Handing It All Over to God

Happy Feast of the Presentation, also known as Candlemas. I believe this is meant to be held on its fixed date of February 2 (which would have been last Thursday) rather than the Sunday following. But I don’t see any other clergy (or God forbid, bishops) out there who’d notice.

I break the rules on most years just on this one occasion--not because it’s such an important event in the church calendar (it isn’t), but because it’s such a lovely one. And this year, for me, it’s also profound in a way I hadn’t considered before. But I’ll come to that shortly.

The Presentation comes from Luke’s Gospel, the source of so many special events in our church year that it’s hard to imagine Christianity looking anything like it does without this Gospel. That’s not an exaggeration. And it’s particularly noticeable this time of the year. Luke is the sole source of many of our Christmas stories, like the census at Bethlehem, and the angels’ appearance to the shepherds, and the inn, and the stable, and the manger. In a couple months on March 25 we’ll observe the Annunciation of Gabriel to Mary, also only told in Luke’s account of Jesus’ life. Luke lifts our spirits in the deep of winter, and then sets us gladly on the doorstep of spring.

Between these two, Christmas and the Annunciation, in early February, is Jesus’ Presentation at the Temple. (The name Candlemas is from the tradition of having a midwinter candlelit procession at the beginning of the service.)

The story is in today’s Gospel reading, from Luke.Joseph and Mary take their forty day-old baby to the temple in Jerusalem to be presented to the priest. Really, it was a handing over. You would give your child to the priest, and the priest would give your child back for a ransom. Because they were poor, the ransom for Joseph and Mary was two pigeons. Families who could afford it might offer a lamb. But it was a ritual, the meaning of which was partially, but probably not fully grasped, and that’s a good thing. Rituals provide a safe way of engaging with scary and all too real possibilities: loss, death, transformation, the surrendering of the self. With rituals, we can acknowledge but then keep those things at a slight remove, maybe pretend we have some control over them.

Just look at our baptism service; we had a big baptism last Sunday. How many times does it refer to death, the grave, dying with Christ, surrendering the self? And yet even as we hear all that, we smile, and coo and clap. It was probably like that for Mary and Joseph at the Presentation, showing up for their obligatory and even fun ritual redemption (or ransoming) of their infant. Maybe they dressed up for it, had lunch afterward. I wonder if Jesus cried, or laughed or did something cute. Again, I think of last Sunday and those three four month-old babies, all rosy cheeks and wide curious eyes. The silver baptism shell that I scoop the water out with is my trick, by the way. They see that shining and get distracted and all their trepidation vanishes--until that first splash of water hits their heads. Then I move fast!   

Of course these are different rituals, Christian baptism and the Presentation in the Temple. But they’re connected as rites of passage for our children, and by their acknowledgement of things deeper and more serious than many of us bother or desire to consider in the moment. Because within this lovely ritual at the Temple is a fact of life that most of us can’t begin to face head on: that God can ask for everything back at any time. Because it all belongs to God in the first place. Even our children. 

I don’t suppose it's a mystery what drew me to this story this year. Thankfully our daughter’s prognosis is good, though the path getting there will be a hard one. But those early days when we had no idea, for weeks, whether she’d live or die, it felt (I don’t know how else to put this) Biblical. And I remember thinking, Oh my god, this is what we say behind our neatly constructed rituals--she’s yours, he’s yours. I’m yours. Everything and everyone we hold dear, is not ours at all; it’s God’s.

Our life is a continuous handing over to God--or I should say, God handing over to us; the church helps us practice that. It’s a wonder we don’t give constant thanks for all the years when we can indulge the illusion that things are in our grasp, that the people in our lives are ours.

Everything we have is God’s. What’s amazing is that God gives so much to us to hold as if our own. At least for this day, may we look at the people and things in our lives with wonder. May we be truly grateful. Amen.