Sunday, 3 February 2013

Candlemas: Gifts and giving

Hebrews 2.14-18, Luke 2.22-40

Today Christmas officially comes to an end in the Church’s year as we celebrate the feast of Candlemas. Christmas Day might seem a long time ago, the cards long since recycled, and the decorations packed away, but we need this time to ponder the story of Christ’s birth. It’s not something you can do in a day, or even twelve days.

It’s not just inside the church that it can take a while to come to terms with the impact of Christmas. Over this last month perhaps you have been burning off the extra calories from all those mince pies or paying off the credit card. Or perhaps you have needed to think about the delicate business of deciding what to do with those gifts you received that, shall we say, didn’t quite hit the spot. There are bound to be some.  Gift giving and receiving can be a complicated business.  Should you pass on that ghastly vase, give it to charity, or must you keep it on display in case the giver calls around? There’s the problem of gift inequality too. You were sure that a cheap box of chocolates from the petrol station would do for the aunt you hardly ever see, but then she gives you something expensive and carefully chosen and you look really mean. Gift giving is a guessing game which it is almost impossible to get right. Philip told me a family story of two of his mother’s uncles, who apparently hit on the perfect solution for them. They would each wrap up a shilling (it was a while ago!) and solemnly give it to the other on Christmas Day, every Christmas Day.  It worked for them, but I have a feeling it might not work for everyone!

Giving gifts ought to be straightforward, an uncomplicated act of generosity. But somehow it often isn’t.

Our Gospel reading today is all tied up with gift giving too, and the complexities that go with it. That might not be obvious at first sight, but bear with me and I’ll explain. As you’ll see from your pew leaflets, todays official title is the Presentation of Christ – Candlemas is the folk name for it. A presentation is literally the giving of a present, a gift, but just as with our Christmas gift giving, this presentation is not as simple as it seems. What is going on here? Who is giving what to whom, and why, and what does it all mean?

The only thing that actually changes hands in this story is a pair of pigeons, the ritual sacrifice Mary and Joseph bring to the Temple, as the law demands, forty days after Jesus’ birth. But those two pigeons are actually substitute sacrifices, standing in for the child himself. It is Jesus who is really being presented to God as every first born baby boy was. This ritual had its roots in the story of the Exodus, when all the first born of Egypt, animal and human, were killed in one last terrible plague. Only the children of the Hebrews were spared. To remember that, forever afterwards all first born males – animal and human – were to be “designated as holy” to God. That sounds fine – who wouldn’t want to be designated as holy? Except that what it actually means is “sacrificed.” Fortunately, since Judaism forbade human sacrifice a substitute was prescribed  – two pigeons or a lamb if you could afford it. The principle was still important, though. Life was a gift, this ritual reminded them. Your children were not your children, any more than the sun was your sun, or the rain your rain. These things – all things – came from God, and ultimately they are not ours to own or control. We can only ever give back to God what he has first given to us.

Sacrifice – animal or human – probably seems like a strange idea to us, utterly alien. But for most people in most of the world for most of human history, it has been at the heart of worship, crucial to their daily lives, and perhaps it’s not so far from our thinking as we might suppose either.  That curious habit people have of throwing coins into wells and fountains is a hangover from our  ancestors’ beliefs in sacrifice. From the Trevi fountain in Rome, to a water feature in a modern shopping mall, any body of water is likely to have an assortment of small change at the bottom, once intended as offerings to the water spirits. Who knows what people mean when they do this now, but they still seem to feel the need to do it anyway.  

The Old Testament was absolutely clear about the importance and meaning of sacrifice in its world, though, and was very precise in its instructions  There were offerings of grain, wine, incense, oil and animals. There were offerings which symbolised simple gratitude and thanksgivings, and offerings which were designed in some way to set right things that had gone wrong, repair relationships, restore purity, draw people back into community with one another and with God.

At their best , like any other ritual, sacrifices helped people to go out and live differently afterwards, more thankfully, generously, forgiving others as they had been forgiven.  Sacrifice reminded them that they were part of something bigger, bound up in the life of God , bound together with the world he gave them and with one another. At their worst, though, sacrifices could easily become no more than superstitions, magical procedures which turned their relationships with God into a sort of bargaining game, a contract which said “if you give God this lamb or pigeon or grain offering, he is then obligated to sort out the problem, remove the guilt, or send the blessing you feel entitled to.” That puts the power in entirely the wrong place, treating God like some sort of hired workman whose services are ours to command so long as we are prepared to pay for them.

Although Christianity is not a sacrificial religion like first century Judaism, we can just as easily fall into that way of thinking. The Medieval indulgences people earned through pilgrimage or prayer, or even bought with cold hard cash, were meant to lessen the time they thought they would spend in purgatory. They were sacrifices by another name. And after the Reformation the desire to manipulate the forces of heaven didn’t go away. Instead people simply looked for other ways of reassuring themselves that they had it sorted. Believing the right doctrines, living according to a particular moral pattern, or even just inviting Jesus into your heart as personal saviour are really no better than bargaining chips if we think that by doing these things we are earning the favour we feel we need. They still rely on the “quid pro quo” attitude – I do this, and God will then do that. He must; it is in the contract.

 As well as making God look like some kind of monster who would condemn those who got it wrong to eternal damnation, this way of thinking turns Christian faith into an entirely individual pursuit, a matter of gaining a ticket to heaven for yourself, rather than helping to create heaven on earth for all.  It leads to an anxious, obsessive faith in which, depending on the sort of church, people will either repeatedly need to come forward for the altar call, or light yet another candle, or find ever more rules to keep and to make others keep too. If you think it is all about having that heavenly admission ticket, then you’d better make sure you keep it somewhere safe.

This Gospel story we heard today challenges that sort of thinking though, just as much as it challenged the sacrificial thinking of Jesus’ time. You see, Mary and Joseph, in some ways have cause for complaint under the Sacrificial Sale of Goods act, if there were such a thing. They give their two pigeons to redeem their child, so that he won’t have to be sacrificed but, as Simeon points out, when he grows up they will lose him anyway – “a sword shall pierce your own soul too” he says to Mary.  He is going to die, sacrificing himself on the cross anyway. The sacrificial system, which had become for so many an end in itself, based on token gifts which  really changed nothing much is going to be swept away by the real gift of a real life, given in the real cause of bringing real peace and justice.

Jesus’ death is not a trump card in a cosmic game played with a wrathful God, whose honour can only be satisfied by the death of an innocent victim;  it is the inevitable result of Jesus choosing freely to confront the powers of oppression in a world where human greed and fear have taken hold. It is the costly, flesh and blood gift of someone who is determined not to turn away from the path he knows he needs to take for the sake of those around him. Christ does not die to satisfy the honour of a God who is offended by sin, he dies to live out the generous love of a God who will never give up on his creation, who comes alongside us as we suffer and struggle in a world twisted with hatred, and suffers and struggles too so that, as the letter to the Hebrews says, “he is able to help those who are being tested”, giving us courage and hope to carry on with his work in our own age.

I started by talking about gifts, and their unexpected complexity. We often give them for reasons that are far more tangled than we suppose; to create a sense of obligation, to curry favour, to show off our power and wealth, to cement alliances, to distract from the real issues rather than deal with them. My suspicion is that our attitude to the gift of Christ’s life is sometimes just as tangled, tainted by the very fear he came to deliver us from. We hoard it and guard it, rationing it to those we feel deserve it, worry about losing it and try to control what happens to it and by doing so we rob it of its power.

The gift of Christ is a gift given out of pure love, a gift given freely to the whole world, not something that only the lucky few who happen to be holding the parcel when the music stops can unwrap. The only appropriate response to it is to rejoice in it and to share it with the same generosity with which it came to us.

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