Scripture for this Sunday (the Presentation of Christ in the Temple):
Malachi 3.1-5; Psalm 24.7-10; Hebrews 2.14-18; Luke 2.22-40
There are two underlying themes in this week’s gospel account of Jesus being brought to the Temple. They are poverty; and ritual, or routine.
We see the poverty in the sacrifice offered by his parents: this is not a materially prosperous family. We see the routine in the following of the regular rituals of Jewish faith, even for this very special child.
Many Christians, through the ages, have taken upon themselves vows of poverty, especially those in religious orders. This is because prosperity tends to give us more and more things to take up our time and attention, and distract and divert us from regular practices that allow us to be open to God working in our lives.
The thing about prosperity is that it can, softly and gradually, draw us into hubris and pride, and lure us into forgetting that what we have – all we have – comes as a blessing from God. The German, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, wrote: “Blessing does not constitute privileged status; it confers responsibility. God blesses our lives for the benefit of others, not to their exclusion.”
Poverty tends to remove distractions and draws us into a closer relationship with God – one that acknowledges our dependence, and that fosters humility and acceptance of our vulnerability. As a result, it can bring us more readily into the practice of spiritual routine and ritual. This is why many holy orders have vows of poverty, so that communal life can be simpler and structured around a discipline of prayer and devotion.
But we don’t have to become monks or nuns to begin spiritual practices and disciplines! We can find our own ways to come before God regularly in openness and humility. The American writer and poet, Mary Oliver, who died recently, wrote: “If you have no ceremony, no habits, which may be opulent or may be simple but are exact and rigorous and familiar, how can you reach toward the actuality of faith, or even a moral life, except vaguely?” She also wrote: “A man should want to be domestic, steady, moral, politic, reasonable. He should want also to be subsumed, whirled, to know himself as dust in the fingers of the wind.”
That’s great imagery. But the dusty, whirling dance of life needs some structure, with ceremony, habits and ritual. So we ask ourselves: Where is there richness in our lives, so that it gets in the way of routinely building our relationship with God? Where are we poor, needing to come before God in humility and vulnerability? Where and how can we develop ritual and routine to build our relationship with God, to give Christ’s light an opportunity to shine into our lives?