The Presentation of Christ in The Temple


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Commonly Called The Purification of Saint Mary The Virgin (February 2nd) 

Almighty and everlasting God, we humbly beseech thy majesty,…
Malachi 3:1-5
Luke 2:22-40

Mary was the most serious casualty of the English Reformation. This liturgical microcosm provides three pieces of evidence: first, the use of “Saint Mary” is a deliberate down-grading of the mother of God; secondly, the Collect fails to mention Mary; thirdly, the choice of Malachi over Isaiah 7:14 is odd (cf The Annunciation of The Blessed Virgin Mary); and the statement that the Feast was “commonly known” as the Purification when it was actually commonly known as Candlemas is another snub; but as the use of candles was controversial in the Elizabethan Church this is hardly surprising.

The doctrine of the virgin birth was never in question because it was Credal but late Medieval excess in substituting homely Marian devotion for what had become highly complex and almost clerically exclusive devotion to Christ met with a reformist reaction which was particularly radical in England, arguably the place where Mary had been most venerated. An analysis of BCP readings shows that she is almost eliminated from the Nativity story and accorded the minimum possible notice in the two Feast Days devoted to her.

The theme of purification dominates the Collect and Malachi but occupies only half a verse in Luke who is much more interested in the presentation of the first-born to the service of God. This theme is then reinforced by the stories of Simeon and Anna whose service to God is meticulously catalogued by Luke. Malachi’s view of the Messiah is somewhat astringent; he will come as a refining fire but only the priestly classes and the wicked have anything to fear; the poor and the lonely will receive comfort. That comfort is extended by Simeon to Gentiles but it comes at a price; Mary will suffer for her motherhood.

The point of the Temple Presentation is that it was a lifelong commitment. Unlike John, who was declared a Nazarite (Luke 1:15), Jesus was not marked out in any special way (although his residence in Nazareth, as opposed to Bethlehem, might be a mistranslation of “Nazarite” as “Nazarene”) and yet he is immediately identified by Simeon and Anna. Typically, Luke prepares us for the scene by recounting the promise of the Holy Ghost that Simeon would live to see the birth of the Messiah who would be the “consolation of Israel” but he is moved in the Nunc Dimittis to extend the promise of the child to the whole world. Luke is fond of presenting key characters in pairs, so Simeon and Anna are matched not with Mary and Joseph but with Mary and Jesus who are yoked in lifelong service.

Lifelong service requires a high degree of faithfulness and this characteristic unites the four main characters. Simeon and Anna had seen the triumph of Rome over a divided and declining Israel and Mary’s faithfulness, says Simeon, is to be severely tested. The three protagonists could not have imagined the quality or the depth of faithfulness that would be required of Jesus but from their different standpoints they knew that it would be unique. Simeon’s prayer reflects a generosity of outlook which accords with Luke’s perspective; it is not that the Messiah’s message to the Gentiles will be incidental to Jewish concern but, rather, that the mission to the Gentiles, whatever form it takes, will bring glory upon Israel. Looked at from a post Crucifixion perspective that is a remarkably generous way of looking at things; that whatever the vicissitudes of Christ’s life, promised in an address to Mary, the ultimate result would be the extension of the Kingdom to Gentiles which would redound to the benefit of the Jews. It was a perspective which was, unfortunately, rapidly lost in the narrow and ultimately homicidal interpretations of the Passion narratives, particularly Matthew (cf The Sunday next before Easter) and, to a lesser extent John.

Lifelong service, faithfulness and generosity of outlook are all Marian characteristics to which we should aspire but the gradations of equivalence are sometimes difficult to comprehend: we are imperfect human beings, sinners in need of repentance; she, whom we must imitate, was born without sin; and Jesus, whom we and she must imitate was God incarnate who, though he laid aside his glory, was still god. Late Medieval Christians found the imitation of Mary an easier concept to handle than the imitation of Christ. The Reformation apparently raised the bar in singling out Jesus and consigning saints, including Mary, to a marginal position but the higher standard was not actually real because sacrifice and intercession were replaced by justification and the doctrine of “The elect” who had no need of intercession. The theological outlook became less human, more cerebral. The holy life was no easier but it was easier to think that it was. Yet for all these possible explanations for the Reformation dynamic which so brutally sidelined Mary, there must be more than a suspicion that it was caused by one of the all too frequent outbreaks of misogyny which survived clerical marriage. Perhaps the safe devotion for celibates was redundant but the comfort it brought to the poorly educated was very great and its deprivation deeply felt. The Church of England, supposedly “reformed” but not Protestant, still has problems with Marianism, tending to brand it as Roman Catholic. In this age of broken families sustained by lone parents, there is a new and vital role for Mary, particularly among the suffering, in the slums beyond the regular call of Anglicanism.

Starting Points for Sermons and Discussions:

  1. Was the Reformation reaction to Mary justified?
  2. How well do the themes of purification and presentation fit together?
  3. How useful is Mary as a half-way house between God and humanity?
  4. How relevant is Mary to the plight of contemporary lone parents?
  5. Consider Mary as a feminist icon.

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