Today we celebrate the Presentation of our Lord in the Temple, or Candlemas. It has a particular resonance for me, because Candlemas was the last Sunday that I spent in my parish in England before coming to the United States. I remember the very mixed feelings I had during that final service. On the one hand looking back with thanksgiving and celebration, but on the other, looking forward with a certain degree of trepidation.
And I think the feast of Candlemas has a similar liturgical function in the Christian year. On the one hand, we look back on this day, to the forty days of light and rejoicing which we have been celebrating during Christmas and Epiphany. But on the other hand, we are forced to look forward with some trepidation, to anticipate the events of Christ’s forty days in the wilderness, his passion and his death.
This bitter-sweet character is articulated by Simeon, on the day that Mary and Joseph brought Jesus into the Temple to be presented to the Lord. As he takes the child into his arms, he utters that great peon of praise, ‘Lord you now have set your servant free to go in peace as you have promised. For these eyes of mine have seen the Savior, whom you have prepared for all the world to see.’ But then, with prophetic insight, he looks forward to what is yet to come, and says to Mary, ‘This child is destined to be a sign which many will reject, and you too shall be pierced to the heart.’
Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple
As I read the opening chapters of Luke’s gospel, I often imagine seeing an enormous tent being painstakingly erected, like those that are used for outdoor weddings. With the introduction of each significant character – Elizabeth, Zechariah, Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, Simeon, and Anna – another stake or peg is fixed in the earth, with its own cord attached. These cords begin to cross and intersect at just the right angles, as if by the arrangement of some mysterious, divine geometry, held taut by the weight of poles and the canvas now unfurling from the ground into a recognizable structure. Into the particularity of time and space there unfolds a tabernacle, a tent or dwelling for Christ Emmanuel, God-with-Us. A web of divinely inspired, interpersonal encounters prepares the ground and provides a sheltering roof.
Today is Candlemas, and it’s a feast I’m very fond of. But then, I like candles! I remember as a young child, we lived in the country, and we were often having power outages. It was so exciting to slowly walk upstairs to bed carrying a candle, and then, tucked up in bed, nice and cozy, looking around a once familiar bedroom, now mysteriously alive with flickering shadows. Later, as I came to faith, looking at a candle helped me to pray: the flickering light spoke of the light of Christ, of warmth and comfort, and the mystery of God.
The candles in today’s procession, and on the altar, celebrate the event which took place 40 days after Christmas when Jesus, the Light of the World, was taken to the Temple in Jerusalem to fulfill the required ceremonies of the Law. He had already been circumcised on the eighth day and received his name. But because he was the first born, he was regarded as “holy” – in other words, belonging to the Lord – and his parents had to, as it were, buy him back by paying a shekel to the sanctuary. He was then “presented” to the Lord.
Today is Candlemas and it is a feast I am very fond of. But then, I really like candles. I remember as a young child, we lived in the country, and we were always having power-cuts. It was so exciting to slowly walk upstairs to bed carrying a candle, and then, tucked up in bed cosy, looking around a once familiar bedroom, now mysteriously alive with flickering shadows.