Father David's Reflection for the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord (4th Sunday of Year A)
THE PRESENTATION OF THE LORD
Also: The Purification of Mary and “Candlemas”
“The light of revelation to the nations, the glory of your people”
Appreciating the Light that purifies, frees and fulfills us.
What does the Presentation of Jesus in the temple say to you? Have you meditated on this event frequently while praying over the “fourth joyful mystery” of the Rosary? How often have you read the account of it in the Bible?
The Entrance Antiphon (Psalm 48:10-11) assumes that we meditate on what God has revealed to us: “Within your temple we ponder your loving kindness, O God,” we “reflect on your faithful, steadfast love.” 1
If we ponder, we will praise. If we praise God constantly and widely enough, the Father’s name will be “hallowed” — known and venerated — “to the ends of the earth.” Then we can hope for peace and justice in the world. “Your right hand is filled with justice.” God has “justice” to give: personal purification, national reform. Other translations say, “Your right hand is full of saving justice” or “victorious.” This feast is a celebration of light, purification and power.
In the Opening Prayer we ask that encounter with the incarnate Christ will “free our hearts from sin and bring us into your presence.” Faith purifies us through enlightenment and brings us into God’s presence.
In the Prayer Over the Gifts we ask God to “accept the gifts your Church offers... since your Son offered himself as a Lamb without blemish....” We present ourselves to be offered with and in Christ under the symbols of the bread and wine. We present ourselves to be purified for service “without blemish” in commitment to his mission — and for the same purpose Jesus did: to give “life to the world” through love. Love purifies us through commitment that brings us into God’s service and the service of others.
In the Prayer After Communion we ask, “May this communion perfect your grace [life] in us and prepare us to meet Christ when he comes.” Hope purifies us by empowering us to persevere, and brings us into fulfillment — both ours and the fulfillment of God’s plan for the world.
In Malachi 3:1-4, God says: “I am sending my messenger.” When God says that, the natural thing for us to do is get ready to listen! The message we are about to hear is from God himself.
Then he adds: “to prepare the way before me.” The natural response to that is to start preparing the way ourselves. If God wants something done, we need to start doing it. The message is a call to action. Not just any action, but action in response to God’s word, action guided by the message he is sending.
So what is the message, and what does it call us to do?
The message is that the “messenger of the covenant whom you desire, for whom you long, in whom you delight... is coming.”
He is coming “to purify the descendants of Levi” – that is, the priestly caste. That might surprise us. We are not used to thinking of priests as being the problem. But this is commonplace in both Jewish and Christian tradition.
Malachi’s first theme (1:2-5) is “God’s Special Love for Israel.” His second (1:6 to 2:9) is “The Sins of the Priests.”
The lips of a priest should guard knowledge, and people should seek instruction from his mouth, for he is the messenger of the LORD of hosts. But you have turned aside from the way; you have caused many to stumble by your instruction; you have corrupted the covenant of Levi.
In the Gospels the priests are always presented as the opponents of Jesus, along with the Pharisees. In Christian tradition prior to the Council of Trent, “criticism, even though forceful and public, had a sort of ‘in the family’ quality to it.” But after the Protestant Reformation Catholics “saw criticism as a weapon that would be used by her enemies against the Church.” It shocks us to learn that “the paintings of the saintly Fra Angelico depict monks, bishops and popes condemned to hell.” Or to hear St. Bernard say, “Show me a bishop not more concerned with discharging his people’s purses than their souls of their sins.” He added, “Of course, it is a waste of time to go on like this. They will pay no attention.” 2
Should we presume things are radically better today? It would be just that: a presumption. But true or false, there are serious reasons why the laity should insist — with Malachi — on the reform of the clergy and hierarchy, without neglecting their own.
Centuries of misguided “clericalism” (one of the three attitudes explicitly rejected at the outset of Vatican II, along with “legalism” and “triumphalism”) have created the presumption that those made priests by Holy Orders (the correct term is “presbyters”) are more “sacred” and “holier” than those who are priests and members of the divine body of Christ by Baptism. The clergy are presumed to be model Catholics, or at least better ones than the rank-and-file laity, just as it is presumed that only really good priests are selected to be bishops. And so people will leave the Church if a priest acts in a way they might take for granted in other Catholics. Clericalism has ingrained in them the totally unfounded idea that priests and bishops are representative of Christianity and of the Church. This has disastrous consequences.
When a tiny minority of priests were found guilty of child abuse and what may be a majority of bishops were found guilty of inexcusable betrayal by covering it up, people drew conclusions about the “Catholic Church” from that — even though all the priests and bishops in the Church comprise less than one half of one-percent of Catholics. Bottom line: if you want to know whom the Church considers a representative Catholic, look at those she canonizes, not at those she ordains. Ordination, whether as priest or bishop, does not make anyone virtuous.
Light Made Voice
What is said above is not an attack on the clergy but on clericalism, which endangers the clergy by putting them on a pedestal that encourages them to think of themselves as “higher” than others. It also multiplies the harmful effect of every flaw in their personality, spirituality or training.
If the laity think the clergy are supposed to be better Catholics than themselves, it gives the laity an excuse for brushing off Vatican II’s clear teaching:
Every Catholic must therefore aim at Christian perfection, and all... play their part so that the Church... may daily be more purified and renewed. 3
We may think clerics are “more obliged” to be good Catholics because people look to them for good example. Don’t parents and teachers have this same obligation? Is it less sacred to “form Christ” in a child at home or in school than in a parish? Does it require any less union with Jesus?
In the account of Christ’s Presentation in the Temple, Luke 2:22-40, everyone mentioned is a lay person: Simeon, Anna, Mary and Joseph. Both Simeon and Anna were “messengers” speaking prophetic words for which their lives of prayer and reflection on God’s word had prepared them. In the same way, each of us, whatever our state of life or circumstances, must “play our part” so that the Church “may daily be more purified and renewed.” We need to speak up and speak out, and fill our minds and hearts with God’s word so that when we do our words will be his.
We committed ourselves to this at Baptism, when we “presented our bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God,” that we might never “be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of our minds’” through prayer and reflection on God’s word. This was “so that we might discern what is the will of God: what is good, acceptable and perfect.” 4
Like us in every way
Hebrews 2:14-18 tells us Jesus had to be “like us in every way.” This was “so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest,” not just in fact, but in our eyes also. To use him as we should, we need to trust him, feel assured he understands us, sympathizes with our weaknesses and loves us
But for Jesus to be “like us in every way,” he needs to be multiplied. He is that in us, who have “become Christ” as his body on earth. In us who are sick he is sick like the sick. In us who are strong he is strong like the strong. Every human being can find Christ “like” himself or herself in one of us. Because in us “he himself is tested by what we suffer,” through us “he is able to help those who are being tested” in similar ways.
But nothing works unless we are united to him — united in one shared life by grace; in mind by the light of faith; in will by dedication to his mission; in heart by expressing his love to others; in constancy and desire by the strength and power of faith-based hope.
In us Jesus continues to present himself: in the temple, in the workplace, in every room of our home, in board rooms, bowling alleys and bars. In us he continues to be “The light of revelation to the nations, the glory of your people.”
Initiative: Imagine yourself as Simeon or Anna in every encounter with people.
1 The New Jerusalem Bible, New American Bible and New Revised Standard Version translations are mixed in here and below for enrichment.
2 Jerome Biblical Commentary, Malachi 2:7-8; The Reform of the Papacy, by Archbishop John Quinn, Crossroad, 1999, pp. 45-46 and all of chapter two. See also Bishop Geoffrey Robinson, Confronting Power and Sex in the Catholic Church, Liturgical Press, 2008, and Bishop John Heaps, A Love That Dares to Question, Aurora Books, 1998. These are all bishops in good standing in the Catholic Church.
3 Decree on Ecumenism no. 4.
4 Romans 12:1-2.