Can you remember back to Christmas? It seems a long time ago, yet it hasn’t even been six weeks. Today we’re remembering the feast of Jesus’ presentation in the Temple, which would have taken place 40 days after his birth. It’s an occasion for dedicating the child to God, once enough time has elapsed that one can be reasonably certain the child will survive. Think for a minute about what it must have been like in a world where a third to half of children died in infancy. That’s still pretty much the reality in some parts of the world, like Angola, where nearly 20% of children die before they’re a year old. Compare that to Hong Kong, where the death rate is under 3 per 1000, or Ireland, where it’s 3.5 per 1000 live births. In a context where children die so readily, parents struggle with how much emotional investment they can make in each newborn child – there has to be some real hesitancy for the first days and weeks: is this child going to make it?
There was a human interest piece in the New York Times the day I left on this trip, about a urologic surgeon who spends most of his time treating cancer patients. He decided some years ago that he wanted to be trained as a mohel, the minister who celebrates the bris, and circumcises newborn Jewish boys, usually on the eighth day after birth. Again, the tradition is to wait long enough to be reasonably certain this new son will live. The story was about a very sick newborn, whose bris was delayed. The parents did not want to subject this fragile baby to any more pain or stress. When it became clear that the child would likely die, the parents asked if the bris could be observed after the child died, and the mohel agreed. The child was circumcised, named and prayed for as a part of the family, and then given over into God’s welcoming arms.
Jesus’ bris and naming took place 8 days after his birth – and we celebrate it on 1 January. By the time 6 weeks have passed since the birth, the child should be nursing well and growing, and strong enough to leave the safety of home. That’s what we remember today – Jesus’ presentation in the Temple, his dedication to God. It’s also a time to be explicit about the hopes for this child. In Malachi and the letter to the Hebrews, we heard the great expectations laid on this child Jesus – the hope and dream for a savior of the nation.
What hopes and dreams are laid on new members of our families today? Will this be the child who will achieve more than her parents, the first one to go to university, or will this be the one who emigrates? We hear occasionally about later children whose parents hope they will provide healing for older, sick siblings through the gift of stem cells. This child Jesus is the hoped-for healer of his nation, and indeed, all nations.
We respond to new leaders in the same way. When we elect or install them, we load them up with quite phenomenal expectations. The United States invested amazing hope in our first African-American president – and President Obama bears the desire of generations for healing of prejudice, injustice, and the ancient wounds of slavery. Those hopes went far beyond the United States. At the service in the national cathedral the day after his inauguration, I spoke with people from Cameroon, the Ivory Coast, and Ghana who had come across the ocean for 36 hours, just to attend the inauguration. Yet when people discover that one human being cannot possibly fulfill those enormous hopes, disillusion follows.
What hopes is this nation laying on its next Taoiseach? Will your next prime minister be expected to solve the entire fiscal crisis in his or her first week in office? That person will take office overloaded with urgent desires for healing and resolving all the ills of this nation and maybe even larger parts of this world.
We already have a savior. Be gentle with your new leaders – but not too gentle. If we’re going to cooperate with God’s ancient vision for a healed and reconciled world, we have to have a sense of urgency. People are dying, including too many newborn children, because we haven’t been urgent enough. Lives are lost through sickness, war, neglect, and murder because we avoid the hard realities. Thirty thousand children die of preventable illness every day. Those deaths wouldn’t happen if there were clean water, effective health care, adequate food, and vaccinations – and another child dies every 3 seconds because we haven’t worked hard enough to prevent it.
We already have a cosmic savior, yet those who share God’s dream are all partners in healing the world. God can’t do it without us. As Desmond Tutu is fond of saying, when God said feed the hungry, he didn’t mean to stand around and wait for pizzas to fall from heaven.
Sometimes the partners in healing end up sharing Jesus’ road to Calvary. An Anglican was murdered in Uganda this week, a man who has been a strong voice for the basic human rights of gay and lesbian people. His voice has been silenced. We can pray that others will continue that work, or be challenged by the brutality of his death into some conversion of heart. Will we challenge the world to respect the dignity of every single human being?
The healing of the world needs the participation and leadership of all parts of the body of Christ. It starts with urgent voices, and changed hearts, our own conversion, and our challenge to systems that perpetuate all kinds of sickness and death around the world.
Saviors and leaders are all around us – in these disciples of Jesus, and in similar communities far beyond this one. When we came to the baptismal font, each one of us was presented and dedicated to God to share Jesus’ healing work. We’ve shown up here today to be fed and encouraged for that ancient work of healing the world.
Those urgent voices continue to show up. More than 30 years ago, one of those leaders was at work in El Salvador. He raised his voice to challenge the oppression and murder going on in that nation in the 1970s. When a reporter asked him if he was afraid, he said, “I have often been threatened with death. I must tell you, as a Christian, I don’t believe in death without resurrection. If I am killed, I shall arise in the Salvadoran people.” And indeed, his assassination lent enormous energy to the quest for justice in that land. To this day, when the people of El Salvador gather, they claim his presence by calling his name and answering for him: Oscar Romero, presente. Oscar Romero, present!
Most of us will never confront that kind of death-laced fear. Yet our names are being called all the time. We’re challenged in this very body to “show up,” to present ourselves ready, willing, and able to help heal this broken world. That is what it means to be part of the body of Christ.
Body of Christ, are you here? Will you answer?
Body of Christ?