By Deacon Charles Rohrbacher
Although I’m convinced that the liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council have, for the most part, been of great spiritual and pastoral benefit, if it had been up to me I would have continued to celebrate Christmas for 40 days. Prior to the council, the feast of the Presentation of the Lord on February 2nd marked the end of the Christmas season. My family likes to tease me that if it were up to me, we’d keep our Christmas tree up and decorated until that date. Not wanting to risk burning down the house by keeping a resin-saturated, tinder-dry tree in the living room, I have grudgingly acquiesced to taking the tree down in mid-January after the Baptism of the Lord and bringing the Christmas season to a symbolic close.
But even though the Christmas tree is just a memory by February 2nd, I still look forward to celebrating the feast of the Presentation. For me it’s the beautiful and fitting conclusion to the entire Advent and Christmas season. In the solar calendar this day marks the return of the light at the midway point of winter. In the Church’s calendar, the Presentation of the Lord has come to be known as Candlemas or “El Día de la Candelaria” because on this feast Christians have traditionally lit candles to proclaim, in the words of the Nunc Dimittis from Luke’s gospel, that Jesus is “the light to enlighten the Gentiles and the glory of his people Israel.” For this reason, this is the day that candles for the church and homes are blessed.
On this feast day the Church celebrates three events recounted in Luke’s gospel: the redemption at the Jerusalem temple of their first-born son, the ritual purification of Mary forty days after giving birth to her child, and the encounter there of Jesus and his parents with the prophet Simeon and the prophetess Anna.
The reason that Jesus’s parents brought him to the temple in the first place was to redeem him as a first-born son. According to the Law of Moses, every first-born Israelite boy was required to serve God in the Temple unless redeemed through the payment of five silver shekels.
Also, in obedience to Jewish ritual purity laws, Mary presented herself for purification after having become ritually impure, according to the law, in giving birth to Jesus.
For Luke’s readers and for us, these two beautiful Jewish rites are given a new meaning. Jesus, the Redeemer, who redeemed the world by giving up his life on the cross, is himself redeemed by his father Joseph in the place which as a young boy and an adult he speaks of as “his Father’s house.” His mother Mary, the living Temple and Holy of Holies, who has borne in her own body and given birth to the Incarnate Word of God, comes as an obedient and humble daughter of Israel to be made pure. In both instances the Law of Moses is illuminated and fulfilled without being abrogated.
But for me the most profound dimension of this feast is in the encounter of Jesus with the venerable Simeon and the aged prophetess Anna. It is a joyful meeting for both of them, although one fraught with profound significance and moral peril for all of us. Simeon, holding the child in his arms, speaking to Mary prophesizes: “This child is destined for the fall and for the rising of many in Israel, destined to be a sign that is rejected and a sword will pierce your own soul – so that the secret thoughts of many will be laid bare.”
Jesus is the Word of God (what a sign indeed!) who was rejected by all human beings: this is the tragedy of his passion and death. His rejection by us is a sign that something is deeply wrong with us as human beings: God sent us his Son and we didn’t want him, so we killed him. His rejection and his suffering were the sword which pierced the heart of his mother Mary, and which pierce the heart of the Church and of Christians today (Mary being the great symbol of the Church.)
What are the secret thoughts of many that will be laid bare? Throughout Advent we have prepared for the coming of Christ. During the Christmas season we have celebrated his coming. Yet for all that, are we prepared to receive him and to welcome him like Simeon and Anna?
Or do we resist allowing Jesus to enter-in, to encounter us and change our lives, because in our secret thoughts, in our heart of hearts, we are not prepared to make the sacrifices necessary to let him in?
The Presentation invites us to recognize that the Lord Jesus is at the gates of the Temple: not the temple made by human hands, but the Temple of our lives, that deepest recess of our hearts where we say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to loving the Lord and loving our sisters and brothers. We know that if we let him come-in and, like Simeon, take him in our arms, in that encounter the Lord will refine us and purify us, and burn away the selfishness, pride, anger, lust, greed and envy that cling to us. His coming reveals in us our deepest and most secret attachments and loyalties.
The King of Glory desires to enter: are we prepared to throw open the gates and let him in? If we only will open the gates of our hearts Jesus will make of us a living Temple of his mercy and love, a life-giving place where others can encounter him.
On this midwinter day we celebrate the light of Christ, who is the salvation of all the nations, filled with gratitude that our darkness has been dispelled by his light.
In our world’s darkness and despair, in its violence and war, its greed and indifference, and its deception and cruelty, we can begin, like Anna, to praise God. We have seen the true light, which the Lord has prepared for all nations to see, in the person and the example of Jesus.
He is our light. He is our salvation. He is our hope. He is our peace.
May we welcome him, the King of Glory. May we let him in. May we be radiant with his grace and truth and light.