can’t die
until he recognizes the seed of deliverance and restoration
in a prophesized newborn.
Cleverly, Luke echoes the past
with oblique reference to the children of Israel
who were delivered from their oppression under Egypt,
and by doing so, references the future
which somehow is connected to the baby –
and he does all that without naming any names.

We might ask, what in the world is Simeon is talking about
when he says that God will reveal something to the Gentiles?

Well, it’s the same thing that God revealed to Pharaoh –
“You ain’t in charge, dogface.”

And what then, does it mean for God to bring about
“the glory of the people Israel?”

It means restoration of the land, rebuilding of the temple,
and there, the defeat of Roman domination.
All said of that is said without saying so.

Then there is Anna, a prophet.
She has been fasting for eighty-four years,
a ritual act of grieving.
Suddenly, she grieves no more –
because, why?
Because Jerusalem is about to be redeemed.
Well, what is involved with the redemption of Jerusalem?
Just this: the Roman scum are destroyed,
kicked out, and demolished.
The Temple is rebuilt on Zion.

All of that is proclaimed without ever saying so.

Joseph and Mary were just doing
what was required by law –
presenting their child at the Temple.
What could be more innocent.

To the oppressor hearing the tale,
it is about a couple miscreant peasants
performing their pathetic religion.
But Luke doing something here,
other than telling a sweet tale
about the holy family performing their duty
under the Law of Moses?

“…We are afraid for the ones
who talk early, speak
with a shivering wisdom.

We fear the world
will be afraid.
And we know we may lose
them, not understanding
why, except to think
they must belong
to someone else.”

Gay Hadley’s poem
utters eloquently
the hope and fear
of every parent, aunt, uncle, and
who every loved a newborn
addition to the family.
It isn’t the fear of the emperor
or the hope of national independence,
but the recognition
that one so small is up against
enormous hazards
and random events
beyond anyone’s control.
It is the fraught recognition
of the world we are all born into
and the one we live through –
until eventually, don’t.

That is the nexus
of where people like us –
Roman’s after all –
truly share the perspective
of those we oppress,
even if we do not intend to be oppressors.
WE and THEY are US
when it comes to our vulnerability
before the vastness of the cosmos,
and the limitless array of dangers
that surround us in every moment.

The Romans had temples and gods
to which they prayed and sacrificed
for the safety of their newborns,
just like Joseph and Mary.

Oppressed and oppressor are connected by our love,
by our vulnerability, by our hope,
and by our fears.

There is a criticism pious people make
about those
who reach out for God
only when they are in need.
But I totally get that.
Why would we even think about God
when we feel in control,
content and satiated,
and as if death and deprivation
were nowhere to be found?

When we feel like that, we are on top of the world
and we do not NEED God.
Sometimes we imagine we are
the masters of our own destiny,
and we can get taken up in the goodness of life
and not even think about how we got there –
or who we have to thank for an assist.
We’re just happy to be there.
This is the bind
that we post-moderns are in.
I am guessing that most of us here
are not in Malachi’s camp
that sees the world through the bi-focal
of purity and evil.
I could be wrong,
but I am guessing that most of us here
do not think that misfortune is punishment
for our sins
and good fortune
a recompense for our purity.

We know all too well
there are jerks, and ogres, and
grotesquely self-interested hedonists
who have all the power and money
and it will never be shared
with the great majority
who suffer, are disrespected, and wrongly arrested.
There are enormous fortunes out there
that the millions and billions of just plain good folks
will never see or benefit from.
Surely that is not an arrangement
instigated and authorized by God.

So purity and evil
are probably not the cause and effect
of happiness and good fortune
in the way that much of ancient religion
had imagined or hoped.
And, without that scheme,
we are left more vulnerable than ever –
naked before the universe
and praying
that that any huge comet careening through space
will miss the earth.

As 21st century moderns,
we know too much
and yet, so much less
than we need to know.

What are we to do?

I hope you didn’t think I had an answer to that question.
On the other hand, I have been working on it
since I was about eight or ten years old,
and here is where it’s led me.

The difference between spiritual and religious
in my mind,
is that being spiritual
accepts the truth of the situation we are in
and frames it in a way
that empowers us to live well anyway.

Religiosity on the other hand,
begins with a denial of our situation
and claims truths
that have no basis in our experience.

Let’s take baptism as an easy example,
since it is vaguely or thematically related
to what Mary and Joseph
were up to in Luke’s story.

Religiosity would see baptism
as protection from Hell,
a kind of ritual magic rooted in the idea of purity –
that our soul is stained
and this is how we get the stain removed.

A more spiritual understanding of baptism
is that we welcome the newborn
into a communal practice.

That practice is one in which
we share some common values
and commend some common ways of treating
one another, and even
those we do not know.
Rather than an act of purification,
baptism seen spiritually
is a recognition that we have the potential
to live badly – in ways that are both self-destructive
and hurtful to others.
At the same time, baptism offers a vision
for how to live well in community
and resist
our more destructive propensities.

In the “Episcopal Baptismal Covenant,”
it is an explicit understanding
that God doesn’t do anything FOR us
BUT we can do amazing things
with God’s help.

How God helps
is another one of those mysteries
we do not get to know the answer to,
and it is better to acknowledged it
than deny it or fantasized about it.
Proclaiming what God does
or doesn’t do, seems to me
to be foolhardy and arrogant.

So, in a few moments,
when we reaffirm our own baptismal covenant,
I invite us to think about it as a description (not a prescription) of our spiritual practice.

It is not prescriptive
because it can be practiced in an infinite
number of ways,
and depends mightily on our context
and our capacity.
because spirituality is evocative,
and highly contextual
rather than fixed and precise.
Spiritual practice
is not like flying a plane or driving a car,
because it is not that precise.
In short, the baptismal covenant
is a way of framing the life we live
in this ocean of randomness,
fraught with hazards
and opportunities,
and framing it all
in a way that empowers us.

When we read the Baptismal Covenant,
there is no sense of fear and anxiety,
no denial of our baser proclivities,
and no wishful thinking of divine quid pro quo.

It is instead,
an empowerment
that invites us to build a community
that more nearly reflects
what we imagine
is God’s best dream for us –
the kingdom of God on earth
as it is in heaven.

So I hope we will see how baptism
frames and re-frames life in the world
as we actually experience it,
when we reaffirm that covenant in a moment.
Oh, and one more thing,
even though it doesn’t say so explicitly:
It is always…
just one step at a time.

The Episcopal Baptismal Covenant

“With God’s help, we will continue in the apostle’s teaching and fellowship,
in the breaking of the bread, and in the prayers.

With God’s help, we will persevere in resisting evil, and,
when we fall into sin, repent, and return to the Lord.

With God’s help, we will proclaim by word and example
the Good News of Christ.

With God’s help, we will seek and serve Christ in all persons,
loving our neighbor as ourselves.

With God’s help, we will strive for justice and peace among all people,
and respect the dignity of every human being.”