Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Dangerous Words


February 2 is 40 days after Christmas. I don't specifically remember counting them to be sure, but I trust that the Feast of the Presentation of Jesus in the temple, also known as the Purification of the Virgin, is celebrated exactly 40 days after Jesus' birth. You'd think this is one of those days that we need to remember on the specific day that it is appointed, but that's Thursday, and we don't have a service on Thursday, so, because the rubrics in the Prayer Book allow us to transfer that feast to an open day this week, we're observing it today--a few days early. We can pretend that Mary and Joseph made better time on their trip to Jerusalem than they expected.

The custom of coming to the temple to make an offering after the birth of a child was an ancient Israelite practice. Luke provides an interpretative introduction to this story: "When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, the parents of Jesus brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, 'Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord'), and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, 'a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.'" Put more explicitly, women were thought to be ritually unclean after giving birth. Just as they were ritually unclean every month during their period, so, too, were they unclean after a child was born--and all the other messy stuff that goes along with it. If it was a male child, the mother was unclean for 40 days. If she gave birth to a daughter, however, it was 80 days. During that time, no one other than immediate family would have been allowed to visit and interact with her. First, she must come to the temple and offer this sacrifice.

If you take a closer, harder look at the text, you can probably tell that its origins are even deeper and darker in Israel's past. If "every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord," it is interesting that the sacrifice appointed for that birth is "a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons." (Actually, the requirement in Leviticus 12 is for a lamb to be offered, but, if the parents couldn't afford it, they could substitute the pigeons instead. Mary and Joseph, it seems, were poor.) But was that sacrifice always two small birds? One thing that distinguished Israel from its neighbors was the prohibition on child sacrifice. Many other communities practiced the ritual sacrifice of children in order to appease their gods. Might this offering of two young doves be a substitute for the offering of the firstborn that had at one time been suggested or perhaps even practiced among the Israelites before the Law was codified--before the people understood that killing a child is a barbarous act?

Given all of that sordid background--a patriarchal understanding of a woman's uncleanness and the repulsive practice of slaughtering one's child--does it surprise us that this liturgy is still a part of our tradition? I don't just mean the Christian tradition. I also mean the Anglican tradition. Take a look in the Prayer Book at page 439. That's where the service for the Thanksgiving for the Birth or Adoption of a Child is found. I've never been a part of it. It may be the least-often used service in the Prayer Book. But I've known women who used it. In England, where I spent a summer working in a traditionalist, Anglo-Catholic parish, women would ask the vicar to come to their house and lead the service for the "Churching of Women" as it is called in the English Prayer Book because they knew that their distant relatives and friends would not be allowed to visit them and see the baby until they had "gotten things right with the vicar." It still exists--this sense of a birth setting things wrong between a woman and God.

How dangerous, then, are the words that Simeon utters when he beholds this 40-day-old child? "My eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel." In this birth, Simeon saw not a source of dis-ease between Mary and God. He saw that this birth had the power to set everything and everyone right with God. Notice the order of his prophecy: "A light to enlighten the Gentiles and the glory of your people Israel." In his prophetic sight, Simeon sees that Jesus will be the light of salvation to all nations--the fulfillment of God's promise to Abraham that he and his descendants would bring all nations to know the Lord. His sacrifice would be efficacious for all people and put an end to the need for continual appeasement--not because in him the wrath of God is satisfied but because in him the world discovers that a God of love does not demand the spilling of blood for that love to be real.

Likewise, Anna the prophet who lived in the temple night and day saw the child and joined Simeon's proclamation, telling all who would listen that this child would be the redemption of Jerusalem. How dangerous it must have felt for these two sages to identify in a child the unraveling of the brokenness between God and humanity. What a reversal of images!

God's love is dangerous. Jesus Christ threatens to undo millennia of tradition. For all of human history, we have believed that God demands our sacrifice. That's just how it works. People sin, and people appease God's wrath through the offerings of their money, cattle, prayers, incense, promises, and the like. That's the way it's always been. We're comfortable with that. Like Sonny in the Godfather who smashes the reporter's camera on the pavement and then tosses a few twenty-dollar bills on the ground to cover the cost of the damages, we smash up life and then try to cover the cost. But Jesus gets in the way of that. That's dangerous. That's threatening. That's the gospel. May we come to know the limitless power of God's saving love--a love that has the power to undo all of human history and replace our calculus of cause-and-effect with a new law of love.

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