Epiphany 4 : Year C

‘On the holy mountain stands the city he has founded,’ so sings the Psalmist (Ps.87v1), ‘the Lord loves the gates of Zion more than all the dwellings of Jacob’. It was through those gates that Mary and Joseph brought up to Jerusalem , to the Temple , the one month old Jesus, in order to present him to the Lord, in accordance with the requirements of the Law. ‘ The y brought him up to Jerusalem ’ - Jerusalem ‘the joy of the whole earth….perfect in its beauty’ (Ps.48v2), the city whose name speaks of peace.

For this was the city chosen by God for the fulfilment of his purpose to bring together and make one, his people, his chosen, his first love, to make of them one nation. The city’s very name is eloquent of a vision of peace and unity – the city of peace, the city of ‘shalom’, God’s ‘shalom’, Jerusalem .

As the prophets came to see, the city was not just for the descendants of Jacob but was for all the peoples of the whole earth. ‘Glorious things are spoken of you, O city of our God’, declares the Psalmist, ‘ Egypt and Babylon ’ – places of Israel ’s humiliation in slavery and exile – ‘Philistia, Tyre and Ethiopia ’, traditionally Israel ’s enemies -‘in Zion were they born…'. Everyone was born there. The Lord will record as he enrolls the peoples ‘ The se also were born there’’.

Here is an enrolment of the whole world, of greater significance than that decreed by any Roman Caesar. Jerusalem was to be the city for all humankind, the city in which all peoples shall have the rights and privileges of citizenship, the city whose gates will be open perpetually to receive and welcome the Gentiles – there is a place for them, for they too belong here. 

So it is that this new born Child, who has been brought to Jerusalem and to the Temple to be presented to the God of Israel, is hailed by Simeon both as ‘the light of revelation to the Gentiles’ as well as ‘for glory to Israel’.  The voice of prophecy is heard once more in the Temple ‘the house of prayer for all nations’. The coming of this Child to this place is a moment of immense significance.                                                      

At the beginning, all those centuries earlier, long before there was a Temple, long before there was a Jerusalem, while they were still struggling on their weary march through the wilderness, the people of Israel had to learn what might be implied by having the tabernacling Presence of God among them – first in the Tent of Meeting set up by Moses, then later in the Temple built by King Solomon in Jerusalem. The fiery cloud of the Divine Glory which had descended on the Tent of Meeting in the Wilderness now took up residence in Solomon’s Temple at its consecration.                                                  

That was how it was until Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians in 586 BC; the Temple was destroyed, the Ark of the Covenant disappeared never to be recovered, and the Glory of the Divine Presence departed.                                         

In due course the People were allowed to return from exile, Jerusalem was rebuilt and, with it, the Temple . This second Temple at its completion was duly consecrated but there is no mention of the Divine Presence returning to dwell once more among his People. Until, that is, in that unattended moment, in the arms of his Mother, the new Ark of the Covenant, this month old baby is brought into the Temple and is hailed by Simeon as light for the Gentiles, glory for Israel and ‘the salvation prepared for all peoples’. This is how the Tabernacling Presence returns to dwell among us. Yet his coming to be with us is a severe mercy and, like Israel of old, we too have to learn what having this Presence among us requires of us. Simeon speaks of the Child as ‘destined for the falling and rising again of many in Israel and to be a sign that will be spoken against’. Of Mary he says that ‘a sword will pierce your own soul also’.                                                        

The Angels had sung of ‘peace on earth’ at this Child’s birth but his coming among us to be with us as one of us, brings judgement. God’s gifts are not easy or comfortable and not at all what we might expect. So it is that there will be many times in the years ahead when the sword will turn in Mary’s heart as she learns to let go of her Child, learns to realise that she does not understand what is going on and must learn to trust. ‘Did you not know that I must be about my Father’s business?’ It is in this same place twelve years later that she will be faced with that question. Later still the sword will turn in her heart when he leaves her to embark on the Father’s business and she hears of the hostility and hatred directed against him and when he has to tell her that there are others who are now his family. Then the unimaginable horror, the final desolation of his dying and the manner of it. Throughout her life she has had to learn that hardest and most difficult of all truths, that the love is proved in the letting go. The Incarnation challenges us by what it requires of us by way of response.

It is worth noting how different from each other the two great Octaves in the Church’s year are. At Easter nothing, absolutely nothing, is allowed to stand in the way of those eight days – lesser feasts simply disappear as a candle flame disappears in the dazzle of the sun’s rays and greater feasts are transferred to another date. The glory of the Risen Lord is to be celebrated without compromise or mitigation but the Christmas Octave, the celebration of the Incarnation, is different. Other observances occur during these eight days, three of them blood-boltered, Stephen, the Innocents, Thomas of Canterbury . So we are reminded that when God comes into our world, into our lives, the letting go both for him and for us is costly and radical.

The consolation of Israel and the Redemption of Jerusalem is what we look for and long for. The mystery of the Incarnation shows us that what is required of us is a lifetime of learning to cling to nothing, to prefer nothing and to let go, a lifetime’s death in love, a condition of utter simplicity which costs us not less than everything.

Eric Simmons CR