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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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!
© Rev Paul Smith