Seeing Holiness at Church

Church life gets messy sometimes: people say weird things in testimony meeting or Sunday School, have failures of social tact, or occasionally behave in outright ugly ways. Barring the more extreme instances, this is all more or less normal, and every now and again, amidst the humdrum strangeness of it all, holiness manages to occur.

From the Gospel accounts, it would seem that the Jerusalem Temple in the time of Jesus was a bustling place, a place of great social, political, and religious importance. A young couple bringing their child into the Temple for the presentation required by the law—which they fulfilled as humbly as possible, with the poor person’s sacrifice of “a pair of turtledoves”—would not ordinarily merit much notice. One might see them, perhaps, but likely not for long, amidst the pressures of other business. Such may even have been the experience of the priest who assisted them.

Malachi speaks of a messenger who prepares the way, but he also says that the Lord comes suddenly. That is to say that we might be expecting him, but that we still might not notice him when he comes. Of course we expect holiness at Church, but do we notice when it arrives?

There were two who did notice Jesus in the Temple that day. Both, like many who spend considerable time in our modern Temples, were elderly. Perhaps like some of these patrons, those who may find themselves spiritually barren but still optimistic, Simeon and Anna had been waiting a long time. And there he was.

Simeon cried out in ecstatic release. Anna, she was a prophet. Sometimes we forget that. She began proclaiming Jesus to everyone around. Perhaps some of them, in their busyness, were irritated to see an old woman nattering on. Just like, several hundred years prior, people probably got well tired of that crazy naked guy, Isaiah.

But just because we sometimes miss the holiness doesn’t mean it isn’t there. If Jesus may have been just another infant to the priest in the Temple that day, Jesus himself has now become the high priest who will never not notice us, even when we sometimes wish that he’d turn away, if only for a moment.

King Benjamin’s people famously turned their tents toward the Temple so that they could hear their prophet-king re-administer the covenant. In another historical circumstance, the Temple toward which they pointed their tents might itself have been a tent. Our ecclesiological concept of a “Stake” has reference to a tent (see Isaiah 54:2 and D&C 107:17-21), and both sorts of tent, the peoples’ and the Tabernacle, resonate with this image. If we can point the Church toward the Temple, it will become a Temple, and in becoming a Temple, the Church will become the habitation of God.

To become the Temple, though, the Church will have to become more like its perfect high priest, to become the kind of corporate person who, when Jesus came into the Temple, would notice. And as often as not, he comes into the Temple—both of the Church and our lives—as “one of the least of these.” We must make these Temples into the kind of place where

Even the sparrow finds a home,
and the swallow a nest for herself,
where she may lay her young,
at your altars, O Lord of hosts,
my King and my God.

As the great gospel song reminds us, his eye is on the sparrow. If we are to be his Temple, our eyes must be too.

_mormon_lectionary-100x100px-RGBaMormon Lectionary Project 

The Presentation

Malachi 3:1-4, Hebrews 2:14-18, Luke 2:22-40, Psalm 84, Mosiah 2:1-6

The Collect: O God, Creator of all things great and small: as we turn to thy Temple in our hearts and with our actions, wilt thou, we pray, send thy Presence into our midst and make us, the body of thy Church, into a living Temple, that by thy grace we might become a refuge of holiness for the distressed of the earth, becoming one in communion as thou, with Jesus Christ thy Son and the Holy Spirit, art one God, forever and ever. Amen.

Simeon’s exclamation in the Temple has become a liturgical song, named Nunc dimittis after its Latin incipit. Because this song features in both the Anglican and Catholic mass services, there are many settings. I’ll include just two, Gustav Holst’s and the setting in G by Sir Charles Villiers Stanford.

Holst:

Stanford:

And then of course there’s “His Eye is on the Sparrow.” I love all this High Church stuff as much as anybody, but sometimes there’s just no substitute for gospel music. (“Lift Every Voice and Sing” needs to become a part of LDS worship.)  There are terrific versions of “His Eye is on the Sparrow” by Whitney Houston and Marvin Gaye (and I wish I could link to audio of the young woman who rocked this song at BYU’s MLK celebration last year), but ultimately I settled on this one, by the great Mahalia Jackson:

Comments

  1. Our Sunday meetings are closed for snow, so this was my sermon today. Lovely. I love Anna and Simeon. “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, for mine eyes have seen thy salvation, which thou hast prepared before the face of all people.” My very favorite setting of that text is John Rutter’s.

  2. melodynew says:

    Thank you, Jason. My grandson will be named and blessed today, presented to his community of saints in sacrament meeting. My mind was on the temple earlier, then I found this lovely post from you and the marvelous serendipity that I associate with Holiness to the Lord has begun this sabbath morn. God bless you, friend. You too, Miss Emily U.

  3. What a fortunate alignment, Melody; may the day continue to be blessed!

  4. Joel Winter says:

    Thank you. I will look for holiness today with more poignant attention to the details. I just printed out the sheet music for His Eye is on the Sparrow as a hymn. It won’t be like Mahalia Jackson but it will start my worship today.

  5. What a fortunate alignment, Melody; may the day continue to be blessed!

  6. Emily: post a link to the Rutter if you can find one! (I couldn’t, but I didn’t look that hard.)

    Joel: that’s awesome!

  7. We do need to open our hearts and look for the holiness at Church. Thank you for the reminder Jason!

  8. Excellent Nuncs. The Holst doesn’t get sung nearly enough, because he never wrote a Mag to go with it.

  9. Also because it’s in Latin…

  10. I heard it sung at St. Paul’s last summer. Breathtaking.

  11. Also, we need to get over the Latin thing. Just print a translation in the program, or, in this case, tell people to open their scriptures.

  12. It’s not such a problem in English churches nowadays as it used to be. Mormon churches though are another story. I’ve had some luck singing Latin, but it’s highly bishop dependent.

  13. I imagine it’s the rare bishop that allows it.

  14. We’ve adopted the simple expedient of not asking the bishop. :) We’ve not gone so far as to sing an “Ave” yet, but we did have a beautiful rendition of “Panis Angelicus” a few weeks ago by one of our young men, with only a few raised eyebrows.

    I’m always somewhat surprised, but perhaps I shouldn’t be, by the universal bafflement at Latin. Granted, I grew up (post-Vatican II) RC, and served an Italian mission, but surely anyone with enough English vocabulary to do a weekday NYT crossword, and a passing familiarity with the Scriptures or Handel’s Messiah should be able to puzzle out most Latin church music, at least in broad stroke. Chock full of cognate-y goodness.

  15. There is always that expedient :)

    The Latin in church music does tend to be fairly straightforward. You may be overestimating how many people do the NYT crossword (especially the Sunday one), but maybe in the 21st century all we need to do is to get more people to follow Pope Francis’s Latin Twitter feed: @pontifex_ln.

  16. Oh – and Rene Clausen’s cantata A New Creation has a beautiful rendition of Simeon’s prayer (in English).

  17. I don’t think it’s the ability/inability to understand Latin that is the issue, I think it seems unfamiliar, high churchy, and “catholic” to most leaders. We did a fair bit of Latin music for a while, but then the bishop changed, and he said it sounded like “monks in a cave” and that was the end of it. Luckily there is a lot of great old church music in English as well, thanks to the Anglican church.

  18. Yes, it probably does evoke “the great and abominable church” to some people. Which means, as you say: thank God for the Anglicans!

    Thanks for that link, NI.