“A pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons,” hardly what we would consider bringing to church for the offering plate. I can only imagine the stir if the Museum Shop had to order these foul and set up booths near the doors to sell them. Children would take great delight until time for the offering. Maybe our children would not accompany us unless the church had a nursery or Sunday school classes during the worship hour. But the offering of turtledoves or piegeons was part of the culture of Mary and Joseph when they came to present Jesus in the Temple. If they had been people of some financial means, their requirement would have included a lamb and one each of a pigeon and turtledove.
Now the presentation of Christ in the Temple and the purification of the blessed Virgin Mary were both performed in obedience to a Levitical Law, which was definitely abrogated in the church. You ask, perhaps, what reason is there to perpetuate such an ancient Israelite observance? Well, deep down below the ordinances lie deep spiritual truths that have withstood the test of time.
Today’s reality is that we don’t have to present animals but we do present our children for baptism. They, like Jesus, are brought as an offering before God to become one with the family of Jesus Christ. Not just the firstborn, but every child born into a Christian household is to be offered to God to become a part of the universal church. The water for cleansing of sins and the empowerment of the Holy Spirit then prepares us even as Christ sends us forth to be his ambassadors to the world. No longer are we required to bring an animal sacrifice. Our Lord Jesus has offered himself as a sacrifice for us and our sins. So what do we, the people of God, offer as we enter the holy place of worship?
A part of our presentation is in the words of the offertory sentences: “Let us with gladness present the offerings and oblations of our life and labor to the Lord.” Or from other sentences “…by the mercies of God, to present yourselves as a living sacrifice.” I grew up in a congregation, that for many years, especially on Sundays of Holy Communion, literally presented themselves, their souls and oblations of their life and labor before God. The hymn began and ushers would stop at each row as we filed out and presented ourselves at the altar – with our treasure from our labor in our hands. That isn’t done much anymore, but certainly it was an humbling experience. Everybody, I thought, was watching me and with that went a little vanity as I grew older. I was wondering if my hair was all right or if anything was hanging or dangling that shouldn’t be. The devil was obviously trying to claim a piece of my soul. Later, it became clear that it wasn’t about the externals (how the people were dressed as they passed) as it was about the heart, mind and souls of those wonderful saints who were walking with great purpose to the altar. We could camouflage ourselves in finery for each other but it was God who would search out our souls.
Each time that we come into the house of the Lord and to the altar, we are presenting ourselves before God. We are, as did Simeon in the Nunc Dimittis, acknowledging Christ as our Lord and Savior who has been revealed as the light of the world. Each time we come into God’s house we, like the prophetess Anna, are called to share with those who would listen, that indeed Christ is the light that came into the world. We give thanks to God for becoming incarnate and living among us and dying for our sins. Keeping alive for us the hope of the life eternal. Christ is the light that wants to shine in our hearts to dispel the darkness that can snatch away our hope and inner peace.
So it is that we began this hour of worship with the service of light.
We recognize today the ministry of the Altar Guild, the more than one hundred men and women who work tirelessly behind the scenes so that our offerings may be acceptable to God. They care for the linens, the dishes, the symbolic lights for the table and the bread and wine that we will offer up in remembrance of our Lord and Savior. To add to the beauty of our worship are the flowers that have been arranged with such love and care. I never cease to marvel at the arrangements. I struggle with a single flower, a stem of baby’s breath and a bud vase. No bells, no whistles for them. But today is an exception. This is our time set apart to honor their ministry. They are serving God and God’s people who have come to present themselves. To them we say thank you for all that you do that we offer the best that we have to God. And to God we offer our thanksgiving for their lives and labors.
The ministry in which the Altar Guild is engaged is a reminder that when we present ourselves to God, we also have a commitment. A commitment of service to others. Often our time and talent may be shared in quiet behind-the-scenes ministry. Only a few may know what our ministry is about. But God will know when we are faithful to the calling of Christ. Others may be in the public arena where major decisions are being made that will alleviate human suffering and despair, or to pursue justice and peace. Wherever we are called—whether out front leading the crusade for Christ or in the kitchen packing the sandwiches as it were—every contribution is needed, every talent is valuable and every gift is essential for the gospel of Christ to be spread. The message is simple: God loves us. Wherever and however we tell the story, we present ourselves as Christ’s ambassadors with the message of love and forgiveness.
Our observance of the Presentation, though ancient, is not completed in one or two special moments. Rather it calls us to a day-to-day renewal of re-presenting ourselves in service and love in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. We then become examples to others, especially our young people, of what it is to be a Christian and to bear the light wherever we find ourselves.
When Mary and Joseph had finished all that was required according to the law of the Lord, they returned home. When we return home this day, let us be a new light to shine in our homes, on our block in the workplace or wherever we are, continuing to grow brighter and stronger in the knowledge and love of God. May the light of faith continue to shine in our hearts that we may dispel the darkness in the lives of others.
In the name of the One who is the light of the world, Jesus the Christ. Amen.