Candlemass, 2nd Feb 2021
It is said that we’ve probably made up our mind within the first thirty seconds of entering a building whether we like it or not. And this is true of churches. Our minds and bodies pick up little indicators as to whether this is a good or a bad place: cleanliness, warmth, style of building, safety, friendliness, smell, ease of access, familiarity. Churches until fairly recently would be quite properly prioritising making their entrances places of welcome. Now, of course, so many churches - if they’re still open - have focused quite understandably on COVID-response instructions: walk this way, sanitise your hands, don’t touch, keep 2 metres distance, wear a mask. All these orders and many more barked at the daily communicant as much as the first time visitor. And, of course, you’ll always have people who don’t read the signs.
How do we enter church? The prophet Malachi in our first reading speaks of the long-awaited entering of God in to the Temple. Malachi is preaching some five hundred years before the birth of Jesus while the Temple of Jerusalem is being rebuilt along with the reforms of Ezra and Nehemiah. For the Temple to be consecrated, it will need the presence of the Lord, just like it was recorded God’s glory filled the first Temple built by Solomon five hundred years earlier. The Temple Malachi, Ezra and Nehemiah knew is the Temple that had stood hundreds of years and into which Jesus is presented in our Gospel reading. The message is clear: God is entering the Temple once again, this time in the form of a baby, forty days old.
Malachi is also awaiting a cleansing of the ritual practices and a purifying of the people of God: “He will refine them like gold and silver.” The irony of today’s feast is that Jesus is presented in the Temple, fulfilling a rite which was commanded of old, to atone for the sinfulness of parent and child. In this instance, neither Mother nor Son ever knew sin. The old law is shown to be broken in its usefulness because God has entered human flesh and revealed the law to be incapable of freeing humanity from sin. God’s grace is what is needed.
And so we are to enter God’s Temple when we come to Church, aware of His grace. We come here to receive. The thing about coming every Sunday and every Tuesday and possibly even every other day is that we come when we’re perhaps not even really sure that we need anything. We’ve not just come because someone has died or someone is getting married. We’re here because we know we are in a state of being justified, made upright in the sight of God, by His grace.
What we do when we enter Church will hopefully ingrain within us this mindset. What we do with our bodies both expresses our internal feelings but it also schools the soul. We might not be feeling particularly reverential or holy but to genuflect to the altar going down on our right knee teaches us that we ought to be, given we’re here in God’s House. We might not be feeling particularly enamoured of our fellow Christians but - when not in a pandemic - the Holy Water by the doors of our church and making the sign of the Cross with it engraves upon us afresh our baptismal identity which binds us all together.
Churches for much of the medieval era were busy and noisy places. Markets took place there but this was in the days before pews or chairs, of course. The Naves would have just been empty and the people either stood or knelt for worship. I don’t believe there’s much sense of the churches being used this way before the medieval period. We’ve seen Cathedrals today used as vaccination centres and this is wonderful in our attempts to get everyone vaccinated. What’s sad is that often they’re being used as vaccination centres because they’re not open for public worship. It’s an awful state of affairs.
In the Jewish Temple the concept of presence was quite different to how we know Jesus to be present in the Tabernacles of our Churches today. The Temple created a safe and hidden space where the High Priest once a year could offer sacrifice. Our Churches offer the vision of God’s presence that we see in the New Testament: one that abides, endures and is tangible and expressed through the physical. There’s a lovely practice of when passing a Church - even on a bus or a motorbike - of making the sign of the Cross as we do so, a reminder that in the tabernacle of that Church Christ will be present even if the Church is closed.
Malachi looks forward to God suddenly entering the Temple to cleanse the people. Christ enters the Temple so He can be heralded by Simeon and Anna as the light for all peoples. We come in to Church to hear what God has to say to us - which might not be what we expect or want - and to receive what He wants to give us - which, again, might not be what we think we want or what we expect. Our silent prayer before Mass should keep us open to the range of possibilities of what God could give us. We know what He gives will be enough for us to be faithful, we know what God gives us will be true, and we know what He gives us will set us free. Amen.