Opening the Gates of Glory – Sermon on The Feast of Candlemas 2014

Presentation of Christ in the Temple
Opening the Gates of Glory

(Malachi.3:1-5, Luke 2:22-40, Psalm 24)


“The Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to the temple.
The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight – indeed he is coming”
(Malachi 3.1)

So spake the prophet Malachi in our first reading this morning – from round 400 years before Christ.

And now with Luke here we are in Jerusalem, in the temple – and in fulfillment of the prophet Malachi but also in the best Jewish tradition, 40 days after giving birth and after performing the appropriate sacrifice Mary is to be purified according to the law of Moses and allowed to re-join the worshiping community; Jesus is to be presented to the people.

You know how much I like these Jewish laws – this one is written in Leviticus 12 – my apologies for any one who is squeamish but we are talking about blood sacrifice here

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the people of Israel, saying:

If a woman conceives and bears a male child, she shall be ceremonially unclean for seven days…  On the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised. Her time of blood purification shall be thirty-three days; she shall not touch any holy thing, or come into the sanctuary, until the days of her purification are completed.  … 

When the days of her purification are completed, whether for a son or for a daughter, she shall bring to the priest at the entrance of the tent of meeting a lamb in its first year for a burnt-offering, and a pigeon or a turtle-dove for a sin-offering. He shall offer it before the Lord, and make atonement on her behalf; then she shall be clean from her flow of blood.  This is the law for her who bears a child, male or female. If she cannot afford a sheep, she shall take two turtle-doves or two pigeons, one for a burnt-offering and the other for a sin-offering; and the priest shall make atonement on her behalf, and she shall be clean.

 You see how the law and the priests’ role in sacrifice is set up as a barrier between the people and God.

So Mary has to be purified by the sacrifice of two animals – the fact that Luke says a pair of doves or pigeons suggests Mary and Joseph could not afford the sheep.  Meanwhile Jesus, as the firstborn son, has to be presented to the Lord in accordance with the Mosaic law established after the deliverance from Egypt the first born of all humans and animals belongs to God  – “Consecrate to me the firstborn” (Exodus 13.1 )

So first he was circumcised – according to the Jewish law

Then presented in the temple – according to the Jewish law

Jesus is shown to be living in compliance with the law of Moses and so the temple is central to this story

  • Later in Chapter 3 Jesus will be back in the temple for Passover when he loses his parents
  • When he returns to Jerusalem as an adult the first thing he does is to return to the temple and cleanse it of the money lenders – this purification of something which was itself meant to purify – was perhaps somewhat ironic (Luke 19)
  • It is in the temple where Jesus is teaching every day that the chief priests and the teachers of the law challenge his authority (Luke 19-20)
  • This is the same Temple which Christ will demolish: –

When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, Jesus said, ‘As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.’ (Luke 21)

The temple is indeed to be torn down – both physically and metaphorically.

Physically, because in 70AD the Romans got so fed up with the rebellious Jews that they razed the temple and the rest of Jerusalem to the ground and scattered its inhabitants throughout Mediterranean.

Metaphorically, because for Luke the message of Jesus is that our relationship with God is no longer intermediated by priests and the sacrifice of animals according to the law.  Instead we meet God in the risen Christ.  When Jesus dies Luke tells us “the curtain of the temple was torn in two.” (Luke 23:45)

Now that the curtain of the temple is torn in two we can engage with God directly – meeting Him in the simplest of things in our everyday lives and relationships – not least and in particular in the breaking of bread and the sharing of wine.

3 weeks ago when we looked at the Baptism of Christ – Linda asked how many people could remember their baptism

I feel that I can remember mine – because I have seen the pictures – actually I remember my brother’s

How many remember their confirmation?

That I do remember.  I was confirmed by a retired Bishop from Rhodesia who was used to preaching to people who had travelled for several days to hear him.  After his hour long sermon I felt I had been truly confirmed in the faith.

However, for the early church Baptism was the only necessary and sufficient rite of initiation into the church

We heard last week that St. Paul baptised so many people he could not remember which Corinthians he had baptised

“I did baptise the household of Stephanas – beyond that I do not know whether I baptised anyone else” (1 Corinthians 1.16)

Baptism replaced circumcision as the initiation rite of the Christian church – thank goodness!

It was only with the rise of a church hierarchy and the need to find a different role for bishops as distinct from priests that access to the Eucharist, to Holy Communion required a specific additional Initiation – and so confirmation was added as a barrier between baptised Christians and the ritual that Christ requested us to perform in remembrance of him.

According to the Book of Common Prayer to be confirmed a candidate had to know

  • The Lord’s prayer
  •  The creed
  •  The catechism

And to have reached the “years of discretion” – which was the age when a boy could get married, in the 17th century that was 14.

When are the “years of discretion” now?  When children can not drive a car till 17, buy a drink till 18 and normally wait till after university to get a job let alone get married?

Why would we expect children to make a thoughtful and informed commitment to follow Jesus at 13 or 14 when we would not expect them to make any other major life choices until they are at least 18.

As a result of these issues, the church brought in a measure in 2006 such that, with the permission of the Diocesan bishop,  Children can be admitted to the Eucharist before confirmation.

On Monday our PCC decided that this is something which we should pursue as a Parish

So what would this mean?   There are still some barriers, of course …

  • Child must be baptized
  • Parents must give their permission
  • Some formal preparation is required in deportment at the altar and education in understanding of the Eucharist
  • A service of presentation (as we have just seen with Jesus – but where the children commit to learn more about God and pursue a route which may lead to confirmation )

This leaves the question of what is left for confirmation – I think we would expect that a person be confirmed before taking a ministerial or administrative position of responsibility in the parish (such as being a worship leader or PCC member.  At confirmation I think we would expect an understanding of the history and meaning of the creedal statements (which is not simple as I am discovering on my ordination course!)

We hope that taking this step will actually encourage children to come and learn a bit about what happens in church and may mark an important point in their spiritual journeys towards confirmation and that this will remove a barrier and provide a bridge

As was written in our lesson from the book of Hebrews:

“Since God’s children share flesh and blood, Jesus himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death” (Hebrews 2:14)

“God’s children share flesh and blood”…  I think it would be a very good thing if all human beings of whatever age and whatever point in their spiritual journeys were able to share in the one flesh and blood – in one bread and one cup

That way we should keep open the very gates of heaven

I have often pondered the meaning of the words which are written on our rood screen here – words taken from Psalm 24 – which is in fact the psalm set for today – “Lift up your heads, O ye gates; and be ye lift up, ye everlasting doors; and the King of glory shall come in”

The rood screen was the symbolic barrier between the people and God on which was mounted the holy rood – the cross or crucifixion of Christ

Through Christ’s crucifixion we are brought to God – the barrier of our sin – our weakness and selfishness – is removed by the loving example of his strength and selflessness.

Jesus has become both the sacrificing priest and the sacrificial victim

A little later in this service we will have the opportunity to come – to meet Jesus and remember him in the sharing of bread and wine

“Lift up your heads o ye gates” – Jesus opens up the Gates of Glory – he opens up our access to God.

“Lift up your heads o ye gates” – that the king of Glory may come in and that we may meet the king of Glory in the Eucharist

“Lift up your heads o ye gates” – let as many come in as are willing to enter

Blessed are those who are called to his supper – therefore let us keep the feast.


Sermon given by Chris Hancock at St Mary’s Headley on the Feast of Candlemas
2nd February, 2014. 

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