During Advent, Christmas and Epiphany we focus on the birth of Christ as the dawning of the light amidst the darkness of the world. This day is a pivotal day in our liturgical cycle, when we have a last look back toward Christmas and, through the prophetic words of Simeon, when we begin to look towards Lent and the celebration of Christ’s death and resurrection. Today marks the transition point between where we have been and the Lent-Easter cycle we soon will begin. There we will witness the ultimate triumph of the light as we celebrate the central Christian mystery: Jesus’ dying and rising.
This feast has a complex history and a variety of meanings which are marked by the several names that have been attached to this day. The earliest mention of this day dates from Jerusalem in the late fourth century where it is referred to as “The Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary,” one of the events commemorated in this morning’s Gospel. Mary, like all Jewish women of her time, went up to Jerusalem to be ritually purified following childbirth—after forty days for a male child. That is why this feast is held exactly forty days after our Christmas celebration, always falling on February 2nd.
But because it is about light, this feast is also came to be known as “Candlemas” because of the custom of blessing candles on this day for use throughout the liturgical year. By the early eighth century, the Roman celebration of this feast included a procession during which the congregation held lighted candles as a reminder that Christ is the light come to bring salvation to all the people of the earth through his death and resurrection. As Simeon reminds us, Jesus is “a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for the glory of your people Israel.”
The official title of this feast in the Book of Common Prayer is “The Presentation.” And even though this feast displaces the usual Sunday lessons, it is clearly another Epiphany story. The Presentation of Christ in the Temple (as the 1928 Prayer Book called it) is a celebration of the mystery of God’s saving work in Christ as that begins to unfold, to be “presented” to the world, even from the very earliest days of Jesus’ life.
The presentation of a child in the Temple was not an unusual event in first century Palestine. On any particular day many children might have been presented in the Temple. Here the parents, Mary and Joseph, are welcomed even though they are only able to bring a lesser offering for the dedication of their son. Nor was it unusual for bystanders such as Simeon and Anna to take the children presented up in their arms and offer thanks to God.
And today I want to take a moment to thing about the old priest, Simeon whom we encounter in today’s Gospel. Simeon is a unique and compelling figure, a man whom we can understand. Throughout his life he struggled, doubted, searched, prayed and pleaded for some sign of God’s presence. He wanted a sign that God really did care, that behind all of the senseless suffering and pain and confusion in the world there was a larger purpose.
Because of his faith, and prompted by the Holy Spirit, he recognized Jesus as the Messiah, the one anointed by God to redeem not only his own people, but the whole world. Simeon proclaimed: “My eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples.” Perhaps we should ask ourselves, “How often do our eyes see salvation? How often do we recognize God’s redemption here—in this temple, or within ourselves or in those around us?”
This is why today’s Gospel is particularly powerful, because it’s your story and my story, and it continues to give hope to us all. And yet, as we come together to celebrate our faith, I fear that we have lost our sense of worship as mystery. We know the words by heart and we settle into comfortable patterns, but we may have forgotten that worship is meant to be a face-to-face encounter with the living God. Each time we gather for Eucharist, we have an opportunity to meet Christ, even as old Simeon did.
In the Feast of the Presentation we have a new winter encounter between God and the people of God. Over time, as Christianity moved into Northern Europe, it blended with the pagan observance of Imbolc, a festival observed at the midpoint between the Winter solstice and the spring equinox. Imbolc was marked by the first milking of ewes and the nascent spring, along with the lengthening of days and the gradual warming of the earth.
The Presentation story encourages us to experience this day as a feast of potentialities. Even when we find ourselves in the midst of darkness, war, despair or hopelessness, the light of God appears as a helpless child come to be one with us in our weakness, our poverty and humility. There are no easy answers here, but rather, an invitation to embrace our lives and our world anew because, in this little child, we have been embraced by God in Christ.
Simeon, after singing the song of redemption, told Mary that a sword would pierce her own soul too. Even at this moment of revelation and joy, the cross casts its shadow on Jesus’ life. Through his baptism and through his death, Jesus aligned himself with all that is broken in the world. And that too is where we shall meet him: in the poor, the oppressed, the lonely, and perhaps just as importantly, within our own broken selves.
So amidst the winter experiences of our own lives (and there are many!), we are invited on this day to bring our temptation to despair to the burning light of the Paschal Mystery. For Jesus has chosen to be helpless so that he can embrace all our helplessness: meeting us in our darkness, our wars, our despair and our hopelessness. We are invited to be guests at the table of mercy and grace, and to believe anew in light, peace, joy and hope.
Recently, while filling in at a neighboring parish’s weekday Eucharist, I was struck by a sign taped to the inside of the sacristy door. It simply said, “Priest of God: celebrate this Eucharist as if it were your first Eucharist; your last Eucharist; your only Eucharist.” I have to say it gave me a little pause before I opened the sacristy door and walked to the altar. So let me revise it and ask you to pause for a moment and think about what you are doing here today. “People of God: celebrate this Eucharist as if it were your first Eucharist; your last Eucharist; your only Eucharist.”
Let us lift up our hearts this morning and give thanks to God for the opportunity to meet God anew in this church, for the chance to see him face-to-face in this Eucharist. Let us come anew this day to the temple of our lives to receive Jesus, whose love gives us the courage to keep watching and waiting as we yearn for the fulfillment of the promises of God. Like Simeon and Anna, may we once again encounter God’s new light and experience God’s salvation on this day. We know that the promises of the tree of life shine forth in the helplessness of Jesus hung upon the cross. There we see his arms outstretched to embrace the whole creation, loving arms stretched out to receive us in mercy – just like the arms of the little child presented in the temple.