A Tale of Two Temples
Tomorrow is the Feast of Presentation - celebrating the moment when Mary and Joseph took the infant Jesus to the temple for consecration, and two elderly mystics recognise him as the one they, and all Israel had been waiting for all their long and faithful lives.
Mary and Joseph have come to fulfil the law. They have come to sacrifice a pair of birds and offer their first-born son to God. They have to visit the temple to do it - the temple is the place where all the important religious obligations and ceremonies are carried out, and was the centre of the Jewish religious system.
But what Simeon and Anna glimpse is that in this baby, something greater than the temple is present. This baby would divide people into two camps...those who wanted to uphold the tradition with its temple and its sacrifices and its complex and burdensome religious rules...and those who saw in Jesus a new temple, built of flesh and spirit. The Presentation of Jesus represents the moment when the foundations of Israel's holy temple begin to shift.
In our first reading we heard the prophet Malachi lamenting, as prophets did, the failure of Israel to observe the law and uphold justice and keep faith with God. He looked forward to a day when the 'Lord would suddenly come to his temple' and purify it. In particular, he saw that the priests - the Levites - needed to be refined, as their way of offering sacrifices on behalf of the people was no longer honouring to God.
Probably, Malachi imagined a moment more like when the adult Jesus overturned the tables of the merchants and moneychangers in the temple. Or maybe he imagined a powerful kingly presence, or a holy fire, or a warrior.
But the fulfilment of this hope, of the Lord suddenly appearing in the temple, happened in a very obscure and non-obvious and not very powerful way. Just a young couple, bringing their offerings, presenting their son, in accordance with the tradition. One little boy among many. But as Simeon held this baby in his arms he knew that he was touching the divine, and he knew that this baby was the long awaited Messiah.
On that day two spiritual humans, people who through long faithfulness had become transparent to God's promptings and the presence of God's Spirit, made the great mental shift that all Jesus' followers then and now have to make and keep making: True religion does not consist of sacrifices or rules or priests, but in God's presence with us. Emmanuel. God in a baby. God in flesh.
In our second reading today, from the book of Hebrews, the writer reminds us that God has entered completely into our reality, shared in our flesh and blood human existence, in order to make us into new humans...temples that God can come and live in. Where Malachi envisaged a purification from the outside, a return to holiness and separateness, the writer to the Hebrews saw that what was needed was the fully embodied, fleshy, transformation of our humanity. Wholeness inside and out. And in particular, taking away the fear of death. It's not just the temple sacrifice system that needed an overhaul, it was death itself, and all those aspects of being human that limit and thwart and distort us.
The great mystery is that Jesus, rather than coming suddenly to his temple in a blaze of light and fury, started at the beginning, as a baby, sharing our helplessness and our physical life, experiencing birth and childhood as well as adulthood, knowing what it is to suffer, to grieve and to die. He transformed human existence by experiencing it, not by scouring it from the outside. And it began with his mum and dad bringing him to the temple to be consecrated as a baby.
From a young age, Jesus named the temple as his Father's house. As an adult he began to heal there, and teach there and dispute with its law teachers. He cursed the greed of those who took financial advantage of the spiritual longings of the people who went to sacrifice there. And finally he enraged the priests and religious leaders by proclaiming himself as the new temple: 'pull down this temple and I will build it again in three days.' And his friends and followers - the community he drew around himself, came to see themselves all as 'priests' - all equally able to approach God, to call God Father, to know God and touch God...bypassing the requirements of law and sacrifice. All of which lead to the spilling of blood - not only Jesus himself, but the martyrs of the early church - killed for declaring that God's Spirit now lived within people.
How much of this could Simeon and Anna see, as they held the infant Jesus and spoke forth the sudden and strange insights that welled up within them? What's remarkable to me is their ability to see even what they did. To hold a baby and to suddenly know that this was the fulfilment of the hopes of their people. And to know, as Simeon warned Mary, that this fulfilment would not be easy and would involve great suffering for the child and all who loved him.
Religion always wants to revert to a temple - whether we understand this literally or metaphorically as a system of regulations and hierarchies. Our Christian faith has gone through many phases and changes over its 2000 year history, and will continue to do so as cultures and civilisations shift and collapse and change. But always there will be this tension between wanting to locate God in certain buildings and rituals and priests, and being able to see and experience God in the ordinariness of the everyday world. I personally am someone who responds to religious tradition and ritual, and to physical sacred spaces, and to the sense of touching the divine that comes through carefully crafted worship with others. But these things are not the essence of the Christian life - they are dimensions of it, and they can nurture it. The essence of the Christian life is living in communion with God's Spirit, and living lives in the world that are characterised by the freedom and wholeness and compassion of Jesus.
That all makes Simeon and Anna two of the earliest followers of Jesus - Christians, in some senses of the word. Their long lives of prayer and devotion had made them so open to God that they were able to see God's redemption in a baby. They responded to the unexpected. They reached out to touch and marvel at the source of their joy, and they spoke what they knew and felt.
Jesus modelled and taught us to be able to do the same. There are ways that we can step more fully into this life of seeing and touching and knowing God in the midst of every day life. And there are ways that we can prevent ourselves from doing so.
We can, through a desire for power, prestige, or security, align ourselves through our attitudes or actions with those who opposed Jesus. When we live defensive, rule-bound lives, or put heavy burdens on others to measure up to certain standards, or when we see the spiritual life as being about victory, or success, or if our inner worlds are full of anger and self-righteousness, or if we are caught up in any form of injustice, then we are gradually building a temple wall between ourselves and God and between ourselves and those people that Jesus reached out towards.
But, when we pray, and regularly dwell in the presence of God, and when we learn to be grounded in our humanness, and when we are alert and awake to our own lack of wholeness and invite God to shape and heal us, and when we practice love toward those who Jesus loved...then we are gradually removing bricks from that wall, and instead becoming temples of flesh and blood and spirit, as we follow in the Way of Jesus.
And, like Simeon and Anna, we can become sensitive to the unexpected, hidden and unlikely ways that God is nurturing the kingdom of heaven among us and in all our earth.