Feast of the Presentation of the Lord
We celebrate the great feast of the Presentation of the Lord. A few days after his birth in accordance with Jewish law, He is brought to the Temple for His circumcision and presentation. In this His whole life is offered to God by Mary and Joseph. The feast of the Presentation is a very “churchy” feast. What I mean is that it is a feast that emphasizes church, liturgy, and ritual. Our readings today reflect this churchiness. The first reading speaks of sacrifice in the Temple—a ritual act by which God and humanity are linked. The second reading from the letter to the Hebrews talks about Jesus as a priest. A priest is someone who performs a ritual sacrifice. So Jesus in his own person links together divinity and humanity; He is in His own being and person, a priest. Then we hear our beautiful gospel taken from that familiar passage of St. Luke describing Joseph and Mary bringing Jesus to the Temple in Jerusalem so that He might be consecrated to the Lord. This Temple is for the people Israel the most sacred of places and they engage in this ancient ritual act circumcision, purification, and presentation.
When I was coming of age in the Church, in the late sixties and early seventies, there was a kind of reaction against liturgy. There was more of a stress on the social action of the Church—the Church out in the world working on behalf of the poor and marginalized; working for social justice—and so getting out of the church was the preeminent value. And there was consequently a tendency to underplay or devalue the liturgical, the ritual, and the churchy side of things. In fact, people who loved to spend time in church were kind of poopooed a bit and looked down upon.
What is interesting is that there is a revival going on right now. 20something and 30something Catholics and other young Christians have developed a deep interest in liturgy, ritual, and the practices of the Church such as candles, processions, vestments, stained glass, incense, and ritual action.
Luke makes mention of the prophetess, Anna and Simeon the prophet—two people who spent almost their whole day in the Temple; they loved the Temple, its practices, customs, and rituals. They remind me of those women in my childhood who would stay after Mass to pray the rosary, make the Stations of the Cross, and pray novenas. Many of them were elderly widows praying for their families and friends. They, like Anna and Simeon, gained much comfort from spending this time in church. And so it seems that young people today are being drawn back to these churchy expressions.
What is the importance of all of this? Why are the readings emphasizing it? Why this feast day? Why am I placing such stress on the liturgical life of the Church?—especially in light of the need for social justice and to get out into the world. Love and Justice—liturgy is about love and about justice. First love—when a young man is falling in love with a young woman, he tends to do odd and extravagant things. He might send her flowers for a week. He might write her a love poem—even if he is a lousy poet. He might, if really extravagant, stand outside her window and sing her a love song. People in love often do exaggerated and extravagant things to express their love. As love begins to bubble up within you it goes beyond what ordinary language and gesture can express. It moves into the artistic, the poetic, and extraordinary. The liturgy and ritual are expressions of love—our love for God. It is a love the rises up within us and becomes this extraordinary and flowery speech and gesture known as liturgy and ritual. It takes form in stained glass windows, incense, poetic language and gesture. When I walk in to celebrate the Mass I dress in these colorful, beautiful robes, I enter by way of a procession up the aisle surrounded by singing and I bow and kiss the altar. All of these gestures are gestures of love. And so this is how the Church expresses its love in these extravagant and extraordinary ways.
The second focus of the liturgy is Justice. St. Thomas Aquinas said the liturgy is the act by which we render to God what is due to God. That’s what justice is. I am in a just relationship with you when I render to you all that I owe you. My brothers and sisters, what do we owe God? EVERYTHING! Our being, our life, our breath, every thought we think, every desire we have. We owe God everything. God is our Creator and Redeemer. What if we spend our whole lives and never thank God even once?—never praise God once. Our lives would therefore be unjust! We owe Him everything but pay him nothing in thanks and praise. The liturgy is an act by which we thank and praise God and thereby render to God what is due to Him.
This may seem odd because for so long we haven’t emphasized it. I regularly hear someone say, I go to Mass but I don’t get anything out of it—it’s kind of boring. That’s unfortunate but the Mass is not meant to be entertainment. The Mass is there as an act of Justice by which you render to God what you owe Him. Whether you are in the mood or not; whether you are entertained or not, it is an act by which you are rendering to God justice.
Lest this sound like God is a calculating moneylender who’s waiting for us to pay Him back. When we are just with regard to God; when we have presented ourselves properly in praise and thanks then we become just on the inside. Our lives become properly ordered and are made right. By way of the readings and prayers of Mass, we are reordering our way of thinking and acting according to God’s ways instead of the ways of the world. There is no better way to prepare ourselves to go out into the world to work on behalf of the poor and marginalized, and to work for justice than what we do here in church through prayer and ritual.
At the Temple, Jesus was offered back to the Father by Joseph and Mary. At the Mass, the priest offers Jesus back to the Father at the consecration on behalf of us all. There is no greater act of thanks and praise from God’s people than the Mass with its prayers and rituals. I pray that each and every one of us here present is in a just relationship with God on this feast of the Presentation of the Lord.