Sunday 2nd February – Kenneth Boyd

ST JOHN: Candlemas/Presentation EP: Leviticus 12.1-end; Romans 12.1-18

The Old Testament book of Leviticus is not often read in church nowadays. Hearing this evening’s first reading one can understand why. After giving birth a woman is to be regarded as unclean for thirty-three days and if the child is female for twice as long. In order to be made clean she has to bring a lamb, and a pigeon or a turtledove, for a priest (naturally a male priest) to sacrifice on her behalf. If you doubt this, Leviticus says, it is what the LORD told Moses, so you’d better believe it.

Nowadays this sounds like one of the ways in which patriarchal, male-dominated and misogynous cultures use religion to control women, not only socially but psychologically. Certainly it felt that way in the early 20th century to many women in Roman Catholic and those Anglican churches which still practiced the rite of ‘churching of women after childbirth’. The source of this rite in Christianity was the story in St Luke’s Gospel about the infant Jesus and his mother being taken to the temple in Jerusalem to do what Leviticus prescribed. The Gospel story shifts the emphasis from the mother to the Son, from purification to what came to be called ‘The Presentation of Christ in the Temple’. The emphasis in the Christian rite also changes from purification to thanksgiving. Although ‘commonly called the churching of women’, the Anglican Prayer Book observes, its proper title is ‘the thanksgiving of women after childbirth’; and its introductory words tell women to ‘give hearty thanks unto God’ for giving them ‘a safe deliverance’ and preserving them ‘in the great danger of childbirth’.  One reason then for the decline and eventual disappearance of the rite in the early 20th century may have been the medical advances which routinely delivered women from that danger: but another was the feeling of many women that in being allowed back into the still male-dominated sanctuary they were, as some remembered it, ‘being insulted, and more important, a sense that the act of giving birth was regarded by their church as shameful’. Many women, themselves making ‘the connection between the churching rite and purification’, increasingly refused to be involved and so the rite eventually died away.

Having said all that however, let’s not lay all the blame on Leviticus and so silence it in church, as women once were. ‘Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it’ a wise man said, and some wise women today, feminist scholars of the Bible, find much to be learnt from Leviticus, provided it is understood in the terms of its own times. Like the other four first books of the Old Testament, Leviticus incorporates several different cultural and religious traditions which developed over centuries; it was written and rewritten by many different authors; and it came into the form we have it sometime between 700 and 500 years before the birth of Christ, either when the Jewish people were exiled in Babylon or after they returned to Jerusalem and rebuilt the temple.  With worship in the temple particularly in mind, Leviticus is concerned with how humans, whose bodies and nature are constantly changing, can come close to God who is perfect and unchanging. The purification of women after childbirth was just one way in which the writers of Leviticus thought this could be done: other Levitical laws were concerned with doing this in relation to land ownership, animals, food, skin conditions, blood, and leakage from male as well as female sexual organs.  

At times, concerned with contagion and quarantine for example, these laws can sound like primitive medicine: at others, where family relationships and ownership are discussed, they sound like social justice – in today’s reading for example, if the woman cannot afford a sheep for the sacrifice, the pigeon or turtle dove will be enough. But it is difficult to fit these laws into modern categories: some things are emerging that might later be called medicine or justice or religion, but they are not there yet, and even the religious meanings are unclear: in the earlier part of Leviticus, from which tonight’s reading comes, the laws are more ritual than moral and God is more an impersonal and even dangerous force, than the more personal and moral God who can be glimpsed in the later chapters of Leviticus, and more clearly still in the Old Testament prophets and in the New Testament.

What we find in Leviticus then can be seen as a stage or stages in the long human quest to answer the ultimate questions of ‘Why?’ and ‘How?’ – ‘why are we, why is there anything, at all?’ and ‘how should we live, in society, health and with humanity’s deep longing for what is good, and beautiful and true?’ And this in turn can be seen as what has been called God’s education of the human race, the dawning awareness in human minds and hearts of reality beyond our understanding, yet known in our most intimate selves, in prayer and in love. That we, that the human race, can take in only a little of this at a time, and are easily distracted, is clear; and what we take in is inextricably mixed with our human need and neediness, including the neediness that makes male-dominated cultures use religion to control women and others less outwardly powerful than themselves. Such cultural neediness, however, belongs to the world of petty pride and precarious privilege, a world which is always on the brink of a fall, where today, as in the past, people and fashions are puffed up only to be blown down by rivalry and embittered jealousy.  But beyond that world there is still and always our and humanity’s need and longing for what is good and beautiful and true, to bring us back to the deepest in ourselves, and listen to the still, small voice of Love Unknown.

For good advice on how to listen to that voice, we can do no better than hear what St Paul writes in our second reading tonight. ‘Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – and what is good and acceptable and perfect.’  What renewing of your mind essentially means here, is to see beyond the passing show, not just of the public world we read about in the media, but also of the private world of our own illusions about ourselves and our misconceptions about other people, our own hurt pride and petty annoyances – to see beyond that, to how all of us might be seen in the eyes of God, who is Truth and Justice, Mercy and Love. If we can do that, then we might begin to realize the wisdom of what Paul goes on to say about not thinking of ourselves more highly than we ought to think – but at the same time of course also not more lowly either, for as he also says: we are ‘every one members one of another’. To see ourselves and one another as we are seen in the eyes of God, is to see ourselves as we really are, and so to be set free, if only for a few moments, from the anxieties of comparing ourselves, for better or worse, with others.

One final thought. The ultimate test of whether we have been transformed by the renewing of our minds is whether we have learnt what has been called ‘the deepest secret of the love’ that Jesus taught. And that is not easy, but it is necessary. It is whether we have learnt to forgive. ‘Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who have sinned against us.’ That is at the heart of the Lord’s Prayer and the heart of the gospel. It is what enables us to forgive ourselves and make a hopeful new beginning, every day, every hour, every moment. But it becomes effective in our lives only insofar as we learn to forgive others. Whether we can ‘extend to others the divine forgiveness which we have experienced, the forgiveness which passes all understanding’: that is the ultimate test of whether we have been transformed by the renewing of our minds.

Reference

Kamionkowski S T Wisdom Commentary vol 3: Leviticus; Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press 2018

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