The Challenge of the Presentation

Are there passages from the Bible that frighten you, or at least make you think twice about yourself and your behaviour? Thomas Merton—a well-known religious figure of a generation ago—was made uneasy by Matthew 6.5: “Amen I say to you, they have received their reward,” words used by Jesus to describe the recognition the Pharisees received when they practised their piety publicly, in order to excite admiration among the people. And that certainly is meagre recompense compared to the glory that waits the humble and faithful servants of the Lord: “Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.[1] A text I find unsettling is also found in Matthew: “The Queen of the South will arise at the judgment with this generation and condemn it.[2] Let me explain why I find this verse a continual challenge.

In 1959, after my graduation, I left Saint Michael’s College here in Toronto, returning to take up residence there after an absence of more than fifty years, in 2012. Not surprisingly, when I first began moving around the campus, images from the past crowded into my mind. In what is now a meeting room under Saint Basil’s church, to take one instance, there had earlier been a chapel frequented by the twenty-five seminarians who lived and studied at the College in those days. I can picture it as it was, with the altar against the front wall, flanked by statues of the Blessed Virgin and Saint Joseph. As I recall, we were very devout, almost monastic, in the simplicity and severity of our lives, and I sometimes wonder if the spectre of my former self, when I was a young man, might not, like the Queen of the South, arise at the judgment to rebuke my loss of fevour and religious observance. And I also sometimes ask myself what Catholics of the Middle Ages would have to say to us, if they were somehow able to join us in the celebration of Candlemas, today’s feast of the Purification of Mary. In mediaeval times Candlemas was a major religious and social event, marked by one of the most elaborate processions of the liturgical year, when every parishioner was obliged to join in carrying a blessed candle [which] afterwards would burn before Our Lady’s altar. . . . The people took candles away from the ceremony, to be lit during thunderstorms or during times of sickness, and to be placed in the hands of the dying. [The use of candles] and the imagery of light in the ceremonies was derived from Simeon’s song, in which the child Jesus is hailed as “a light to the gentiles”[3] a phrase we have just heard in today’s Gospel. That’s what it was like to live in a Catholic country, where the liturgical seasons and the great feasts determined the rhythm of daily life—in the home, in business, in courts and palaces.

Is there is anything quite like that in our society? What about professional sports—Will you be watching the Super Bowl this afternoon?—or the entertainment industry? Are not, in fact, the Oscars an annual event that a lot of people mark on their calendars? And are we not as keen to learn about the goings-on of athletes and actors as our ancestors in the Faith were to hear about the saints? In any case we decidedly do not live in a religious society, and as religiously minded people we must at times feel the lack. Surely it would have been easy to be devout long ago, when the rhythm of life was determined by the Church’s calendar. The practices of devotion, such as processions and pilgrimages, novenas, fasting and feasting—all these were woven into the fabric of everyday life. How different it is today! They unconsciously, perhaps, functioned in a Catholic culture, and we, equally unconsciously, function in ours. If we are honest with ourselves, shall we not admit that our moral and cultural convictions, for the most part, are indistinguishable from those of our non-believing contemporaries? On the other hand, it requires more gumption to practise our faith and to witness to it nowadays than in the past. They were carried along by social custom and observances, but we have to swim upstream, against the current. This fact may be some response to the rebuke of those ghosts from the Middle Ages who alongside the Queen of the South will arise at the judgment with this generation and condemn it.

Whatever the period, past or present, the essence of our faith remains constant, and, like our mediaeval counterparts, we recognize Jesus as a “light for revelation to the gentiles and the glory of his people Israel.” He still comes to his temple and still expects us to incorporate the Gospel into our lives; and the stakes today are as high as they were seven hundred years ago. The prophet says as much in the first reading: “But who can endure the day of his coming . . . ? he is like a refiner’s fire . . . and he will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver.[4] There’s another fearsome verse to summon that over-worked Queen of the South, a text echoed by Saint Peter when he wrote that our faith is to be tested by the refiner’s fire,[5] just as the ore is smelted until the slag rises to the surface to be skimmed off, leaving the pure gold behind. Given this text—and there are many others like it—“we have cause to be uneasy.”[6] It follows that we have all the more reason to place all our hope in Jesus, about whom the Letter to the Hebrews says: “he himself was tested by what he suffered, [so that] he is able to help those who are being tested.”[7]a

[1] Matt 25.34.

[2] Matt 12.42.

[3] Eamon Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992), pp. 16-18.

[4] Malachi 3.2-3.

[5] 1 Pet 1.7.

[6] C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, book 1, chapter 5.

[7] Heb 2.18.