The Christian festival of Candlemas celebrates the purification, when Mary and Joseph went with the little Jesus to the temple. This was a requirement in Jewish holy law, laid down in Leviticus chapter 12:
“Her time of blood purification shall be thirty-three days: she shall not touch any holy thing, or come into the sanctuary, until the days of her purification are completed…..When the days of her purification are completed, she shall bring to the priest..a lamb for a burnt offering and a pigeon or turtle dove for a sin offering….If she cannot afford a sheep, she shall take with her two turtle doves or two pigeons. The priest will make atonement on her behalf, and she shall be clean from her flow of blood.”
So after the birth of Jesus, Mary had to allow eight days before Jesus was circumcised, which was his naming ceremony. She then had to allow thirty-three days for her “blood purification”. At the end of these thirty-three days Mary and Joseph took their sacrifice of two pigeons to the temple to ask for her forgiveness and healing from the flow of blood.
Now how we see the purification ritual very much depends on where we are standing. In our society today we don’t see women as “unclean” after childbirth and at first sight this all looks rather primitive. But if you think back to the first century, childbirth was a terrifying, dangerous and very bloody business, with no pain relief, a high risk of infection and a high maternal mortality rate. It was seen as part of the curse of mankind, the curse following the fall in Genesis:
To the woman he said, ‘I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children.
To be honest, childbirth is pretty scary today, even in Western society with all our midwifery and medical capabilities. For the young Mary it would have been terrifying, and she would have been relieved to survive as a healthy woman after giving birth.
My heart exults in Yahweh;
I rejoice in the power of his salvation.
He has satisfied the hunger of the poor.
The famished cease from their labour.
He raises the poor from the dust.
He gives the needy a place among the princes.
He assigns them a seat of honour.
These verses from the first book of Samuel are extracts from the proclamation of Hannah, the mother of Samuel, after she received the news that she was to bear a son. And these are from the canticle which we call the Magnificat, delivered by Mary the mother of Jesus in an identical situation:
My soul tells of the greatness of the lord.
My spirit rejoices in the salvation of my God.
The Almighty has done great things for me.
He has pulled down the princes from their throne and exalted the poor and needy.
He has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.
I have selected some of the verses that have the clearest verbal echo. Hannah’s emphasis is more on the military power of Yahweh. Mary’s on God’s thirst for justice. But what these two women have in common is their recognition that the births of their two babies were so important that they must be seen in a cosmic, a religious and a political setting. It was the political aspect of Mary’s role that Anne emphasised in her sermon in Advent.
I want to concentrate on Mary’s pivotal role as organiser, interpreter, manager of her son.
Shops display their Christmas decorations in October and many non-religious people begin their preparations for our winter excessorama before Guy Fawkes Day is over. Advent candles are interpreted as the countdown to 24th December. If you want to give yourself a truly bibulous series of sign posts to Christmas you can buy an Advent calendar which presents you with a little bottle of rare whisky every day for a mere £10,000.
But although Advent tends to be subsumed into the commercial Christmas, today is the beginning of the Church’s New Year, Advent Sunday. Happy New Year.
A few weeks ago a visiting preacher talked to us very enthusiastically about her recent visit to Wittenberg. This is the city where Martin Luther pinned his 95 declarations on the church door at the beginning of the Protestant Reformation on 31st October 1517. The preacher recounted how she was relieved of a weight of guilt when she recognised the force of the verse in the epistle to the Romans which led to Martin Luther’s rejection of catholicism. He emerged from a life of self-loathing and a sense of unworthiness, a conviction that he could never be forgiven. The verse (ch 1 v 17) ……reads: [the gospel] is the saving power of God for everyone who has faith…….because in it the righteousness of God is seen at work, beginning in faith and ending in faith.
The stand out story from the A level results has to be the story of Malala Yousafzai – a young woman who puts the achievement of all A level students into perspective. I’m sure many of us will be familiar with her story. At the age of 14 she was on the bus on her way to school with her friends, a school set up by her Father specifically for girls in the Swat region of Pakistan, who under the Taliban regime were not entitled to an education and had no access to schools. Armed gunmen stormed the school bus and shot Malala in the head and injured two of her school friends. She was lucky to survive and had to undergo multiple surgeries on her brain. It was a long recovery but, she settled into life in Birmingham, returned to school and achieved the grades needed to study PPE at Oxford this year.
This story about Jesus going up to a high mountain and meeting Moses and Elijah (Luke 9:28-36) was of course written about 40 years after Jesus had died. Luke, using material in Mark and Matthew’s gospel, had a larger literary vision than his two predecessors. He explains in the introduction to Acts that he wanted to record the facts of Jesus’s life and death, but he clearly wanted to put them into context, create a historical setting. Luke’s gospels are formed documents, shaped and influenced by events he lived through after the resurrection and filtered through the experiences, the challenges that confronted the early Christians.