Feast of the Presentation of the Lord, February 2, annually
When God's people and their leaders were not living virtuously, the prophet Malachi (MAL uh kie) criticized them for careless religious rituals, for cheating and for marriage to pagans. He predicts that the Lord will, like a craftsman melting gold and silver, "refine" the Levite priests of the temple.
Jews who became Christians lost the comforts of their old religion, including its speculations about angels. The Letter to the Hebrews reminds these converts that Jesus replaces and vastly improves upon everything they have given up. Here the writer argues that Jesus is superior to angels and closer to us than angels could be.
The audience of Luke's gospel were pagan converts. They were happy to become Christians but puzzled that they had inherited a religion that started among the famously exclusive Jews. So Luke shows them two representatives of the Jewish heritage proclaiming how that tradition was destined to be transformed by Jesus.
The Historical Situation: After Judah returned from its exile in Babylon, the people and their leaders did not quickly rise to great levels of virtue. An anonymous prophet, who took the name Malachi (pronounce it MAL uh ki, with a short a in the first syllable, and long i in the third; it's Hebrew for "my messenger"), upbraided them for several abuses, such as religious impiety, cheating and marriage to pagans. In these verses, his particular concern is the temple and its rituals. His prediction that the Lord will visit the temple connects the first reading with today's gospel. The "sons of Levi" are the hereditary clan of priests who have been neglecting their sacred duties.
Proclaiming It: Malachi was passionate, and his imagery is vivid: How will the Lord come to the temple? Suddenly. How will we work? Like the refiner's fire or the fuller's lye. (A fuller was a craftsman who cleansed and thickened cloth.) So bring out the vigor in these expressions. Also emphasize "to the temple" so that your listeners know the locus of the action.
The Historical Situation: This letter was for some Jews who had become Christian, and who were feeling nostalgic for some of the institutions of Judaism from which they were now cut off. The author's intent is to show them that they have in Jesus everything they used to have in Judaism, and more. So there are references to Jewish ideas and theological concepts that are strange to most of us today.
The Theological Background: For example, evidently the addressees had believed that angels played important mediating roles between God and the faithful. Rather than simply dismiss this idea, the author spends chapters 1 and 2 of Hebrews explaining how Jesus, as the very son of God, is superior to the angels. To explain why Jesus had to suffer (and angels do not suffer), he says in chapter 2, verse 9, that Jesus was made for a little while lower than the angels, that he might "taste death" for the sake of all people.
Then he says that this share in our suffering made our leader in salvation (Jesus) perfect. And the author implies something he'll develop later, that Jesus replaces the priests of old Judaism, just like he does the angels. Without using the word "priest" yet, but rather using the verb "consecrate" (the work specific to priests), he says "those consecrated" (that is, us) and the one consecrating (Jesus) have the same Father. So we're Jesus' brothers and sisters, and all children of God.
It's not the tight Aristotelian logic we like to see on our newspapers' editorial pages, but a different style of argumentation that made much sense its original audience. (And it's a style not completely out of date even today. I remember seeing this kind of argumentation in the books of the twentieth-century American Jewish novelist Chaim Potok, The Chosen and The Promise. They're about brilliant contemporary rabbinical students and their struggles with the ideas of the dominant culture. Recommended reading!)
In any case, all this sets things up for the small paragraph forming our reading.
Proclaiming It: Whew! There's a lot packed into a few dozen words. Before such a smörgåsbord of ideas, and absent any compelling link to the first reading or gospel, I'd choose one notion and try to emphasize it. My choice? Jesus' solidarity with us. "Jesus likewise shared in them [human blood and flesh]," "he had to become like his brothers and sisters"
The readings share this theme: an unexpected visit by the Lord challenges comfortable ritual practices:
The question for our congregation: How would a sudden, unexpected visit from the Lord challenge the practices in which we have grown comfortable? In religious life, it is certainly easy to become complacent with arrangements and practices once established. This applies at the congregational level to our Sunday rituals, to our congregational governance, and to the presence we exercise in our larger communities. If the Lord came today for an unannounced inspection, would we pass muster in the area of vigorous worship, parish and diocesan self-administration, zealous mission and witness to the rest of the world?
The question for each individual: Are we as faithful when life presents us new challenges as we are habitual when things go along steadily.
Just as the priest Jesus needed to experience temptation, our devotions and rituals need to be grounded in life's messy and ambiguous experiences.
The priests in question today are all of us, not just the ordained ministers, of course.
In the 1960's and '70's, Catholics saw the Second Vatican Council as an unexpected visit by the Spirit of the Lord, bent on reforming practices with which the church had become comfortable and complacent. Sensing what might be going on, some historians and liturgists predicted that a renewed liturgy of baptism and of the Eucharist would so fulfill the spiritual needs of God's people that other devotional practices would seem less necessary, and no longer propagate themselves. The short history since then has not borne out this prediction, at least not in this author's milieu. This may be because the prediction was just wrong. It could also be because the renewal of the liturgy has been allowed to stop prematurely.
Refining silver, a photo illustrating a page of the devotional website of Janet Boxx. The photo appears on other sites, all of which seem to be devotional. I could not find an artist's credit.
This page updated December 16, 2019