Presentation of Christ in the Temple 2012

Lift up your heads, O gates; be lifted up, you everlasting doors : and the King of glory shall come in. (Psalm 24:7)

The Psalms have their origin in the worship of the Jerusalem Temple, and sometimes it is possible to get some sense of what sort of service they might have been used for. Today’s psalm was clearly for a procession, and it seems possible that the last section accompanied the entrance of the Ark of the Covenant into the sanctuary. What was the Ark of the Covenant? It was an ancient religious artifact, in form a golden box with a lid called the Mercy-Seat overshadowed by figures of cherubim. It was portable on long staves, and in ancient times at least it would be carried into battle with the Israelite armies, a symbol of the presence of the LORD of Hosts. It was said to contain the original stone tablets of the Law,  a golden pot of manna, and Aaron’s staff which budded. After Solomon built the Temple in Jerusalem, it found a permanent home in the innermost sanctuary, the Holy of Holies, where it represented the throne of God. It disappeared after the Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians in the 6th century BCE – which is why legends about it have proliferated, from the Freemasons right down to Indiana Jones and “Raiders of the Lost Ark”. In the second temple, the one in which today’s gospel story takes place, there was no Ark; the Holy of Holies was simply an empty space.

No Ark; until a young woman and a poor man bring their little son into the temple courts to offer the sacrifice of purification and to dedicate him to God. There were hints already in Luke’s Gospel that the ancient Ark might be regarded as a symbol of Mary; and from the 4th century at least the connection is made: Mary is the Ark of the Covenant, the bearer of God’s presence with his people.

Hail to the Lord who comes,

comes to his temple gate!

Not with his angel host,

not in his kingly state;

but borne upon the throne

of Mary’s gentle breast…    (John Ellerton)

A new Ark, a renewed covenant; now the place of God’s relating to his world will not be in a physical building but in the person of Jesus Christ. Israel had always understood its vocation as God’s covenant people, a people bound in relationship with the Holy Mystery; the gospel-writer indicates that this covenant, this relationship, is now to be extended to all who will enter it, enlightening the pagan world and vindicating the hopes of the Jews:

A light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel

 

I want to dwell a little on that word “covenant”. It’s a key word in the Bible; God repeatedly makes covenants, relationship agreements: whether with Noah, or with Abraham, or with all the people. For us, God is one who reaches out and invites us into relationship. It is not enough to believe in God – that is, to assert that the world we experience has its origins and its continued existence in holy mystery; to capture what Christians understand by “God” we have to say that this holy mystery is encountered as a person who invites and calls and seeks our response; relationship is the key idea.

In ancient Jerusalem, the Ark of the Covenant indicated God’s invitation to Israel; it was the focus of their response, both ritual and ethical.

Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord : or who can rise up in his holy place?’
‘Those who have clean hands and a pure heart : who have not lifted up their soul to an idol, nor sworn an oath to a lie

For us, Jesus himself embodies both God’s invitation and man’s response; he is the New Covenant; and we enter that mystically in the sacraments and practically as we seek to live as his brothers and sisters, as parts of his body, as inheritors of the kingdom. In Scots Presbyterian tradition, this psalm 24 has become associated with their Communion Service.

Ye gates, lift up your heads on high, ye doors that last for aye,

Be lifted up, that so the King of glory enter may.

The same King of Glory, the same Lord of hosts, who entered the temple in his mother’s arms, is present when the Church, the spiritual Temple, gathers in his name; he gives himself to us in love, seeking our answering love.

Lift up your heads, O gates; be lifted up, you everlasting doors : and the King of glory shall come in.

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