The Presentation of Christ in the Temple 2011

The little book of the Prophet Malachi, which provided our first reading today, reflects a spiritual problem with which we may be very familiar. It appears that the Temple priests have lost their “fear of the Lord”. What do I mean by that? I mean the sense, the certainty, that God is the most real thing there is, to be taken absolutely seriously, to be served whole-heartedly. Perhaps familiarity with sacred things breeds contempt; or perhaps priests are merely subject to the same doubts that afflict others; but these priests of long ago have become less scrupulous about their duties, offering the second-best rather than the best – because it doesn’t really matter, does it? And why be too fussy about right and wrong? the world is unjust, there might as well not be a god… In the Old Testament, the fear of God is associated with wisdom; while foolishness sees God as unreal, and leads to immoral and unjust behaviour.

The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.” They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds, there is none that does good. (Psalm 14:1 RSV)

So Malachi’s message is that God will come to his Temple, suddenly, and put the fear of God into them, so that both temple sacrifice and moral behaviour may be purged and restored.

The Lord whom ye seek shall suddenly come to his temple; even the messenger of the covenant, whom ye delight in; behold, he shall come, says the Lord of hosts. But who may abide the day of his coming, and who shall stand when he appeareth? For he is like a refiner’s fire… And he shall purify the sons of Levi, that they may offer unto the Lord an offering in righteousness.

“The fear of the Lord” is a somewhat uncomfortable concept, suggesting maybe that our Heavenly Father is one of those irritable parents who goes off the deep end for no reason, who lashes out when annoyed, who must be treated with caution. One avoids a father like that, or worries about pleasing and mollifying him. It doesn’t sound very healthy. Perhaps we should try a different image.

Consider electricity. We know it’s there, we rely on it to power just about everything we do at home. We only really notice it when there’s a power-cut, or when we see a spark. We forget the immense and dangerous power that resides in those cables running all around us. But we would do well to cultivate the “fear of electricity”, in the sense of an awareness of its presence and a healthy respect for its power.

The tradition thinks of God as the power that sustains the entire universe – so great, so holy, so awesome – that creation cannot bear direct contact. God veils himself, he is known more or less indirectly. Sometimes the veil is lifted, and some holy soul perceives a greater light. The Temple layout, with its series of courts and spaces leading into the Holy of Holies behind the veil, symbolises this; the Temple sacrifices and rituals provided a means whereby Israel could be in contact with the Holy One without being consumed. But this necessary veiling or hiding of God can lead to a sense of God’s absence or unreality. Insulation becomes isolation.

In reading this passage of Malachi on today’s feast of the Presentation, the Church bids us see the real meaning of the Gospel story: this is the Lord coming to his Temple to convince the world of the reality of God, to purge away the disbelief and the consequent unrighteousness, to bestow the fear of God in its best and truest sense. But how does God do it? Is this the refiner’s fire and fuller’s soap of the prophecy, is this fiery judgement and punishment?

God offers, as a sign of his reality, that most real thing to us – a human being. And this baby finds a place among those who already fear God. You notice that St Luke makes no mention of the temple priests in his story. Rather, he mentions Mary and Joseph; upright, because they are fulfilling the requirements of the Torah, the Law; poor, because they can only offer two pigeons in sacrifice. He mentions Simeon and Anna, faithful, devout, patiently waiting, God-fearing; to them the veil is lifted, and they recognise the child for who he is. To these unimportant, humble, God-fearing  people, the Lord is revealed; and he is revealed as himself humble, whose power is the power of compassion; whose glory is the glory of love.

 

 

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