The Presentation of Our Lord in the Temple: Candlemas
February 2, 2021
Almighty and ever living God, we humbly beseech thee that, as thy only-begotten Son was this day presented in the temple, so we may be presented unto thee with pure and clean hearts by the same thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord; who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
I have thought for a while now that Candlemas is all over the place. Don’t get me wrong. I love Candlemas. But it is still seems all over the place. Today we commemorate Mary’s Purification and Jesus’ presentation in the Temple, both in fulfilment of the Law, and we bless wax and candles. We mark the end of the longer Christmas season and fill our senses with images—sights and sounds and smells—of light shining into the darkness. Underlying the festival in the early British traditions is an ancient pre-Christian mid-winter festival that is connected with the Celtic Goddess Brigid, whom we know in some guise as Saint Bride and whose festival we also commemorate in these days. Is today about the Incarnation? Mary? light and darkness? It is really just a syncretistic expression of a mid-winter pagan celebration? And does any of it have anything to do with a groundhog?
Groundhog aside (or perhaps not), these are all important and powerful themes that touch on some of the most important human concerns, especially at this time of year. Once the date of Christmas was fixed as December 25th (that’s another story that I’ve told before and will surely do again), our celebrations of Candlemas forty days later did develop first in northern climes, and became a significant mid-winter festival, with all these intertwined themes having to do with revelation and renewal, the making clear of things that were obscured and veiled in shadow. Associating the blessing of candles and offering prayers of thanksgiving for the bees who make our wax with a story about revelation made clear by sight and in which Jesus himself is called “a light to lighten the Gentiles,” makes a lot of sense. Although much less Romantic, it would even make a good festival to dedicate the upgrading of a church’s electrical service. In all seriousness, however, Candlemas is, at its heart a festival about the fulfilment of prophesy and God’s faithfulness to us, God’s people. It encapsulates, in fact, the essence of the entire Gospel.
To get at this, we must first look at the story’s emphasis on the fulfilment of prophesy and its strong echos from Isaiah. Generally speaking, Luke is not an evangelist who makes a particular effort to connect Jesus’ story with that of Hebrew Scripture or highlighting the Jewishness of Jesus and his family. We usually think of this as Matthew’s job. This episode, however, shows Mary and Joseph steeped in the traditions of Israel and the day-to-day observance of their faith:(1)
And when the time came for their [,really Mary’s,] (2) purification according to the law of Moses, they brought [Jesus] up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every male that opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord”) and to offer a sacrifice according to what is said in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons.”
Mary is piously following the custom of ritual purification after childbirth and Mary and Joseph together want to present their first born son in the temple with a traditional offering. Although Luke shows his expected emphasis on the poverty of the Holy Family and their solidarity with marginalised peoples by highlighting their sacrifice of the birds, rather than the customary year-old lamb, we can not help noting his focus here on the fulfilment of the obligations required by the “Law of Moses.” In the whole of his gospel, in fact, he makes only nine references to the Law of Moses and we find five of them within this story. For Luke, then, this episode is the critical exemplar of Jesus’ connection to the fortunes and promise of Israel.(3)
Mary and Joseph, therefore, have come to the official heart of their religion, so it is instructive that we don’t hear an account of what transpired when Mary and Joseph met the priests in the Temple. Clearly their reaction to Jesus was irrelevant. Rather, we hear about their meeting another man—not a priest but a prophet—whom they likely encountered within the Temple precincts:
Now there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon, and this man was righteous and devout, looking for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he should not see death before he had seen the Lord‘s Christ. And inspired by the Spirit he came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him according to the custom of the law, he took him up in his arms and blessed God...
Luke leaves us no room for doubt as to Simeon’s status. He is a prophet, no question, and bears all the hallmarks of one. He has been waiting expectantly for the fulfilment of God’s promise of salvation. The Holy Spirit had come upon him and he received the Spirit’s direct revelation that something new had happened, something he must witness and to which he must bear testimony. Simeon’s authority is made clear by this language, especially when later in the Gospel we hear it used to describe the authority and purposefulness of Jesus, how he was “full of the Holy Spirit” (4:1, 14), before and after his temptation. (4)
Simeon’s song, so familiar to us from its invariable use at Evening Prayer, begins, “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, for mine eyes have seen thy salvation, which thou has prepared before the face of all people.” Simeon is a prophet of the first order, awaiting with expectation the consolation of Israel, whom Jesus has freed from bondage by his coming as the expected messiah. Luke’s use here of language that explicitly evokes contracts of manumission is not a coincidence. Simeon is now free with the coming of the one who not only brings salvation, but is himself the salvation that his own eyes have seen.(5)
Simeon then proclaims the essence of Jesus‘ identity: He is “To be a light to lighten the Gentiles, and to be the glory of thy people Israel.” Jesus is first the Glory of Israel and then the light to the Gentiles and his coming will sweep up the Gentiles into God‘s plan for salvation history, all significant themes we find in Isaiah. Simeon‘s prophesy is a “proclamation concerning Jesus’ significance for the wider world.”(6) The “light to enlighten the Gentiles and ... the glory of his people Israel” is precisely what we see fulfilled once we have heard the whole story Luke tells in his gospel and in the Acts of the Apostles.
In the story of the Presentation, we meet two representatives of Israel, two venerable prophets, Simeon and Anna, who recognise Jesus for who he is. He is the messiah, the holy one of Israel, Salvation personified, who will bring salvation to all the known world. What we see here is not the old trope that the Gospel of Luke and Acts of the Apostles tell two separate stories: the first of Jesus‘ rejection by Israel and the second of his finding acceptance by the Gentiles. What we see instead is the fulfilment of the law and the recognition by some in Israel of who Jesus is and what he represents, and that from that beginning, the Gentiles, the rest of the known world, were to be caught up in Jesus’ salvation, and that God’s reach will extend beyond Israel.(7)
This is not, however, to say that everything will be easy. Luke interjects his foreknowledge of Jesus‘ passion and death and his rejection by many in Israel, thus causing division within Israel itself.
And his father and his mother marvelled at what was said about him; and Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, “Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is spoken against (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), that thoughts out of many hearts may be revealed.”
The significance of Jesus will not be recognised by everyone. He will divide Israel. He will divide others. He will suffer and this, in turn, will cause her suffering at Jesus’ crucifixion—that sword to pierce Mary’s soul also. Contained within Simeon’s prophesy and its reception by Mary and Joseph, therefore, is a microcosm of the whole Gospel.
Jesus has come into the world as Salvation personified. He is the promised Messiah of whom Isaiah spoke and for whom Simeon and Anna have waited. He is the glory of Israel, even though he will be rejected by many and cause division and pain before he and God are vindicated. In and through this process, he will bring all the peoples of the world into relationship with the God of Israel, causing the light of God to shine forth and illumine our way. Candlemas, then, in this wintriest of moments, shows us that God’s promises will be fulfilled and that the spring and renewal of Christ will come, inevitably, whether right away or in six weeks (as the groundhog would have it) or whether it takes a little longer. God never forsakes us. God loves us and comes to us with light and love even in the times when it seems most unlikely.
Andrew Charles Blume✠
New York City
Candlemas, 2 February 2021
(1) Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke, Sacra Pagnia Series, 3 (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1991), 56.
(2) Johnson 1991, 54.
(3) Johnson 1991, 54.
(4) Johnson 1991, 55.
(5) Johnson 1991, 55.
(6) Johnson 1991, 57.
(7) Johnson 1991, 57.
© 2021 Andrew Charles Blume