Candlemas or the Presentation of the Lord
The feast of the Presentation of the Lord is on February 2nd. This year it falls on a Sunday. In the earth’s calendar, February 2nd marks the midway point between the winter solstice and the spring equinox, as, in the northern hemisphere, the hours of daylight gradually but inexorably increasing.
The Church celebrates three events recounted in Luke’s gospel. The rite redeeming the firstborn son of Joseph and Mary, the ritual purification of Mary forty days after giving birth to her son and the encounter of Jesus and his parents with the prophet Simeon and the prophetess Anna, all of which took place in the Jerusalem Temple.
This feast day is also known as Candlemas or “El Día de la Candelaria” in Spain, Latin America and the Philippines. Christians in Western Europe traditionally processed with lit candles on this day to proclaim that Jesus is, in the words of Simeon in Luke’s gospel, “the light to enlighten the Gentiles and the glory of his people Israel.” Candles for church and home are also blessed on this day.
Until the liturgical reforms after the Second Vatican Council, the Presentation also marked the end of the Christmas season.
The Redemption of the First-Born
The occasion of the presentation of Jesus to Simeon in the temple in Jerusalem was the requirement that Joseph, his father, redeem his firstborn son in accordance with the Law of Moses. At the time of the Exodus, the firstborn sons of Israel had been spared when the Lord slew the firstborn of Egypt. For this reason, they were consecrated to the service of God in the temple.
Because the sons of the tribe of Levi, who remained faithful when the other tribes worshiped the golden calf, were exclusively assigned to serve in the temple, other firstborns were released from this obligation. However, in remembrance of their deliverance in Egypt and their original consecration, firstborn sons still had to be ritually redeemed from temple service by the father paying the cohen or priest five silver shekels. The priest would then declare the boy redeemed and bless him.
The Purification of Mary
The Torah (Leviticus 12:2-8) required Jewish women who had given birth to a boy to present themselves to the priest and make a sacrifice of a lamb (or the offering of two doves for poor people) and become ritually pure again. During the forty days of ritual impurity, she would not have been permitted contact with the offerings in the temple or with her husband. Ritual impurity did not imply moral wrongdoing – blood and other bodily secretions made both men and women ‘impure’ and required a rite of purification before a man or woman was allowed to resume their normal place in the domestic and religious life of Israel.
Present-day Orthodox Jewish women, for example, separate from their husbands during their monthly menstrual period, which makes them ritually impure. When it is completed, they immerse themselves in the mikvah (a pool of water set aside for this purpose). Having been purified in the mikvah, they then again resume marital relations with their husbands.
In these two rites, we observe how Jesus, Mary and Joseph, as faithful Jews, acted in complete accord with the requirements of the Torah. From a Christian perspective, we are invited to contemplate a great paradox: how the Redeemer is himself redeemed, despite being consecrated to the Lord’s service as our great High Priest and whose sacrificial death as the only Son of the Father would redeem all of humanity.
We are invited as well to meditate on the paradox implicit in Mary’s purification. She humbly submitted to the ritual laws of purity and impurity so she could re-enter the temple and again have contact with the holy things. Yet within her own body, she had borne the Holy One of Israel and became in her person the Holy of Holies. Far from being rendered ritually impure by giving birth to Jesus, she was filled with God’s grace and holiness.
In the gospel for the feast (Luke 2:22-40), the evangelist describes how the venerable Simeon and the aged prophetess Anna, encounter the Lord in the temple. Holding the child Jesus in his arms, the prophet Simeon announces he has seen God’s salvation and proclaims that this child, whose parents are so observant of the Torah, will not only be the glory of Israel but will himself be the light of all of the nations.
But in the midst of rejoicing at having lived long enough to see with his own eyes, the promised Messiah, Simeon, addressing 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 Redeemer rejected by those he came to save. Echoing the prologue to St. John’s gospel, the light came into the world, but the world preferred the darkness. In this way, the feast of the Presentation is the culmination of the seasons of Advent and Christmas, celebrating as it does that Christ is the light of the world destined to be the glory of Israel and the enlightener of the nations. But it also heralds both how the world rejected him and put him to death, and how with his resurrection, the darkness could not overcome the light.
Simeon predicted that the secret thoughts of many would be laid bare by the coming of Mary’s son. What are those secret thoughts? I think they are our temptation to reject him because, in our heart of hearts, we are not prepared to make the necessary sacrifices to allow him to be the Lord of our lives.
Again, and again during the Christmas season, what is revealed to us is the King of Glory, who comes to us not as an earthly conqueror but as one who has embraced humility, weakness and poverty, suffering and death, to redeem us from the bondage of sin and mortality. This sign is, as Simeon predicts, is destined to be rejected because Jesus is not what the world expected or wanted.
But the question posed by this feast is this: will we accept or reject him? 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 he enters, the Light of Christ will refine us and purify us and burn away the selfishness, pride, anger, lust, greed and envy that we cling to. His coming reveals in us our deepest and most secret attachments and loyalties.
To truly encounter the living God is always both judgment and mercy: judgment of our lives and our world. But we must not be afraid of God’s judgment because God’s judgment is always God’s mercy. If we say yes to his abundant love and forgiveness, if we open the gates of our hearts to Him, Jesus will make us a place where others will meet him, a living Temple of his mercy and love present to every person we encounter.
On the feast of the Presentation, Christians rejoice in 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 this world’s darkness and despair, in its violence and war, its greed and indifference, its deception and cruelty, we can begin, nonetheless, like Simeon and Anna, to praise God.