Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Presentation of Christ in the Temple and Candlemas

In the secular world, today, February 2nd, is a day when a shy animal may or may not see his shadow, supposedly predicting the possible end of winter now ... or in six weeks. Groundhog Day.

But in the Christian realm, today is a most important day. Forty days after the birth of God's son, His human parents presented the Christ Child at the Temple, bringing the required sacrifice: two young pigeons. In the Gospel according to Saint Luke, Mary and Joseph, their miraculous Son in their arms, meet two incredible people of God, Simeon and Anna:

Luke 2: 22-38 (English Standard Version): 22 And when the time came for their purification according to the Law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord 23 (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, “Every male who first opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord”) 24 and to offer a sacrifice according to what is said in the Law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons.” 25 Now there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon, and this man was righteous and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. 26 And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord's Christ. 27 And he came in the Spirit into the temple, and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him according to the custom of the Law, 28 he took him up in his arms and blessed God and said,

29 “Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace,
according to your word;
30 for my eyes have seen your salvation
31 that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and for glory to your people Israel.”

33 And his father and his mother marveled at what was said about him. 34 And Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, “Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed 35 (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.”

36 And there was a prophetess, Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was advanced in years, having lived with her husband seven years from when she was a virgin, 37 and then as a widow until she was eighty-four. She did not depart from the temple, worshiping with fasting and prayer night and day. 38 And coming up at that very hour she began to give thanks to God and to speak of him to all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem.
The Saint of the Day e-mail from American Catholic for today reads:
At the end of the fourth century, a woman named Etheria made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Her journal, discovered in 1887, gives an unprecedented glimpse of liturgical life there. Among the celebrations she describes is the Epiphany (January 6), the observance of Christ’s birth, and the gala procession in honor of his Presentation in the Temple 40 days later—February 15. (Under the Mosaic Law, a woman was ritually “unclean” for 40 days after childbirth, when she was to present herself to the priests and offer sacrifice—her “purification.” Contact with anyone who had brushed against mystery—birth or death—excluded a person from Jewish worship.) This feast emphasizes Jesus’ first appearance in the Temple more than Mary’s purification.

The observance spread throughout the Western Church in the fifth and sixth centuries. Because the Church in the West celebrated Jesus’ birth on December 25, the Presentation was moved to February 2, 40 days after Christmas.

At the beginning of the eighth century, Pope Sergius inaugurated a candlelight procession; at the end of the same century the blessing and distribution of candles which continues to this day became part of the celebration, giving the feast its popular name: Candlemas.

In Luke’s account, Jesus was welcomed in the temple by two elderly people, Simeon and the widow Anna. They embody Israel in their patient expectation; they acknowledge the infant Jesus as the long-awaited Messiah. Early references to the Roman feast dub it the feast of St. Simeon, the old man who burst into a song of joy which the Church still sings at day’s end.

“Christ himself says, ‘I am the light of the world.’ And we are the light, we ourselves, if we receive it from him.... But how do we receive it, how do we make it shine? ...[T]he candle tells us: by burning, and being consumed in the burning. A spark of fire, a ray of love, an inevitable immolation are celebrated over that pure, straight candle, as, pouring forth its gift of light, it exhausts itself in silent sacrifice” (Paul VI).
The Collect from the 1928 Book of Common Prayer:
ALMIGHTY and everliving God, we humbly beseech thy Majesty, that, as thy only-begotten Son was this day presented in the temple in substance of our flesh, so we may be presented unto thee with pure and clean hearts, by the same thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
When I think of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, my imagination pictures Mary. The young mother, finally declared "clean" according to Judaic Law, enters the Temple with the sacrific required of the poor, her husband's protective arm about her. As they enter, an old man, holy and devout, proclaims this Child's future in ringing words. I can imagine the joy that envelops her heart. She knows this Child is miraculous, a gift of the Holy Spirit, set apart for an incredible, culture-shaking life. And then the dark words of Simeon stab her, heart-deep: "and a sword will pierce through your own soul also." Light struck down by darkness swirls through her mind, and, as she has throughout this miraculous, mysterious year, she "ponders all in her heart." And then Anna, the holy-crazy woman who dwells in the Temple, praying night and day, approaches and thanks God for this Child in prophetic words, foretelling the redemption of Jerusalem. I can feel Mary's confusion and fear, mixed with pride and wonder, as she stores away the events of this monumental day, one that began with ritual and closed with the revelation of very God of very God.

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