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Stages in Life Malachi. 3:1-5; Luke 2:22-40

Some of you know that I am currently studying on a part-time course for an MA in “Christianity and Inter-Religious Relations.” When you study other religions you actually appreciate your own much more. This term we are looking at Indian religions, including Hinduism. One of the things I’ve learnt about is the Hindu view of growing through life. The various stages are seen in spiritual terms: in youth life is for learning and discovering your duty, especially in religious terms. Then one moves to the “householder” stage in life when it is your duty to marry, make a living and bring up a family. The third stage in life when you have grandchildren and are beginning to turn grey is for giving your wealth to your children. A final stage is marked by the ideal of withdrawing completely from the world and devoting yourself as fully as possible to spiritual matters – even living like a hermit in the forest. Each stage is marked by rites of passage, rituals, which help make the transition.

Let your servant depart
In their own religion, Jesus, Mary, Joseph, Simeon and Anna were also going through changes in life, and their meeting in the Temple as Luke described it, highlights the different stages they were in. Simeon had been promised sight of the salvation for which he and his people Israel were looking. Now that he had seen it he was willing to depart this life in peace.

Mary and Joseph came to the Temple with Jesus for two reasons. It was 40 days after the baby’s birth and Mary came for her purification. Jesus was their firstborn son and so they were obliged by Jewish Law to present him to the Lord and then buy him back. Poor people were let off the normal price of 5 shekels and could present two pigeons or doves instead. These customs may seem very alien to us, but they had their meaning in the Jewish way of life. Redeeming the first born son was a reminder to every Jewish family that their freedom from slavery in Egypt was won on the night of the Passover when they escaped into the desert.

Deeper meanings
The humble family were only doing their duty and were astonished to be met first by Simeon and then by Anna who expressed deep joy about Jesus and prophesied about their baby’s future. St Luke’s account of this event in the life of Christ points to a number of meanings surrounding the Christ’s presentation in the Temple that day. The focus of those meanings is in the prophecy of Malachi, our first reading today. “The Lord will suddenly come to his temple.” It was not just the baby of poor parents that was being brought 40 days after his birth, but the Lord had suddenly come to his temple. Although Jesus was Mary’s first born son, he was also the Only Son of God, wholly dedicated to his heavenly Father’s service. One day he would be sacrificed for the sins of the whole world to win freedom for all from the slavery of sin. Although Mary had come to be purified, the Lord was coming to his temple to purify it and the people of Israel.

Infant, adolescent and adult
If you continue reading the gospel of Luke you will discover that this was not the only time when Jesus came to the Temple. There are three significant arrivals at the Temple, all marking, a different stage in the life of Christ. He comes as an infant, as an adolescent and as an adult. At the end of Luke 2 we are told the story of Jesus at the age of 12. This is the age of transition from childhood to manhood. On this occasion he stayed behind in the Temple and his parents only found him 3 days later. Then at the age of 33 Jesus comes to the Temple as an adult, at the climax of his ministry before his arrest, trial and crucifixion. So we hear in the first coming of Christ to the Temple resonances of his later arrivals.

There is a progression in these three appearances, too. As an infant Jesus is brought as required by the Law. He is proclaimed by Simeon and Anna as having divine favour. Then he came at the age of 12 Jesus as his family kept the Passover in Jerusalem, an ideal for every Jewish family. The adolescent is listening and learning, discussing the Law with the experts in the Temple and astounding them with the depth of his understanding. Not only is he fulfilling the Law but he is making it part of his life. Luke tells us that now he enjoys divine and human favour and continues to grow physically and spiritually.

The third great arrival of Christ in the Temple is not so comfortable. On the day we call Palm Sunday Jesus enters the Temple as judge and teacher. (Luke 19). The Temple has become a den of thieves and it must be cleansed as a house of prayer. The cleansing must then spread into peoples’ understanding, so Jesus stays and teaches in order to establish his work. His judgement and his teaching are in accordance with the Law.

Images of God
We may not always realize it, but we can be influenced more than we realize by our images of God, by the way we can think of God or think of him as a matter of habit. Just as the Lord came to his temple in different stages of his development and with increasing meaning, so God comes to us in our different images of him and in our developing life and faith.

The image of God as infant may not seem so surprising at first. We are used to worshipping the Christ-child at Christmas and seeing pictures or statues of him being held by his mother Mary. But do we also realise that God comes to us as dependent, inarticulate and appealing? God needs feeding, changing, stimulating and cuddling. God demands our attention even in the middle of the night when we would far rather stay snuggled in our warm beds.

I wonder whether we think of God as teenager or adolescent? This is God in the transitional stage between child and adult. God who is all at once enquiring and frustrating; increasingly independent, and yet still needing home; acquiring a deeper identity and purpose but still experimenting with life; puzzling, awkward, full of energy yet always tired.

Perhaps we naturally relate to an adult Jesus. We may think of him as a constant companion with whom we can hold an adult conversation. But we must also realise that adult relationships are full of give and take. There is challenge and judgement too. If the Lord is to come to the temple of our lives, he will come both to cleanse as well as to accompany; to clear out the rubbish as well as to walk along with us.

The thing that struck me about the Hindu view of the stages of life is that they seem very natural. But more than that: each stage is fully recognized and celebrated. A young person is allowed to be young; a person who marries and has children is encouraged to enjoy the good things in life; the older person is encouraged to let go of worldly things and turn their attention more to the next life. Of course, no life is as neat or ideal as those set stages, but the stages are recognized for what they are. Perhaps we would feel more closely involved with God if we recognized and celebrated his presence in the very different but deeply human stages of life which we all share, whatever our faith or religion!

Copyright © Rev Paul Smith



Lord Jesus Christ,
light of the nations and glory of Israel:
make your home among us,
and present us pure and holy
to your heavenly Father,
your God, and our God.