The Presentation of Christ in the Temple,
Candlemas, Epiphany Four
8am Low Mass, 10.30am High Mass,
Sermon preached by the Rector, Fr Ian Elliott Davies
Mal 3:1-5 purify the sons of Levi
Hebs 2:14-18 since the children share… Jesus partook of the same nature
St Luke 2:22-40 the purification, the nunc dimittis, Anna the prophetess
Glory is one of those really Churchy/religious words that all of us are quite familiar with from biblical stories and the liturgies of the Church. We begin, for example, most High Masses here in Hollywood, with a song of worship and praise to God that we call the Gloria in Excelsis which proclaims “Glory to God in the highest and peace to His people on earth,” and we all recall those accounts at Christmas when the angels appear to the shepherds at Christ’s birth and the shepherds see “the glory of God.” But what is this glory and what does that word glory mean?
In the Hebrew Bible, the First Testament or OT the word for glory is “kabod” and it comes from the root meaning “heaviness, weight and worthiness.” In the context of human beings and human glory, it indicates wealth or reputation, but its proper use in the OT is always used when referring to God’s presence. In the OT “glory” carries with it connotations of the strength, the force of power, but the OT always makes it clear that when it talks about the kabod of Israel that her glory is not her armies nor her wealth, but her glory is always and only God, the Lord of Hosts. This glory is so powerful and almost ‘infectious’ in its strength that it should always be guarded and preserved from human misuse or blasphemy. To invoke God’s name lightly or flippantly is sacrilegious (the commandment, ‘thou shalt not take the Name of the Lord thy God in vain) – actually it is downright dangerous.
So when Moses the Lawgiver has returned from the Mount of Sinai after receiving the Law from God, his face shone with the reflection of God’s glory, and it terrified the Hebrew people so much that they had to put a veil or covering over his face until the weight of glory eventually faded from him- as you will notice if you visit Cedars Sinai Hospital and see the wonderful statue of Moses, he has two little ‘horns’ of glory protruding from his forehead! [Hebrew and Latin confusions between ‘glory’ and ‘horn’]
In the NT the word kabod is almost always translated by the Greek word doxa, the word from which we get doxology, a word, hymn of praise to God’s glory. But now glory in the NT takes on a new and important dimension. Glory is no longer remote and distant from human beings, a dangerous presence or power before which we must cower, but it is in the person of Christ- the very face of the child in the Temple- that glory takes on an intimate and immediate presence, Christ is “the outshining of divine glory” as the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews tells us. The Feast of the Presentation has at its core the realization that Christ is none other than God’s glory incarnate, present and immediate in this person. Hence St Simeon calls out: “mine eyes have seen thy salvation- Lord now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, for this is [he is] none other than the glory of thy people Israel.” To see the face of God meant death- Simeon can now say that he is ready to die, he HAS seen God’s face in this child.
Having said that, and this is rather unusual you might think, it is not in St Luke but in the Fourth Gospel, where there is no account whatsoever of the Transfiguration or the Presentation that the theme of God’s glory, his doxa or kabod, has its fullest expression. If you read through the chapters of St John you will quickly realize that glory is linked in a very close and intimate fashion with the events leading up to Christ’s betrayal, his passion and death. This may seem, to any casual reader, who imagines that glory is about prestige, honour and good reputation, rather strange and out of place. Surely death, and most especially the death of this divine Lord of Glory, are not the way in which to understand God’s glory, his power and might.
But St John is extremely skilful in his usage of the verbs to glorify and to exalt; he uses words that can also carry the meaning of “to lift up.” If you can remember the OT story of Moses in the wilderness guiding the Hebrews through the desert when they are attacked by poisonous serpents or snakes, you will recall that Moses lifts up; he exalts a bronze or brazen serpent so that the people could look at it and could then be saved. This story in St John’s retelling, it is now the Son of Man that is to be glorified, exalted, lifted up from the earth on the cross, God’s pilgrim people must look to him if they are to be saved. They are to behold the Son of Man.
Lifting-up, glorification, are for St John, alternative ways of speaking of this central, singular and defining event, Christ’s crucifixion.
Rudolph Bultmann, that complicated and difficult German scholar who has probably done more to help our understanding of St John’s Gospel than any other individual (with the exception of St Augustine!) even if Bultmann was utterly wrong (oh the hubris of Anglicans who think we know the Fourth Gospel!) in certain crucial aspects, here at least, he manages to hit the nail right on the head when he wrote, “Humiliation belongs to Christ just as essentially as exaltation.” “It is precisely to humiliation that the divine voice gives the glory and dignity of the doxa, and in so doing gives it eternity.”
Now that is a very complex statement and caused not a few ruffled feathers in German Biblical Studies Departments in the Twentieth Century- it might seem rather innocuous and innocent to us, but in the context of Liberal Protestant Twentieth Century Biblical Scholarship it had those wonderful Germans scholars hopping up and down!
But what Bultmann affirms here is that the glory is not to be found in the humiliation, but rather, that what the world sees as defeat is in reality an exaltation, and what the world sees as the end of Christ’s hopes and aspirations is really the beginning of his ascent into glory. The paradox is, not that the hour of glorification is the hour of the passion, the suffering and death of Christ, but the reverse; the hour of the passion is already the hour of the divine glorifying, because that event has an eternal, a divine significance.
The Christian believer is not expected, in St John’s understanding, to see the crucifixion as simply a kind of lifting up, an exaltation like Moses and the bronze serpent- an event of happenstance among a whole host of other ‘nice’ things that occur in the ministry of Christ- but we are expected to see past the physicalness of the cross to its true and eternal Trinitarian significance: which is the reascent of the Son of Man to his true home in heaven, the Word made flesh ascends/ is lifted up to the bosom of God and takes all humanity with him. [Barth, Eucharist, Spirit]
This is all rather dense and abstruse. Does it get us any closer, on the Feast of the Presentation, to understanding what glory is about?
What St John is saying, and this is probably the most important realization in reading his Gospel, is that Jesus Christ who is the Word made flesh, is not merely playing a role, reading a script or acting out various stage directions in a kind of divine two act dramatic play. What Jesus Christ does in time, in this world, in taking on our human nature and living our human life, not only has significance but reveals and gives us vision and immediacy to God’s own being, to God’s very nature and life. That is the crux and heart of what this word glory means. The glory of God is that God in Godself reaches out, desires and yearns for us and is for us.
St John, provocatively, does not record anywhere in his entire Gospel a Last Supper with bread and body, wine and blood- he does not record an institution of the Mass as told by the other Gospels or St Paul. Instead there is a very different action, which develops and fleshes out the action of God in giving himself. Christ takes a towel and kneels at our feet and then washes our feet and instructs the disciples that we repeat this action. St John is not ignoring the Mass nor the Presentation in the Temple by not recording them, but he has the most radical affirmation that these are the actions, revelations, epiphanies, and are all pointers to what glory means.
“Father, I desire that they also, whom thou hast given me, may be with me where I am, to behold my glory which thou hast given me in thy love for me before the foundation of the world.” [17: 24]
The reality of God which encounters us in his revelation as the servant who stoops, who kneels before us to offer us healing and cleansing and wholeness, this self-giving, is his reality in all the depths of eternity, that is glory and that is our salvation and our hope.
[John Ashton, Understanding the Fourth Gospel and Theology of the Fourth Gospel]
Posted by: The Parish