February 2; Presentation of the Lord

A Feast of Presentation 19 20Ironies

This week, we take a break from our usual ordinary Sunday liturgy as we return to the splendour and brilliance of Christmas. It has been said that this Feast of the Presentation of the Lord is a little Christmas, because of its association with light. Yes, Christ, the “light to enlighten the Gentiles and the glory of Israel,” has come to fulfil the promise of His Father. The narrative of Christmas comes to a close as we ourselves see, the purpose of the Incarnation - the Divine Word coming into our midst from the glories of heaven – is to bring salvation to man. That this takes place in the temple is in itself a further sign: God continues to reveal Himself to man in divine worship. Worship is not just the act of man, but it is primarily the work of God! In our liturgy, God continues to sanctify us, He continues to save us.

Today’s Feast is known by several traditional titles: Candlemas, Presentation of the Lord, Purification of the Blessed Virgin of Mary. But I would personally like to offer another title: Feast of Ironies!

Here is the first irony. In our antinomian world, where so many Christians believe that they are no longer bound by the rigours of the law because of the grace and freedom that we have received from Christ, where breaking the law seems to be a good thing and keeping the law makes you rigid, it is good to remember that both Christ and the Blessed Virgin Mary came to the Temple in fulfilment of the law. Today’s feast actually commemorates two events prescribed by the Mosaic Law: the purification of Our Lady, and the redemption of her Son. The law also demanded a sacrifice. Here it is in the form of a pair of doves, which replaces the traditional sacrifice of a lamb because of the Holy Family’s poverty.

The futility of each of these actions makes them ironic. Firstly, there is futility in the ceremony of redeeming Christ. The offering of the firstborn son prescribed by the law in thanksgiving for the liberty of the Hebrew people did not apply to Christ, who had no need to be ransomed because He had no sin. Our Lord, who is the first born son of Mary, is also the only begotten Son of God. In fact, He had come to redeem the world by His sacrifice on the cross.

Secondly, our Lady was not bound to offer a sacrifice for her purification. According to Jewish law, the bleeding which a woman endured during childbirth renders her unclean. But Mary was free from every spot and stain of sin, and therefore had no need of purification because her spouse, the Holy Spirit, had preserved her from it. Despite this, our Lady obeyed the law.

Thirdly, the offering of a dove instead of a lamb, is considered pittance by Jewish society and is the offering of the poor, had really no significant value. Here’s the irony. Something of greater value than a dove or a lamb was being offered here. Instead of a lamb, it is Christ Himself, the true Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world that is being offered.

Why would both the Blessed Virgin and Christ subject themselves to such ironical rituals? Well, the answer is simple – obedience. The Mother of God and God Himself bore the humiliation of obedience to the law, precisely to confirm its importance and fulfilment. It is by obedience to God, through law and by love, that we show most fully our desire to be united with Him.

It is such obedience that must be at the heart of worship. The humiliation and obedience of Christ and Our Lady by submitting to the Law, which clearly did not even bind them, reveals to us what is central in the holy sacrifice of the Mass. The Sacrifice of the Mass is not about ourselves, or about our own personal rights or opinions. But rather it is about God and what is due to Him. To “sacrifice” means to make sacred – to consecrate all that we are, all that we possess, our entire being, (which ultimately belongs to God) - to God. Such consecration can only take place when it is made on the foundation of willing obedience. The problem is that so many are tempted to make the Mass about themselves, about their likes and dislikes, thus leading to all forms of innovations and abuses. This is a qualified consecration, a limited and conditional sacrifice. Certainly not something which God deserves. In fact, God is often not the criterion for our actions. Rather, it is our own inflated egos and sense of self-importance that makes demands of Him and the Church.

It was the great liturgist, Romano Guardini, who reminds us, “The primary and exclusive aim of the liturgy is not the expression of the individual’s reverence and worship for God. It is not even concerned with the awakening, formation, and sanctification of the individual soul as such. Nor does the onus of liturgical action and prayer rest with the individual. It does not even rest with the collective groups, composed of numerous individuals, who periodically achieve a limited and intermittent unity in their capacity as the congregation of a church. The liturgical entity consists rather of the united body of the faithful as such-- the Church--a body which infinitely outnumbers the mere congregation. The liturgy is the Church’s public and lawful act of worship… In the liturgy God is to be honoured by the body of the faithful, and the latter is in its turn to derive sanctification from this act of worship. It is important that this objective nature of the liturgy should be fully understood. Here the Catholic conception of worship in common sharply differs from the Protestant, which is predominantly individualistic. The fact that the individual Catholic, by his absorption into the higher unity, finds liberty and discipline, originates in the twofold nature of man, who is both social and solitary.”

This ultimately is the example offered to us by the Lord and Our Lady on this Feast Day. Both were absorbed into a “higher unity,” that they were willing to put aside their privileges and rights, and obey this limited law for the single purpose of worshipping God and offering Him worthy sacrifice, which they alone could offer in perfection, because one was the Sinless One, and the other immaculately conceived by virtue of the merits of the former.

But then, it is not enough that our sacrifice, our divine worship, be based on obedience. To worship is our duty as much as it is our joy. It stems not just from the law, but also from love. Worship must be the response of one who is obedient to the law, but it must also be what we desire freely to do even if such laws did not exist. For Love is the most perfect law. It does not compel but attracts. In fact, it compels by attraction. Our obedience to the law is not opposed to our ability to love. Rather, our love is revealed through our respect and fulfilment of the law and through our freedom, channeled into the worship and adoration of God.

We are often surrounded by those who shirk the responsibilities and obligations of the law; who see them as a barrier to freedom in Christ; a stumbling-block to the love that flows to us from the Lord’s own heart. To fulfil the law, by its very nature, requires sacrifice; it requires an act of the will that demonstrates love. Yet that is why the fulfilment of the law, and the offering of ourselves in obedience of it, is at the heart of the Christian life and Christian worship. Law is nothing without love. Love is nothing without obedience; without the rigours that keep that love pure. Let this be the characteristic of our life; a witness to the perfect obedience and perfect love of Christ for our salvation, and a light to enlighten the Gentiles, and to be the glory of His people.