The Presentation

There are only a small handful of Feasts that take precedence over a regular Sunday celebration.  A couple of them – Easter, Pentecost, and Trinity Sunday – regularly fall on a Sunday.  One, Ascension Day, can never be a Sunday as forty days after Easter Day will always add up to Thursday.  All Saints’ Day can be celebrated twice, but it is only Christmas, Epiphany, Holy Name (January 1), the Presentation (February 2), and the Transfiguration (August 6), will bump a regularly scheduled Sunday.  This week, we have a rare double Feast as the secular festival of Super Bowl LIV happens to fall on the Sunday of the Presentation of our Lord Jesus Christ in the Temple – a name that just rolls off the tongue.

The Feast of the Presentation, while not often celebrated on the Lord’s Day is still a pretty popular story in the minds of many Episcopalians.  Anyone who grew up going to an Episcopal Church Camp could probably still recite the Song of Simeon from Compline by heart.  Simeon’s song sums up not only the hope of an old man who longed desperately for the redemption of Israel, but it strikes deep chords within all of us who are looking forward to and working toward the Kingdom of Heaven.  It is through the light to the Gentiles and the glory of God’s people that we as Christians have come to know not just our salvation, but the redemption of the world.

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What gets less play, because her words were not recorded, is the prophet Anna who, Luke tells us was also waiting for the restoration of her beloved Jerusalem.  Upon seeing the babe, she too couldn’t help but express joy, praise God, and tell anyone who would listen what the birth of this particular child would mean for the whole world.

While the focus in the name of this Feast is the ritual act of presenting Jesus at the Temple for purification, what really stands out to me this morning is the faithfulness of Simeon and Anna, and their willingness to share the hope that was within them.  Too often in our worship, Episcopalians focus on the ritual acts, forgetting that the Eucharist is meant to nourish us spiritually that we might go forth to share the love of God and the Good News of salvation in Christ with everyone we meet.

Doing Your Homework

“All Sundays of the year are feasts of our Lord Jesus Christ.  In addition to the dated days listed above, only the following feasts, appointed on fixed days, take precedence of a Sunday:

  • The Holy Name [Jan 1]
  • The Presentation [Feb 2]
  • The Transfiguration [Aug 6]”
    (BCP, pg. 16)

It is with those words that Episcopal Priests around the globe (we are an international church, you’ll recall, just look at the location of the House of Bishop’s meetings), went on a two week scramble.  More than one of my clerical Facebook friends commented last week that after nearing the end of an Epiphany 4A sermon on the Beatitudes, they realized that the Major Feast of The Presentation was actually their assigned lectionary texts for Sunday.  While they ended up with the difficult task of writing two sermons in a week, the rest of us will have our trouble this week as we jump back into the season of Epiphany and find ourselves already in the middle of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.

We get to deal with “You are the salt of the earth…” without having first heard Jesus say, “Blessed are the poor in Spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” or “Blessed are those who mourn” or even “Blessed are the meek.”  It isn’t a huge deal to miss out on the beatitudes, but to me, there is already a problem in having to deal with the Sermon on the Mount in sound bytes.  The whole reinterpretation of the Law of Moses is important, and to cut it up into bite sized morsels takes a big chunk of its shock value away.  Add to that missing the first 12 verses, and, at least in my opinion, we have a problem.

So, my advice this week, at least for preachers in The Episcopal Church, is to do your homework.  See the bigger picture.  Maybe read Matthew 5:1-20 this Sunday.  In someway, help your congregation become a member of the crowd sitting on the mountainside.  Help them enter the scene because the quirkyness of the church calendar has plopped them down midstream.

 

Strength, Wisdom, and Favor

My wife’s maternal grandmother is a saint.  She might even qualify to be a Saint according the rules of Roman Catholic Sainthood, except she isn’t Roman Catholic.  She’s a Pentecostal, who loves the Lord with all her heart and seeks to do his will in every way.  I always assume I’m on the right path when she “likes” a post on this blog over on Facebook.  We don’t get to see her very often these days, but I’m glad she gets to keep up with her great-grand-daughters through the marvels of social media.  One of my favorite memories of the short time in which we lived close enough to see her often comes from when we would say goodbye.  She’s always good for a hug, and without fail, she’d stand up on her tip-toes to whisper in my ear, “May you grow in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and with people.”  Which is, very obviously, a paraphrase of Luke’s concluding comments about the infant Jesus following his Presentation and his Mother, Mary’s Purification.

“The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.” (Luke 2:40)

It is prayer that I hope to live into.  I’m not doing very well in the strength department, mostly because my schedule only allows time for running as exercise and I HATE RUNNING!!!  Still, I’m signed up for another Color Run in April, and I’m on the lookout for a treadmill to keep me from having to actually go outside, so I’m working on it.  The wisdom piece I take very seriously,  and I pray that will continue to do so throughout my years in professional ministry.  While I strongly believe that every Christian is a theologian, I think it is the duty and responsibility of the clergy to act as “Theologians-in-Residence” in their congregations.  To assume that everything I need to know I learned in Seminary is a foolish way to live.  Finally, the favor bit.  Realistically, the prayer can’t that I will “grow in favor with the Lord” because that’s just impossible, instead, I think it means that I will grow in my understanding of God’s grace (my translation of favor) in my life.  The assumption sometimes is that the deeper one walks into their spiritual life, the less sinful they become.  That’s a nice thought, but the reality seems to be the deeper one’s relationship is with God, the more aware they become of their brokenness and need for a savior.  I’m doubtful that I’ll become less sinful over the years, though if I do, that’ll be because of God’s grace and not my own actions, but I do pray that I’ll continue to grow in my relationship with God from this day forth and for ever more.

Chapter 2, verse 40 seems like almost a throwaway verse, a transition from baby Jesus into his adolescence, but thanks to Grandma S’s prayer, it has come alive for me this morning.  And so, I’ll pray it for you, dear reader, as well.

May you grow in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and with people.  Amen.

propitiation, reconciliation, expiation, atonement

In the grand scheme of things, it is probably without too much hyperbole to say that theology would be just as well off as an academic discipline if nothing had ever been written after Paul mailed his Letter to the Hebrews.  It is his magnum opus, the best work of one of the brightest minds and profoundest practitioners of the life of faith in the first generation after Jesus.  Just reading the five verses from chapter two appointed for The Feast of the Presentation would be enough to keep a seminary class embroiled in debate for half a semester.  Heck, you could spend weeks dealing with one word:

atonementWhich is defined by Barclay-Newman as a verb meaning “to bring about forgiveness for, take away, deal mercifully with; pass. be merciful, have mercy” and translated variously as:

  • Propitiation (Young’s Literal Translation) – to make (someone) pleased or less angry by giving or saying something desired
  • Reconciliation (King James Version) – the act of causing two people or groups to become friendly again after an argument or disagreement
  • Expiation (Revised Standard Version) – to do something as a way to show that you are sorry about doing something bad
  • Atonement (New Revised Standard Version & New International Version) -1. obsolete :  reconciliation, 2. the reconciliation of God and humankind through the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ, 3. reparation for an offense or injury (all four definitions are thanks to http://www.m-w.com)

There is perhaps no other topic in the history of theology about which more ink and blood have been spilled than the questions surrounding how it is that Jesus Christ reconciles us to God.  There is a time and a place for deep conversation on the salvific work of Christ, but it isn’t this blog and it certainly isn’t the pulpit on Sunday morning.  What I will say, however, is that this passage from Hebrews invites us to think about how the language we use effects our theological understandings.  Nobody uses the words “propitiation” or “expiation” any more, but they shape the current conversation and we should know them.  Atonement, when read in the NIV probably carries a slightly different meaning than when read in the NRSV because Evangelicals tend to use the NIV and focus on Anselm’s theory of Penal Substitutionary Atonement while [former] Mainliners using the NRSV are more likely to be looking for new metaphors for God’s saving work (for more on this topic, see Tony Jones’ mini-e-book A Better Atonement).

The wise preacher who chooses to preach from Hebrews will think carefully about how her words impact the hearer and the baggage associated with the various theories of atonement, reconciliation, expiation, and propitiation.  For the record, I’m all for the obsolete understanding of Atonement, which is to say, I’m big on God’s reconciling work through Christ over and above Jesus’ death appeasing a wrathful God.

Nunc dimittis

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, but today it must be said that one of the great losses that occurred following the restoration of The Holy Eucharist as the central act of Sunday worship in The Episcopal Church is the singing of the canticles.  No more do congregations have the chance to be imbued with these songs of Scripture, sung again and again over the years until they become a part of who we are.  Occasionally, we are reminded of this fact, when either the Lectionary assigns a Canticle instead of a Psalm for the “Response” or when one of the lessons includes a Canticle like the First Song of Isaiah, the Magnificat, or, as is the case on Sunday’s Feast of the Presentation, the Song of Simeon, Nunc Dimittis.  In addition, it is a real shame that we lose the great translations of those songs as well.  Do a quick comparison of the NSRV translation of the Song of Simeon with the Prayer Book version, and you’ll see what I mean.

While there certainly is depth and beauty in the NRSV’s rendering:

“Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
according to your word;
for my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel.”

It seems to pale in comparison with the Prayer Book’s translation:

Lord, you now have set your servant free*
to go in peace as you have promised;
For these eyes of mine have seen the Savior,*
whom you have prepared for all the world to see:
A Light to enlighten the nations,*
and the glory of your people Israel.

The simplicity of the BCP version is stunning, in my opinion, and helps shine a light of the theme of Simeon’s song: God’s faithfulness to his promise of a savior who will cast a wide net to redeem the whole creation.  If you find yourself with 10 minutes notice that you are going to preach this Sunday, go to the Nunc Dimittis, you won’t be let down.