The Lord’s Presentation in the Temple is the last of the feasts of Christmas. It’s another epiphany. It’s a further unfolding of the Incarnation.
It’s an unfolding of the Incarnation’s consequences in the realm of worship. It’s the passage from the worship of the Old Covenant to that of the New, to ‘worship in spirit and truth’. The Lord comes to the Temple to initiate a new purified priesthood and a new sacrifice, the priestly offering of ourselves, in union with the Passion of Christ. This was foreseen by Simeon, and was to be shared in by Mary. ‘The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple is an eloquent icon of the total offering of one’s life’, said Pope John Paul II.
Christian worship is not so spiritual that it dispenses from signs, symbols and images. It too is an unfolding of the Incarnation – in time and space, using all the resources of the material creation and human art. The Church learned this through the bitter controversy over icons in the 8th and 9th cc. Many questioned the legitimacy of representations of Christ, Mary, the saints and angels. Isn’t this against the Old Testament’s prohibition of graven images? Isn’t this a relapse into idolatry? If Christ is God, how can he be portrayed? This controversy was ferocious: it involved bloodshed and widespread destruction of Christian art. It reminds us of some of the controversies of the 16th c., not entirely dead!
In the 7th Ecumenical Council, Nicaea II (787), the Church affirmed: ‘We declare that we preserve intact all the written and unwritten traditions of the Church which have been entrusted to us. One of these traditions consists in the production of representational artwork, which accords with the history of the preaching of the Gospel. For it confirms that the incarnation of the Word of God was real and not imaginary…’
Yes, just as liturgy uses the audible, the word, so it uses the visual, the image. Preaching and painting go together. So, through these two senses (and the others), the reality of the Incarnation impinges upon our whole humanity and can enter deeply into us.
We do not ‘worship’ images. We honour them, and the honour passes to the persons they represent, and, if Christ is involved, there becomes adoration. St Thomas Aquinas explains it well: ‘Religious worship is not directed to images in themselves, considered as mere things, but under their distinctive aspect as images leading us on to God incarnate. The movement towards the image does not terminate in it as image but tends towards that whose image it is.’ So an icon is a sacramental. It leads us to the mystery portrayed. It is a window on heaven. It is written in prayer and takes us on a journey of prayer.
So we thank Sr Petra Clare for enhancing St Mary’s with this beautiful icon of the Lord’s Presentation. We thank those, living and dead, whose generosity has made this possible.
Lastly, notice where it is: on the wall to the side of the sanctuary. The Presentation of the Lord could be called the Offertory of Jesus’ life. As Mary and Joseph brought their child to the Temple and learned of his Passion to come, so at the beginning of the Eucharistic liturgy the gifts of bread and wine are brought to the altar to become the Body and Blood of the Lord offered in sacrifice. It is the one same movement. So may this icon help us be drawn more fully into the celebration of the Eucharist! May it help us make a pleasing offering of our whole lives as worshippers in spirit and truth!
Delivered at St Mary’s, Inverness on 2 February 2015