Now, Master, You may let Your servant go in peace according to your word, for my eyes have seen Your salvation, which You prepared in the sight of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and glory to Your people Israel, Lord (Canticle of Simeon, Nunc dimittis, Luke 2: 29-32).
Yesterday, February 2, we celebrated the rich and ancient feast of Candlemas, which is commemorated in both the Western Roman Rite Church and as well as the Eastern Church. This liturgical festival is known under a variety of titles, and its early existence is verified in the homilies of many ancient bishops including: St. Methodius of Patara (C. 312), St. Cyril of Jerusalem (c. 360), St. Gregory the Theologian (c. 389), St. Amphilochius of Iconium (c. 394), St. Gregory of Nyssa (c. 400), and St. John Chrysostom (c. 407).
In the Western Roman Catholic Latin Rite this feast is known as: The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple, the Purification of the Blessed Virgin, and the Presentation of the Lord. For the Eastern Orthodox and many of the Eastern Rite Catholic Churches, this feast is celebrated as one of the Twelve Great Feasts. It is the Hypapante which is Greek for “Encounter. As such, it celebrates the encounter of the Christ-Child and Simeon ( the Just Man) and the Prophetess Anna, as recounted in the Gospel (Luke 2: 22-40). For the Byzantine Catholic and Greek Orthodox this feast is also unique because it is celebrated as both a Great Feast of Our Lord, and a Great Feast of Our Lady, the Theotokos, and is known as: “Feast of the Presentation of our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ in the Temple” or as “The Meeting of Our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ.” In the Eastern Rite, this beautiful festival is celebrated with a forefeast of one day, and an after feast of seven days (thus, I can assure myself that even though this post is late, it is still relevant….). Often candles are blessed during the liturgical rites of this celebration and distributed among the faithful.
In his recent book, Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, the Holy Father, His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI, notes that three specific events are celebrated on the fortieth day after Christmas: “the “purification” of Mary, the “redemption of the first-born child Jesus through an offering prescribed by the law, and the “presentation” of Jesus in the Temple (p. 58).”
The Book of Leviticus (12:1-4) stipulates that after giving birth to a male child, the woman was considered to be impure (excluded from taking part in public worship) for seven days, the child himself was to be circumcised on the eighth day, and the woman was to remain at home for an additional span of thirty days, in purification of her blood. After this time, she was to present a purification sacrifice – a burnt offering – of a young lamb, as well as a sin-offering of two turtle doves or young pigeons. The poor were absolved of the need to bring the young lamb. Thus, St. Luke stipulates that Mary and Joseph brought the offering of the poor: two turtle doves or young pigeons. In his book, Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, Pope Benedict notes that the entire Gospel makes it clear that Jesus and His family belonged to the poor of Israel, and it was therefore through the poor that the long awaited Messiah would fulfill the promise of salvation. It is precisely through the poor that God chose to offer His gift of salvation for all humankind.
The Holy Father goes on to state that:
“Mary does not need to be purified from the birth of Jesus: his birth ushers the purification of the world. But she obeys the law, and in this way she serves the fulfillment of the promises (p. 59).”
Our Lady is a model of poverty and obedience. She did not excuse herself from the precepts of the law rather, in her holiness, she perfectly fulfilled scripture.
One might also consider that while because of her poverty, Our Lady was absolved of the requirement under the Mosaic Law to bring a young lamb to the temple as a purification sacrifice, in actuality He Whom she (and St. Joseph) brought to the temple IS the Ultimate Purification Sacrifice: the infant Lamb of GOD. It is precisely because of Our Lady’s spiritual poverty, her willingness to empty herself totally, and be filled with the grace of God (Hail Mary Full of Grace… kechatitomene – Kεχαριτωμένη-) that this privilege was bestowed upon her by Almighty God.
In Mosaic Law, the first-born male was to be redeemed, and a price of five shekels was to be paid to a priest. The first-born male child was thus to be given unreservedly to God: “Every male that opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord (Exodus 13: 2).” In his text, the Holy Father points out that this prescribed action did not necessarily have to take place in the Temple. Yet, in Jesus’ case the Temple setting is absolutely essential to God’s plan. Recall, the Temple was considered to be the “footstool” of God’s presence for the people of Israel. In an authentic way the Temple was an indication of the validity of God’s presence among His people. In this encounter, The Redeemer of the World is redeemed according to the law, and by virtue of this act, Jesus is publicly handed over to God His Father. As Jesus is presented in the Temple, in a real way the Son of God is presented to God the Father. Thus, both acts are completed in this encounter in the Temple, the prescribed redemption under the law, and the Presentation of the Son to God the Father.
These significant events unfold fulfilling both scripture and the letter of the law against a backdrop of prophesy. First, Simeon the “Just Man” is described in scripture as “righteous and devout, awaiting the consolation of Israel (Luke 2: 25).” It had been revealed to Simeon by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death until he had seen the Messiah of the Lord. On this particular day, Simeon came to the temple “in the Spirit of the Lord (Luke 2:27).” Upon seeing the Child Jesus, Simeon took the Child Jesus in His arms and blessed God, proclaiming:
“Now, Master, You may let Your servant go in peace according to your word, for my eyes have seen Your salvation, which You prepared in the sight of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and glory to Your people Israel Lord (Canticle of Simeon, Nunc dimittis, Luke 2: 29-32).”
Mary and Joseph are amazed at this public proclamation regarding their infant son. As Simeon blesses them, he continues to prophesy, saying specifically to Mary:
“Behold this child is destined for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be contradicted, and you yourself a sword will pierce, so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed (Luke 2: 33-35).”
Simeon’s prophesy indicates the truth that the cross is intimately intertwined with the Messianic mission. Yes, the Christ-Child is the Salvation of Israel – and of all people – but to embrace the glory of Salvation, the Cross is essential.
Like Simeon, Anna the Prophetess, is equally pious, leading a sacrificial life of prayer and penance (Luke 2: 36-38). Like Simeon, she steps forward at the moment Jesus is presented in the Temple, to thank God, and to speak “about the child to all who were awaiting the redemption of Jerusalem (Luke 2: 38).”
This beautiful feast is replete with grace and meaning. Scripture is fulfilled and we are invited to bear witness to the true Light which has come into the world. Just as Simeon and Anna encounter Christ, we too are invited to “see” Who He truly is – with the grace of the Holy Spirit – to encounter Him. Like Simeon, we are also invited to “take the child into our arms” and bless God. Embracing Christ and His Cross, we too are invited to praise God for the gift of the Incarnate Word – Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
Blessed Feast of the Presentation of our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ in the Temple; Joyous Candlemas!
M. A. JMJ