All Saints’ Church
February 2, 2020
Feast of the Presentation
Today we celebrate a special holiday you might never have heard of. It’s officially called the Feast of the Presentation of Our Lord Jesus Christ in the Temple, which is a mouthful. It’s also called the Presentation for short. It has another name, too: Candlemas. Whatever you call it, it’s about the story from today’s Gospel reading, in which Mary brings Jesus to the Temple, the ancient Jewish rite performed on the fortieth day after the birth of a first male child. The Feast of the Presentation is always celebrated on February 2. Why? Well, February 2 is exactly forty days after Christmas. So this feast is meant to help us feel the rhythm of Jesus’ first days.
If you’ve never heard of today’s special day, I certainly don’t blame you. Most churches—even Episcopal ones—don’t make a big deal out of it. But the Presentation still hangs on. In fact, it’s a very, very old holiday—basically just as old as Christmas itself. Traditionally, the Feast of the Presentation brought the Christmas season to an end—which means if you still haven’t taken your decorations down, you can just say you’re following the old liturgical calendar. It’s important enough that when February 2 falls on a Sunday, as it does this year, we chuck out the regular Sunday readings and celebrate the Presentation instead. And there’s an added lovely practice. Because the Feast of the Presentation is observed in the depth of winter, a tradition of candle lighting and blessing became associated with it, which is how it got the name Candlemas.
To be honest, the Feast of the Presentation has never been very high up on my list of priorities. It always seemed like something quaint and European from a bygone era. But my perspective has changed this year. In fact, now I think that the Presentation has the perfect message for 21st century Christianity. The message I hear is this: Let yourself be presented, just as Jesus was presented in the Temple. Enter the sanctuary, and know that you that you belong to this holiness. Appear before the Almighty, and receive the blessing that is reserved for you.
Think again of the story of the Presentation is part of the Christmas cycle of readings about Jesus. Jesus was born to a human mother. The wise men came from afar to adore him. He was baptized in the River Jordan. And here today, he was presented in the Temple.
These are stories from Holy Scripture about Our Lord. But if they mean anything, if they have any life in them, then they are also stories from the holy book of your own life, and they are about you. You, too, were born of a human mother. There were those who came to adore and care for you at your birth. Your baptism is a shared sacrament with Jesus.
And now, to complete the story, you are here, in this holy temple. You have presented yourself to God. There is no greater gift you can offer God than this. There is no sacrifice more pleasing to God than your very self. You presenting yourself means that you have decided to accept God’s love for you, to allow yourself to be acknowledged as part of this divine mystery of life in which we all find ourselves.
Why is this the perfect message for today? Because we find ourselves in a time when people are reluctant to present themselves to God. I’m sure you are aware of the steady decline in church membership and attendance among most religious groups. And there are many reasons for this, some of them totally justified. The Church as too often betrayed the trust of its own people, or taken them for granted, or offered messages that run contrary to our faith.
But there’s another side to the abandonment of religious participation. I think it comes down to a refusal to take responsibility for the care of our own souls. It’s easy to get distracted by the challenges and temptations of modern life. For me, it’s an uphill struggle most days. But ultimately, we all have the obligation to ourselves to care for our own spiritual well-being. In the Christian understanding, this means devoting ourselves to lives of prayer, service, and fellowship. It means nourishing ourselves out of what The Book of Common Prayer calls “the riches of God’s grace.” And it means showing up: showing up to prayer time, showing up to visit the sick and console the downtrodden, and yes, showing up to the Temple. Over time, when we present ourselves over and over, we become transformed into the person God sees most deeply and wants us to be in the world. Sure, it takes some commitment and effort. But what greater reward could we be offered for simply being present?
I believe that the vast majority of people are aware of their spiritual lives and care about them. I also believe that one of the reasons our culture is in such a state of crisis is that now that people are no longer presenting themselves in the Temple as their means of spiritual nourishment, they are at a loss for what to replace it with. I often hear people say they are “spiritual but not religious.” That’s kind of what I’m talking about. “Spiritual but not religious” to me says, I acknowledge the importance of my spiritual life, but I’m not sure or maybe not willing to do anything about it that I’m not in complete control of. And let me say, that’s a dangerous thing. Religion shapes and molds us and forces us to confront hard truths about ourselves. If we are in control of this experience at all times, then our spiritual practices just become a flattering self-image. Going to yoga class or attending a political rally—these are both substitutes for the communal catharsis of religion. But when all you get from these practices are words that confirm your prejudices and a sense of superiority, then we’re in trouble. Then you’re trying to force the Temple to look like your house and not God’s.
If you want a special image in your head of what it looks like to be presented in the Temple, we had an incredibly moving one right here last Saturday. Chris Lee was ordained a deacon—and I have to say like many of you, I’m still riding high from that morning. If you were here, then you saw how during the Litany, he lay down on his stomach at the foot of the altar. I’ll never forget that image—this man, dressed in a white robe recalling his baptism, prostrate before the unthinkable enormity of the Almighty God. Chris truly presented himself in this Temple.
But as great of a day as that was, I don’t think Chris would mind if I told you more about everything that came before it. Chris grew up going to church, but like most people, drifted away as a young adult as he pursued his career in music, then in journalism. He went to church on occasion, and never lost his connection to his spiritual life, but I think it’s fair to say that he wasn’t necessarily presenting himself in the temple with the regularity that he does now. I remember the summer Sunday he first came to All Saints’. I saw a guy sitting in the back row. He stayed long enough for me to have a brief conversation after the Eucharist. Chris and his family live nearby, and he said he had passed this church many times and wanted to come for a service. He signed the guest register, but I didn’t see him again for several months. Then he came back, presenting himself again. And again. He kept coming back, and eventually, he discovered that there had been a path in life for him that had been waiting for him all these years. Presenting himself in this place literally changed the course of his life, and in following that path, Chris has already impacted the lives of many around him—and this is just the beginning. And it all started when he just showed up. There were no choirs of angels that day, no blinding flash of light. He was just—present. And that was all God needed to work wondrous things.
On this Feast of the Presentation, you have been present. You have showed up in the Temple and are presenting yourself to God. By presenting yourself, you encounter yourself the way God sees you—and to confirm this, you will soon be fed with God’s own body and blood. Keep showing up. Keep presenting yourself. When you get the chance, find a way to encourage those around you to present themselves too. It can be a bit scary at first to see all that truth, all that light, all that love. But these are the gifts of God we receive when we present our whole selves to the One who made those selves to begin with. Amen.