“After the Feast”
We’ve just come out of the great celebration of our God and Savior’s nativity. The stockings have been emptied, the packages unwrapped, the tinsel is in various states of decay. Our bellies may still be smarting from the feasts we’ve had in the last month or so: worry not, January 1 starts our national two week diet, where we foreswear anything rich and vow to visit the gym. Many of us have spent the last month reflecting on some aspect of the Incarnation, that event – still ongoing – in which God takes human nature to Himself and is born of a Virgin. And so we celebrate Christmas. However, once all is said and done, we don’t really know what to do with ourselves until Easter. Jesus Christ, the old trope goes, came to do three days’ work. His whole mission, we are told, is to die and rise again.
While there is truth in those sayings, they miss some very important things about the Incarnation that can only be seen if we slow down, read the texts, and pray for their application to our hearts. With that in mind, we turn to our passage in Luke’s account of the Gospel. Here we see what, to our eyes, looks like an odd scene: Jesus being presented in the Temple, His Mother going through the purificatory rites outlined in Leviticus 12. The point that St Luke seems to be making, one he will make again, is that this Jesus has fulfilled the Law of Moses. Not just some parts, but all. The reason that the Law was given, as the Lord will say later on, is that it pointed to Him and prepared the world for His arrival: “These are the words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things must be fulfilled which were written in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms concerning Me” (24:44). Christ fulfills the Law, not so that we can ignore it and neglect it, but to bring about the purposes for which is was given – the point, or the end, of the Law, as St Paul calls Christ in the Epistle to the Romans: “For Christ is the end of the Law for righteousness to everyone who believes” (10:4).
In fulfilling the Torah of Moses, our Lord also supercedes it: it is the shadow, He is the reality. There is, then, a bit of irony in the passage: the most pure Lord, holiness Himself, who cannot dwell in uncleanness, is brought to the Temple by His Mother, Mary, in whom He dwelled, for her purification. The sacrifices here, then, show themselves to be types that are passing away: the blood of pigeons and doves is no longer necessary as the presence of God Himself in her womb, plus the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit at the conception, renders her clean. By bringing the Lord and the sacrifices to the Temple, the old system has been brought to completion and, as the author to the Hebrews tells us, “In that He says, ‘A new covenant,’ He has made the first obsolete. Now what is obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away” (8:13).
This might, though, lead us astray into thinking that, really, for all practical intents and purposes, the Law can be neglected. To do so, though, would mean that we miss what the Law was actually about. Why did God spend so much time in Exodus giving the plans for the Tabernacle and then repeat them, almost word for word, when it was constructed? Why so much space detailing the sacrifices and holy days and procedures for priests and laity in Leviticus and Deuteronomy? If He was just going to fulfill it and cast it aside, why have it in our Bibles? Take a second and consider the word “fulfill.” What does it mean? If you have a glass of water, and you “fulfill” it, you do two actions: you bring it to its intended point (to hold liquid) and to its fullness – you fill it full. For Christ to fulfill the Law and the Prophets does not mean He abolishes them, according to His own teaching in Matthew’s account (5:17); no, it means He invests them with the fullness of their purpose and brings them to completion. In the case of the Temple, and the sacrifices, and cultic regulations, consider the great OT promise: “I will be their God, and they shall be My people, and I will dwell among them” (Ex. 29:45; Ez. 37:26, 27). God, St John tells us, has come to dwell among us in Jesus Christ (Jn. 1:14); St Paul tells us that “for in [Christ] dwells all the fullness of the Deity in bodily form” (Col. 2:9). We can extend this, though: from whence did Christ receive this Temple that is His Body? From Mary. She has become a Temple of the Lord, in which He dwelt. And who is Christ’s Body? The Church. All the OT provisions, and teaching, and regulations about Temple, sacrifice, cultus, priesthood speak of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, and because they speak of Him, they speak of us who are joined to Him by faith and baptism. When you read the OT, certainly you are reading about the history of Israel, but more urgently you are reading about the life in Christ. You are reading about God’s purposes for the world, to make His whole human creation a clean and spotless dwelling place. A place free of sin and corruption and death; a place of holiness and righteousness; a place where His glory might shine out to all the world, as St Paul says, “Do all things without complaining and arguing, that you might become blameless and harmless, children of God without fault in the midst of a crooked generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world” (Philip. 2:15).
Christ’s mission, which of course will culminate in His death and resurrection, is so much more than we’ve allowed ourselves to imagine: He came to construct the Temple of God, we the stones and He the substance. How, though, shall we become the holy stones of God’s cosmic Temple, the pure Body of Christ? How can we, different in ages and vocations, temperaments and abilities, join together with one heart and one mind to be built upon the one foundation of “the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone” (Eph. 2:20)? Let us turn to the end of our Gospel reading for today. It is another one of those curious moments that make us scratch our heads: “And the Child grew and become strong in spirit, filled with wisdom; and the grace of God was upon Him” (2:40). Why, if Jesus is “the fullness of the Deity in bodily form,” does He need the grace of God to be upon Him? How can He become strong in spirit? Whatever the Lord does, let us remember, He does for the sake of those He is remaking in His Image. It is not because His divine nature is limited by the flesh that He grows and so on, but for our sake. He becomes what we are – including going through all our stages of life – so that we might become what He is, as St Irenaeus of Lyons tells us. All our earthly existence is taken up by our Savior so that we might, in the midst of our earthly life, take up His heavenly existence. If you are a child, do not fret that you cannot be holy, cannot know God, until you are an adult. No, Christ was an infant in perfect communion with His Father, Christ was a child who knew His God intimately, Christ was a teenager able to be filled with wisdom, an adult who did His Father’s will. He has done this for us, but more He has taken the great limitations of our current existence, sin and death, and has defeated them on the Cross. What is stopping us from becoming like Him? You have, as the Epistle reading for today declared, “received adoption as children” and so “God has sent the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’” (Gal. 4:5-6). You are a son of God because He is the Son of God: you have died to your sins and to death itself because He has died for our sins and trampled down death by His death. Now, instead of cowering at the dread judgment of God which will come upon all those who “suppress the Truth in unrighteousness” (Rom. 1:18) leading to their share in the “everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matt. 25:41), you will instead cry out “Abba! Father!” and, in the words of today’s Psalm, “Praise the Lord!”
We have, like Simeon, seen the Lord’s salvation. We must go a step further, though; as members of His Body, we have a part, a share, in that salvation. The world is saved by Christ through us. Shall we not then say, in the words of the Prophet Isaiah, “For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest, until her vindication shines out like the dawn, and her salvation like a burning torch” (62:1)? The book of Revelation speaks of this. The seer, John, is shown a vision by one of the attendant angels who says, “Come, I will show you the Bride, the Lamb’s wife.” “And he carried me away in the Spirit to a great and high mountain, and showed me the great city, the holy Jerusalem, descending out of heaven from God, having the glory of God.” Note, here, that St John expands our understanding of the OT once again: not only is the Church the fulfillment of the Temple, but she is also the fulfillment of Jerusalem. When we read that Zion is “the apple of [God’s] eye” in Zechariah 2:8, it is speaking of us. Read Psalm 48 and “Walk about Zion, and go all around her. Count her towers; mark well her bulwarks; consider her palaces; that you may tell it to the generation following. For this is God, our God, forever and ever.” More than this, though, her destiny, to be filled with glory of God so that she “shines out like the dawn,” leads to “the nations of those who are saved shall walk in its light, and the kings of the earth bring their glory and honor into it. Its gates shall not be shut at all by day (there shall be no night there). And they shall bring the glory and the honor of the nations into it. But there shall by no means enter it anything that defiles, or causes an abomination or a lie, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s Book of Life” (Rev. 22:9-10, 24-27).
The last verse given returns us to the question posed at the beginning: now that the Feast of Christ’s Nativity is over, what shall we do? We shall seek to be indwelt by Christ, to shine out His glory, and to be purified from all unrighteousness, as St Paul admonishes us, “Therefore, having these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God” (2 Cor. 7:1). Christ’s coming among us, His birth and His growing through all the stages of human life, is a great gift from our God and Savior, but it is a high calling as well. All our lives are to have the aroma of Christ, the scent of His sacrifice on the Cross, so that we, becoming conformed unto His death, might share in His resurrection life for the life of the whole world. Amen.