AMDG Yesterdays Homily for the feast of the Presentation given in Oxford
A few years ago I read a book called Touching the Void – it was one of those books that you can’t put down and I thing I read it in three sittings in the space of 24 hours…… it told the story of climber called Joe Simpson and his friend who had a climbing accident in a remote mountain in the Andes…….. After breaking his leg, his friend lowered him down, attached by a rope, in rapidly worsening conditions, till eventually he was lowered off a cliff. Finding themselves at a dangerous impasse, he had to make an excruciating choice, they wither both wait and die, or he cuts the rope abandoning his friend to almost certain death, but probably survives himself.
He cut the Rope.
Amazingly his friend was to survive, and crawl back to the base six days later.…………However going back to that night when the rope was cut, he fell and landed on a ledge. When he was sitting on the ledge, alone, forsaken …. and staring death in the face, Joe Simpson decided there was no God. He encountered a void…… He would have experienced what St Ignatius would refer to as an acute desolation. The recently canonised Jesuit Pierre Favre, talks about intense experiences in prayer ‘where God withdraws his presence’. Not permanently ….. but in a way to teach us when we are in danger of taking God for granted. In the time of the Ezekiel, about 600 years before the birth of Christ – he predicted a chilling prophecy ‘ That the Glory of the Lord would leave the Temple’ . This would be devastating news for the people, that temple was where humans and God were reconciled; it was the unique place to encounter God, the one place where sacrifice to God was allowed. Can you imagine how the People must have felt when Ezekiel prophesied that the Glory of the Lord would leave the temple’. The temple would soon be destroyed by the Babylonians, for the Jewish People it was a communal experience of touching the void.
So we can appreciate today’s readings, and particularly the Joy of the Prophets Simeon and Anna in the light of this experience of desolation. Firstly we heard the Prophet Malachi in the first reading, ‘And suddenly there will come to the temple the LORD whom you seek,’ – this prophecy would give great hope….. but none would expect the manner of the Lord’s coming. And so today we hear how the child Jesus is presented before God in the Temple. We are told that Simeon is awaiting the consolation of the people Israel – and as he holds this child in his arms he believes this promise is finally fulfilled . With the eyes of a prophet he recognises the presence of the Lord in this small child, and utters the words of that beautiful prayer ‘The Nunc Dimitiss’ which is said by millions of us each night at Compline. Similarly the prophetess Anna, having spent years of prayer and fasting in the temple in anticipation of this moment, she rejoices in the Lord having returned to the temple.
The return to the temple of the Lord has profound significance for Christians on two levels….. Firstly in the physical, historical presence of the Lord – the presence of God on this planet is transformed. In the incarnation – God is no longer limited to the Temple…. No longer limited to one city, one place. Christ’s Body becomes the Temple – so as he dies on the cross, the curtain in the Temple that veils the Holy of Holies mysteriously is torn into two. Then on the second level – the temple is the place of sacrifice, bulls and goats, doves and incense were offered to be burnt as thanksgiving offerings, guilt offerings, offerings at key moments in life e.g. childbirth. When the Lord is presented in the Temple he will become the sacrifice that fulfils all other offerings – and we continue this sacrifice every day when we pray the beautiful prayer of the mass. However in the sacrifice of the mass, the most beautiful prayer we can make, we relive the greatest sacrifice of all, Christ giving his body and blood for the sins of the world. His sacrifice trumps all else – and this prayer is being offered 24 hours a day, 7 days a week all over the world, in great cathedrals and in simple chapels, in the heart of great cities and on the tops of mountains, in schools and universities and in rainforests.
So as the Lord is presented in the temple – let us renew our devotion to the mass – to Christ’s presence in the Liturgy of the Word and in the Eucharist, and in and amongst each other. We are not alone – we are not abandoned – sitting on an icy edge of life, when we gather together for mass, mysteriously we are in the real presence of God – whose grace works quietly and patiently transforming our hearts and our lives.