Tuesday, January 25, 2022

Storytelling for Candlemas


God-Most-High loved our world and often walked the earth, making lasting covenants with his friends, heroes of old such as Noah, and Abraham. Many generations later, Abraham’s descendants were living in Egypt. Shepherds, they had gone there when famine stalked the lands. God-Most-High had prepared the way for them, but that is another story. Now they were conscripted labourers, forced to build temples to the unruly gods of Egypt. When their cries were carried to God-Most-High seated on his throne in the realm of the heavens, he thought about what to do, and then he wrapped himself in his great cloak of darkness and set off to find Moses. He found him, at last, hiding at the back of beyond, as far across the wilderness from Egypt as you can imagine and then further still. Why Moses was hiding there is yet another story. Sitting in a tree that blazed with fire that did not consume it, God-Most-High introduced himself to Moses by the name ‘I AM WHO I AM,’ I will be whom I will be.

‘I AM’ sent Moses, an un-presupposing man who spoke with a stammer, to challenge the gods of Egypt to a series of ten contests. The prize would be Abraham’s descendants, slaves to the Egyptian gods, shepherds in the eyes of ‘I AM.’ The tales of those contests is also another story. Suffice to say that on the eve of ‘I AM’s victory, he spoke to Moses and laid claim to every firstborn male from among the Israelites, both livestock and human.

Now, their livestock was essentially of two kinds. Sheep, for as already noted they were shepherds. And donkeys, beasts of burden, for they had been conscripted into labouring. They did not own cattle, for the fat cattle who grazed along the Nile belonged to the Egyptian class who ruled over their lives as slaves. And Moses spoke to the people and told them that ‘I AM’ had claimed every firstborn male from among them, as a memorial to his victory. Firstborn donkeys were to be redeemed with the life of a firstborn lamb, or if not, then its neck was to be broken. Likewise, firstborn sons were to be redeemed, in memory of the time ‘I AM’ brought them up out of the house of slavery. They were going to be free, but freedom has a value, if only a symbolic price.

Now, the words of God-Most-High were life to all who took note of them, life-giving and life-sustaining. And these words established a ritual that helped the people, generation by generation, family by family, to step into their identity: no longer slaves—symbolised by the donkey, the beast of burden—but now freed to be shepherds—the identity they had in Egypt before they were enslaved—now, moreover, in a land of their own.

You might think that the people would be grateful, but it was not long before they became restless. ‘I AM’ had called Moses up Mount Sinai to speak about life and freedom and the wisdom through which a just and fair society might be formed from nothing more than donkeys and sheep. The people became agitated and took hold of Moses’ brother Aaron, and dragging him before them, instructed him to create a calf of gold, the fabled cow that pulled the chariot of the Egyptian gods, so that, having run away but having now changed their minds, they might petition them for mercy.

‘I AM’ was angry at the ingratitude of the people and got up to destroy them all. But Moses pleaded for mercy. The people were punished, but mostly spared, and Aaron, too, was restored. Nonetheless, ‘I AM’ decided that he could no longer use the firstborn sons for his intended purpose—that they be priests to ‘I AM,’ to help the people to remember. So, ‘I AM’ decided that, instead, the Levites, the only tribe among the twelve tribes who had not turned back to the gods of Egypt to rescue them, should serve as priests in place of the firstborn sons.

But the word of ‘I AM,’ once spoken, stands forever. So, ‘I AM’ instructed Moses to count every firstborn son from among the tribes of Israel, and that redemption money should be paid for every head over and above the number of the Levites. The sum would be five shekels, and it would be paid to the Levites. One thousand three hundred and sixty-five shekels in all. To this day you will find Jewish fathers who redeem their firstborn son from the Cohens, the descendants of Aaron, in this way.

Now, this explains in part why, centuries later, the man Joseph and his wife Mary bring her firstborn son to the Temple. His name was Jesus, and they were not Levites, being instead of the tribe of Judah. This firstborn son, therefore, will never serve as a priest according to the Law. Joseph comes to throw five shekels into the Temple treasury. (However, it is told that this son will serve as a priest, indeed a High Priest, in another order, that of Melchizedek. This Melchizedek was king of Salem, the very place where this young family now stood, in the days of Abraham the friend of God-Most-High. One day, Abraham secured a great victory in battle, and Melchizedek came out and set before Abraham bread and wine and spoke a mighty blessing over his life. This took place in days of old, long before the giving of the Law, and whereas Aaron would receive redemption money from among his own people, Melchizedek received a tenth of all of Abraham’s wealth.)

But there is more to why this month-old child and his parents appear in the Temple. Joseph comes to redeem a son, to claim and to proclaim a story of deliverance. Mary comes, responding to other words of life spoken by ‘I AM’ to his friend Moses, words concerning childbirth and the rights and care of women at this vulnerable time.

Long ago, not long after the world was formed and when there was no one to care for it, the gods had made the first humans, the Gardener—his name was Adam—and the Warrior—her name was Eve. And when their son Cain turned his back on gardening and took up the warrior’s blade and killed his brother Abel, then the blood cried out to God-Most-High for a reckoning. Now, childbirth, like war (for childbirth is war against death) is a bloody business, the woman’s body expelling the placenta, the lifegiving interface between mother and child in the womb. But lifeblood is holy to God-Most-High, and cannot be shed without a reckoning, not even in childbirth. All the same, in this act of self-giving to bring forth life (an act of prefiguration, for, in the words of Simeon to Mary, ‘and a sword will pierce your own soul too’) women participate in their bodies in the deep magic of God-Most-High.

In recognition that they do something no man can ever do, however great his renown may be, ‘I AM’ declared that a woman, having given birth, should receive three gifts. First, she should be held exempt from duty towards God-Most-High, for a period of seven days in the case of a son, or fourteen days in the case of a daughter. Not even her husband was to approach her or ask anything of her on those days. Second, she was to be given time and space set apart from public life: thirty-three days for a son, sixty-six days for a daughter (girls, who, potentially at least, will share in this deep magic, are given twice the time and space). Third, this should be followed by a welcome back to public life: a great celebration of the mother, on the fortieth day of her son’s life, or the eightieth day of her daughter’s life. And at the welcome of a mother back into public life, she is to bring a lamb and a dove—or, two doves, if she cannot afford a lamb—one as an offering of thanks ascending to God-Most-High for bringing her through the broken waters of death in bringing forth life; the other as satisfaction to the earth for life blood that has been spilled.

This, then, is also part of what is going on, here in the Temple. Mary is returning to public life, after forty days of seclusion with her newborn son. Forty days and nights kept safe by God-Most-High in an ark; forty days, recalling forty years God-Most-High dwelled in the very midst of the people in the wilderness, before ever there was a Temple in Jerusalem. This is her first public appearance since her son, her firstborn son, was born. Did those old familiar courtyards now feel strange, as if encountered for the first time, again? Strange or no, she makes her return with a thankful heart, and with reverence for the holiness not only of this place but also of life itself.

Why spend so long retelling backstories? Because these are Jesus’ story, and those of his parents, and they have become unfamiliar to us. How, then, might this story become our story too?

Firstly, notice the importance of ritual to inhabiting our identity, which we do not construct for ourselves but are given as gift, handed down from generation to generation. We are not slaves of hard-hearted gods, but a people called to bear the likeness of God-Most-High who cares for us, as a shepherd cares for their flocks. One whose good purposes can be frustrated at times but not defeated, who begins over again. Stop striving to reinvent yourself and receive.

Secondly, notice that those rituals are defined for us who follow Jesus not by the sacrifices of the Law given through Moses (good though they were—and still are, for ‘I AM’s ancient people, the Jews) but by the bread and wine and blessings spoken over our lives by Melchizedek. Communion is a gift; fellowship is a gift. Don’t decline it.

Thirdly, notice that life is a participation in mystery, whether we are daughters or sons. That it calls for that mix of time alone and time celebrating with others, held together in tension. That it reflects self-sacrificial death and resurrection life, in our flesh and blood. Notice, also, the importance of both a thankful heart and a reverence for the sanctity of life, as well as the patterns that sustain thankfulness and reverence. Some of you have been away a long time, perhaps isolating because of fear of Covid. It is time to come back. Others have not been welcome, their bodies considered too much, their presence an offence. They are coming now because God-Most-High is calling them. The period of their waiting for consolation is drawing towards a close, and their salvation is dawning. Will we welcome them, as Simeon and Anna welcomed the Christ-child, with thankfulness and reverence? Thankfulness, that God-Most-High has allowed us to see what salvation looks like today. Reverence, in the light of a bigger story that will long outlive us and be more than we could ever imagine.

In the coming days we remember the Presentation of Christ in the Temple. May we see him with our own eyes in this place, and may our lives be illuminated by his truth and grace.


Notes: see Exodus 13, Numbers 3, Genesis 14 (and 1-4), and Leviticus 12, all from The Five Books of Moses. See also the first-century Common Era texts The Gospel According to Luke 2:22-40 and the Letter to the Hebrews.


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