Presentation of our Lord
The Sunday after the Epiphany (Jan 6) is always Baptism of our Lord. However, with two Sundays back in Advent focusing on John and his baptism at the river, I decided to take a different text with resonant themes.
Presentation of our Lord is a "lesser festival" appointed for February 2 and which recalls when Mary and Joseph brought the infant Jesus to the Temple. Because it is a fixed-date lesser festival, we pretty much never read this story in worship. This Sunday we will be using the Gospel from Presentation of our Lord. The assigned Old Testament text for Presentation of our Lord is Malachi 3:1-4. It has enough "prepare the way" and "refiner's fire" language that I thought it sounded like John the Baptist redux. Thus, I chose to look at the Jewish origins of why Joseph and Mary brought Jesus to the Temple.
In the church's tradition, much has been made of Simeon's song about "a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel." Simeon's song is used in some evening liturgies, and also as a post-communion canticle in some of our Sunday liturgies.
But with the choice of the readings from Exodus and Leviticus, our attention turns from "light" and "preparing the way," to the sacrifices that the law calls for and which Mary and Joseph make at the Temple (Luke 2:24). What's up with sacrifices? I'd caution us from looking at sacrifices as barbaric or nonsensical. Saying so immediately dismisses the practice and teaching of large swathes of the Old Testament, and can veer us into an unintentional antisemitism. When I have questions about faithful practice in the Old Testament I first go to a Jewish source. One of my favorite is the My Jewish Learning website. They have a great article about sacrifices that helps us understand and honor, rather than dismiss, this ancient Jewish practice.
In describing the sacrifice that Mary and Joseph make, Luke cites the "pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons" (Leviticus 12:8). The sacrifice of two birds was the sacrifice made by someone who could not afford to sacrifice a sheep (see that same verse). Clearly Joseph and Mary were poor, or of limited means, to some degree. Yet the law allowed for their sacrifice, too. And with that "poor man's" sacrifice they dedicated the Son of God to the service of God.
As someone living in a choose-your-own-adventure world I deeply appreciate the humility Mary and Joseph exhibit through adhering to the traditions of faith handed down to them. In Luke's telling of the story we've already had an angel appearing to Mary, another to the shepherds, and heavenly hosts filling the sky. Elizabeth has a miraculous pregnancy and birth, as does Mary. If anyone would have the license to play fast and loose with the requirements of the law it would be Mary and Joseph, the ones blessed with extraordinary and direct access to the Divine. Yet even they, Mary Mother of God and Saint Joseph Jesus' guardian, submit to the law and to the traditions.
I'm not sure that we should lift up as exemplary the one-time immigrant family practice of raising multiple children with the express intent that one child would enter church vocations, another a specific trade, another police or fire service. We rightly value the agency and self-exploration of children, youth, and young adults. But when we bring children to church, how might we dedicate them and commit them to the service of God and of neighbor? How might we dedicate and commit ourselves to the service of God and of neighbor?
This brings us full circle back to Baptism of our Lord, the day that most Lutheran churches will commemorate this Sunday. I often use this day in the church year to recall the gift and promise of baptism.
When we bring our children to church to receive the Sacrament of Holy Baptism, we make pledges to:
live with them among God's faithful people,
bring them to the word of God and the holy supper,
teach them the Lord's Prayer, the Creed, and the Ten Commandments,
place in their hands the holy scriptures,
and nurture them in faith and prayer,
so that your children may learn to trust God,
proclaim Christ through word and deed,
care for others and the world God made,
and work for justice and peace.
When we affirm our own baptism or receive the gift of baptism as an adult, we pledge to:
live among God’s faithful people,
to hear the word of God and share in the Lord’s supper,
to proclaim the good news of God in Christ through word and deed,
to serve all people, following the example of Jesus,
and to strive for justice and peace in all the earth.
Yet for all that *we* pledge in baptism, our life in Christ is first an action of the Spirit moving through the church to bring us into new life. This prayer reminds us of God's work in us in Holy Baptism. Our dry bones are given life. Our tears are wiped away. Sin and death are robbed of their ultimate power.
At this font, holy God, we pray: Praise to you for the water of baptism and for your Word that saves us in this water. Breathe your Spirit into all who are gathered here and into all creation. Illumine our days. Enliven our bones. Dry our tears. Wash away the sin within us, and drown the evil around us.
Such gifts and promises are worthy of our grateful-response sacrifice of time, talents, treasure, and praise.