February 4, 2018
Presentation of Our Lord/Candlemas
(Hebrews 2:14-18; Luke 2:22-40)
Today we are celebrating Jesus’ Presentation in the Temple. In the Church this day is celebrated on February 2, forty days after Jesus’ birth. It is a major feast and is variously known as the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple, the Feast of Meeting, the Purification of Mary, and Candlemas. Each name highlights a particular aspect of the day.
This day may be thought of as a festival of light. We hear about the light in today’s gospel. We see it in the candles that are blessed and carried. We receive it as did St. Simeon. That light is Christ himself, our salvation and life.
It is customary on Candlemas to bless candles. The candlelight is an outward and visible sign of Christ who illumines our heart and inner being.
And so, today we see Jesus presented in the Temple. St. Simeon is overjoyed at being able to behold the child Jesus. What he was expecting to see in this child, we do not know, but if he was like any of us, he may have had images of what he thought the child Jesus would look like.
Has anyone ever thought of Jesus as a boxer? On the web, there are images of Jesus in this way. The image is no doubt offensive to many of us on several levels. The artist, however, may have been thinking about Jesus’ victory over sin, death and the devil. Knocked out. Down and out for the count.
Yet, even if this isn’t your image of Jesus, and it probably isn’t, it’s also true that no two people have the same image of a man who is still incredibly popular.
In American Jesus, a book by Stephen Prothero, it’s all spelled out. Jesus is a man “nobody hates.” According to figures Prothero reports, roughly 85 percent of the U.S. population is Christian. (Obviously these figures are flawed, as an internet search pulls up various figures, but usually in the 70’s.) Sure, that includes people who may not have been to church since they were baptized as an infant, but even subtracting those, there are a lot left. In fact, according to Prothero, two-thirds of contemporary Americans say they have made a “personal commitment” to Jesus, and three-quarters of our countrymen and women say they have sensed Jesus’ presence at some time.
But that’s not all. Almost half of America’s non-Christians believe that Jesus was born of a virgin and resurrected from the dead. Here’s more from Prothero
Here [in America] atheists and Buddhists are active producers and consumers of images of Jesus, who in many respects functions as a common cultural coin. Talk to a Hindu and she might tell you that Jesus is an avatar of the god Vishnu. Ask a Jew and you might be told that he was a great rabbi. In a best-selling novel from 1925, Bruce Barton described Jesus as The Man Nobody Knows. Today he is the man nobody hates.
The same cannot be said for Europe, where Christianity isn’t showing much vigor and where half or more of the population of many countries claim no religious affiliation.
But in America, Jesus is very popular.
The only thing is, which Jesus are we talking about?
We ask that because, as Prothero tells it, we Americans have a history of continually remaking Jesus to resemble our current hero-types. Prothero distinguishes this popular chameleon savior from the living Christ of faith and the historical Jesus whom scholars seek by calling him the cultural Jesus or the American Jesus — “Jesus as he has been interpreted and reinterpreted, construed and misconstrued, in the messy midrash of American culture.”
Over the years of America’s history, this remaking of Jesus gradually separated him from the creeds, from the Scriptures and even from Christianity itself — with some people claiming that the religion about Jesus and the religion of Jesus are very different things — what really matters is what Jesus did and taught, not what the Paul and the church have said about him. And once Christ was disentangled from Christianity, Americans of any religion and even of no religion have felt free to embrace their own version of him.
Prothero identifies four different ‘Jesuses’ that have shown up in American Christianity, plus several reinventions of him that some other religions have welcomed. Let’s look at what he has to say for these four ‘Jesuses.’
Those ‘Jesuses’ within Christianity itself include first, the “Enlightened Sage.” This was the Jesus Thomas Jefferson envisioned. When he was president, Jefferson spent a few evenings scissoring out of the gospels all the references to miracles and Jesus’ divinity, ending up with a slim volume he called The Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth. Jefferson’s Jesus prayed to God and believed in an afterlife, but he did not die for anyone’s sins. In fact, that Jesus did not come to save, but to teach. Many believe that in our own day, the people of the Jesus Seminar are the children of Jefferson and un-enlightenment thinking. (Frankly, I agree that the Jesus Seminar members are very un-enlightened!)
Another Jesus is what Prothero calls the “Sweet Savior” who was a product of the evangelist fervor of the 19th and early 20th centuries. During that era, the style of preaching changed from doctrinal dissertations to storytelling, and the life of Jesus, often embellished by the puppeteer, became a central subject. The call of evangelism was to an intimate walk with Jesus — so intimate, in fact, that preachers felt compelled to talk more about Jesus as a buddy whom we could come to know and hang out with, rather than either an historical figure or an object of faith.
To make this work, this Jesus had to be described as approachable and friendly, meek and mild rather than harsh and demanding. That, coupled with the fact that a lot of religious training took place in the home under the tutelage of women, led to a viewing of Jesus as one embodying the more feminine qualities — warmth, caring, humility, piety and so forth. The religion of this Jesus was not so much to be thought about as one to be felt.
A third American version of Jesus, says Prothero, is the “Manly Redeemer,” a muscular reaction to the girly-man Sweet Savior. Beginning in the late 19th century and elbowing its way into the 20th century, Jesus as a testosterone-powered hero came to the fore. Books with titles like The Masculine Power of Christ and The Manhood of the Master appeared. This Manly Redeemer was no more linked to the historic creeds of the church than was the Sweet Savior, but at least he was more vigorous — a Savior with sex appeal. This Jesus brought with him strenuous demands, and he was the one who was ready to lead Christians to war against the social ills of the culture. 007 Jesus! James Bond, eat your heart out.
The fourth and most recent incarnation of the American Jesus is the “Superstar.” In the 1960s, a Jesus movement began among the youth counterculture, and some started to see Jesus as a revolutionary, a leader of an underground Chris-tin liberation movement. When that movement fizzled in the ‘70s, that Jesus emerged unscathed, and became the sub-jet of the rock musicals, Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell. He was thereafter adopted by rock groups and rap singers and heavy metal bands as an upbeat guy who offers an experiential high that is better than drugs. Eventually this Jesus morphed into the figure on whom is built Jesus T-shirts, bumper stickers, posters and other collectables, much of the Christian music industry, as well as some seeker-sensitive mega-churches and who gets cover story treatment every Easter and Christmas by Time and Newsweek.
During Jesus’ trip through mainstream American culture, other religions in this country were looking at him, too. There isn’t room here to go into them, but suffice it to say that the Mormons have made another version of Jesus their own, as have American Jews, as did the black liberation movement, as have some of the Eastern religions that are flourishing under the Stars and Stripes. Prothero details it all.
The upshot is that while many Americans cannot agree on religion, doctrine, worship styles, the role of the Bible, the place of the church, social action, political position and a host of other things, a great many find common ground of a sort in Jesus, or at least Jesus as they picture him. Even some who cannot believe that he was divine still see him as an example to follow. Thus, in the United States at least, Jesus no longer belongs exclusively to Christians.
But is this Jesus, or, more properly, this collection of ‘Jesuses’, the person we meet in the gospels? It’s like a room full of 25 Elvises. Reminds me of the old 50’s -70’s game show, To Tell the Truth, “Will the real Jesus please stand up!” or do something? Water into wine, perhaps.
One place to think about that is in today’s reading where Mary and Joseph encounter Simeon. This devout man had been looking “forward to the consolation of Israel” — the Messiah. When Simeon sees Jesus, he takes the baby in his arms, and praises God, for he knows that this one he is holding is the One he has been expecting.
Now given that Jesus was still an infant, a skeptic overhearing Simeon’s expressions of praise might have thought he was inventing a messiah to fit his own expectations. But the subsequent life, ministry and death of Jesus proved Simeon right.
Note, however, that Simeon did not rely on his own hunch about this baby being the promised Messiah. Rather there were two critical things. First, when the gospel writer Luke tells us that Simeon was “looking forward to the consolation of Israel,” Luke is saying that Simeon was steeped in the Hebrew Scriptures. The term “the consolation of Israel” derives from references in the book of Isaiah to God comforting the people by redeeming them (Isaiah 40:1-2; 52:9). So first, Simeon was basing his pronouncement about Jesus on Scripture.
And second, Luke tells us that Simeon was being guided by the Holy Spirit.
Those two sources of understanding — the outward one of Scripture and the inward one of God’s direct inspiration — still stand today as means of deciding who Jesus is. So obviously, if you are going to take a razor to the gospels as Jefferson did, you’re not going to get the whole picture. The first place to look to decide who Jesus is, is in the Bible itself.
In that regard, the question of who Jesus is isn’t that difficult. The gospels, if we look at them in total, give us some basic answers.
Three are things the Bible tells us directly. We may not understand the implications of all that we can say about Jesus from Scripture, but those things are enough to help us frame an answer to the question, “Who do you say Jesus is?”, an answer that includes the words “example,” “teacher,” “guide” and “Savior.”
We can draw some conclusions about what he might do or say if he were in the flesh today, but we should do that only with humility, knowing that such judgments are speculation at best. I have spoken to people about Jesus and shown them things about him in the Bible and received a response of, “I didn’t know that about Jesus.”
But perhaps that should not surprise us. We are all affected by the various images of and ideas about Jesus that have floated around in our culture. Those things have shaped our thoughts about Jesus, and unless we read the Scriptures thoroughly, we may find ourselves confusing the American Jesus with scriptural Jesus, or, more likely, mashing the two together. The Bible is still the primary outward guide to who Jesus is and what his life means for us.
The other source of understanding Jesus, the inward inspiration of God’s Spirit. It is, however, something we can ask God for in prayer. To be a Christian means, by definition, to be a follower of Christ, and so it is important to perceive all that we can about who Jesus is, what he expects of us, and what he gives us.
Thus, asking for God’s guidance to help us see to “see the light” - Jesus as clearly as we can is never wasted effort for us who bear the name of Christ. In fact, it is necessary for our spiritual growth.
Simeon held the Child in his arms and saw the salvation of Israel. Whom do we see?
Let us pray.
Light from light, give the light of hope to those who seek Your face; give the light of faith to those who dwell in unbelief; give the light of the Gospel to those who live in ignorance; may the light of Christ triumph over every darkness and give the light of love to the aged, sick, and dying who await You in patient faith. We pray to the Lord. (Lord hear our prayer.)
That the church will preach and teach with authority, winning many to the Gospel. We pray to the Lord.
For an end to terrorism in the world and for the healing of all hatred and division among peoples. We pray to the Lord.
That those who have material, political, or scriptural power may resist any lure of corruption. We pray to the Lord.
For those suffering from depression or mental illness; that the Lord will draw close to them and free them from their pain. We pray to the Lord.
For the grace this week to grasp the hand of those in need and raise them up. We pray to the Lord.
And as always, we ask that the healing Archangel Raphael will be sent to our family and friends who are ill and raise them up in spirit and body. We pray to the Lord.
That those who perpetrate, whether in mind or act, any sexual assault, physically or verbally, will stop doing so immediately and follow the true Law of God and that those who have been victims of such, may find healing and peace in the bosom of Our Lady. May this evil and injustice be eradicated from society. We pray to the Lord.
Loving Father, in You we take refuge. Incline your ear to us and save us. Be our fortress and our stronghold. Oh God, true light, who created light eternal, spreading far and wide, pour, we pray, into the hearts of Your faithful the brilliance of perpetual light, so that all who are brightened in Your holy Temple by the splendor of these candles here may happily reach the light of Your glory. We ask all these, Christ our Lord. Amen.
God Love You +++
+ The Most Rev. Robert Winzens
Pastor – St. Francis Universal Catholic Church
San Diego, CA