Homily for the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord Year A
Theme: THE 4TH JOYFUL MYSTERY!
By: Fr. Ben Agbo
Homily for Sunday February 2020
* Mal 3:1-4, Heb 2:14-18, Lk 2:22-40.
Today’s feast has multifaceted perspectives. Should we talk about the purification of the mother after birth, the thanksgiving /offering for the gift of a new child or the dedication of the child to God? Purification (nnucha), Offering (onyinye) and Dedication (nrunye) are the 3 essential arms of Religion.
The purification of the mother after child birth was a strong Jewish practice going by the belief that every woman that passes through the odious process of childbearing has been contaminated with impurities. But incidentally, this ancient practice has no parallel in the Christian faith today . The Catholic Church firmly holds that no taint whatsoever calling for purification of any kind is incured by a mother at childbirth.
The feast of the presentation of the Lord was introduced into the whole of Eastern Church by Justinian 1 in the year 526 AD and celebrated 40 days after Christmas. It came to be called ‘Candlemas’ when, in the 8th century, Pope Sergius introduced the Solemn procession of clergy and laity carrying blessed lighted candles into the Church as a tacit reminder that Christ came as a light to the Gentiles. I am interested in the dimension of child dedication that this feast connotes today.
B. THE CANDLE MASS VS CHILD DEDICATION
Today, we talk about Child dedication. But do we actually mean to dedicate the child to God? Some priests are of the view that after Infant Baptism, we cannot meaningfully be talking about Child dedication again but Thanksgiving after Baptism. This makes sense to me but I think we can still talk about Presentation or what many call ‘Churching’, ie first presentation of the Child to the Church /Worshipping Community (Ukanwa) since this ceremony may not easily be combined with the Sacrament of Infant Baptism due to time constraints on Sunday masses.
Liturgical ceremonies have a way of incarnating our theological mysteries into the Christian life experience. The Bible underscores the fact that even the Child Jesus (who is God) passed through the existential processes of initiation, growth and maturation well mirrored in the liturgical celebrations. Christians must therefore take very seriously our rituals ; the liturgical and pedagogical processes that enhance the spiritual growth of our children. Parents must affirm their roles as guardians at the different stages of Child Development until the child becomes a mature man or woman. Purification (nnucha), Offering (onyinye) and Dedication (nrunye) remain 3 essential religious activities that affect Christian maturity and growth.
Of all the gifts of God, there is none that we can be so answerable to God as the gift of a child. The lietmotif of today’s gospel is that ‘The child grew to maturity and was filled with wisdom and God’s favour was upon him’. Our ‘Uka nwa’ or Churching ceremony is first a thanksgiving to God for saving the woman from the Labour sufferings. Genesis 3 :16 placed a curse on every woman : ‘I shall give you an intense pain in child bearing’, therefore every Christian mother celebrates her redemption from this curse after every maternity. The second point is thanksgiving for the gift of salvation to a child after infant baptism. Then the third is the prayer for divine wisdom and favour on the new born child. The 3 revelations in today’s gospel therefore are about salvation, suffering and growth. Today, whether we do it as a candle mass or Churching /child dedication, we should never lose sight of the pedagogical import of this all important celebration. It is for me the best day for infant baptism, thanksgiving and prayer of dedication
C. THEOLOGY OF PURIFICATION/ DEDICATION
The Jewish ceremony of Child Presentation had a tripartite theological relevance: 1st, was the circumcision of the new born child, 2nd, was the purification rite for the mother, and 3rd, was the redemption of the 1st born son. The take over of Christianity has left modern day theologians still tinkering around the theological meaning of this ceremony as it is still practised in many Christian Churches.
The 1st ritual of circumcision is still done by many outside the church context but what concerns us today as Christians is the Infant Baptism – the rite of initiation of a child into Christendom. Christ said: ‘Let the little children come to me. Do not stop them for to such belong the kingdom of God’, Mk 10:14.
The 2nd significant ceremony is the reception of the Child’s mother (who, for several weeks has been on maternity leave) back to the Church services. It was on this occasion that the sorrows of Mary were first prophesied by the high priest, Simeon. For me, the greatest of this sorrow is the refusal of many Christians today to acknowledge her as the mother of God.
The 3rd part of the ceremony is the redemption of the 1st born son. That was a society that understood that everyone and everything belonged to God. 1st fruits of both plants, animals and humans were dedicated to God.
The theology of purification centres around the fact that nothing unclean should be offered to God, Is 1 : 10 – 20, Amos 5 : 21 – 24. On a day like this we reemphasize the spirituality of the religious life, celibate priesthood and the piety of religious societies like the Mary League, Confraternity of Our Lady Queen of all hearts, etc.
Today’s 1st reading affirms that ‘He shall purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, and then they will be able to make the offering suitable to the Lord’, Mal 3 : 1 – 4. Christ, says the 2nd reading, is the compassionate high priest of God’s new religion ( the Christian religion). Only a deep connection with him can make priestly holiness possible.
The challenge of holiness remains the greatest challenge of modern day Christianity. Things that should not even be mentioned among us have now become serious seminar topics for us Christians ( especially priests) in Nigeria ; child sexual abuse and abuse of vulnerable adults, homosexuality, adultery, etc, 1 Cor 5 : 1 – 13. The force of anticlericalism is gradually gathering momentum in Nigeria. For me, the real proactive measures the Church can take against these is getting back to the drawing board to fortify the spirituality of our seminarians and their formators.
Holiness is gradually seizing to be the paradigm of modern day priesthood but charisma ( intellectual and spiritual). But we should remember what Christ said : By their fruits we shall know them and not by their gifts. A priest may be so intelligent and so charismatic, but without holiness, he can’t represent Christ effectively.
The success of priests in their parishes of posting should be measured by their spiritual impact on the people of God and not merely on the physical projects they were able to execute. As Jesus was presented in the temple today, may we all present our selves as living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, Rom 12 : 1 – 2. Happy Sunday dear friends!