Feast of the Presentation
….for mine eyes have seen thy salvation which thou hast prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to thy people Israel.”
In today’s feast of the Presentation of Jesus in the temple, we see how extraordinary spiritual events occur in such ordinary circumstances in the life of Jesus the Lord. This feast recalls the day on which Mary and Joseph take the child Jesus to the Temple, to be presented, or more precisely, to be consecrated to God, to be redeemed as the first born son of a Jewish family, fulfilling the law of Moses in this regard. The custom was to pay a small ransom price for the redemption of the child, and the ceremony included the ritual purification of the mother as well. Of course Mary had nothing in her body or soul that could in any way require purification, but, nonetheless, she fulfills the law just as the presentation of the infant Jesus fulfills the Mosaic law. It was the ordinary custom of the law and was a ceremony performed for multitudes of Jewish women and children before and after this particular instance of Jesus and Mary. And yet, what an extraordinary event this particular ceremony was that took place in these ordinary circumstances precisely because it involved Jesus and Mary.
The extraordinary nature of this particular presentation/purification is wonderfully brought out by the prophetic utterances of an old man, Simeon, and an equally old woman, Anna, who had spent an extraordinary amount of their life in the temple, praying for the consolation of the Israel, that is, the coming of the Messiah, as did all faithful jews. The difference here is that they spent virtually their whole adult lives in praying for this promise to be fulfilled. Their words illuminate this extraordinary event hidden in the obscurity of the normal daily rituals of the Temple. And our feast confirms this extraordinary event and our faith teaches us that this whole event is loaded with significance for the Christian, for Christian faith and Christian life. Even our liturgical calendar testifies to its greatness as it replaces the normal Sunday liturgy by the feast of the Presentation when the 2nd of February falls on a Sunday, as it does this year.
What great and important meaning there is in this wonderful event. To begin with it’s of great significance that Jesus and Mary are intimately bound together in this ceremony as they are in the plan of salvation itself. Though this ceremony is not unique in itself, the fact that Mary fulfills the law in this context with Jesus is quite wonderful to behold, precisely because she had no strict obligation to do so, since she was not in need of purification and her child was not in need of redemption. She was without stain of sin, and He was the redeemer. It reminds one of the Baptism of Jesus where he who is without sin undergoes the baptism of John to fulfill all righteousness, as he says. Thus we can see how Jesus intimately associates His mother with his own mission of salvation right from the very beginning, when he enters His temple
This feast has also been referred to at times as Candlemas, pointing to the theme of light that is at the heart of this feast, the light that conquers the darkness, that is, Christ who is the light of the world. Then we can see that this theme of light is intimately connected with another great theme which is at the very heart of this religious event, which is the coming of the Messiah into the temple, that messianic prophecy we heard in the first reading from the Prophet Malachi: “And suddenly there will come to the temple the Lord who you seek…” (3:1). Faith, contemplating this hidden event of the Presentation of Christ, sees Jesus as the true and unexpected fulfillment of that prophecy. Moreover, this event also fulfills that prophecy of the Messiah coming into the temple precisely in the context of the “light” symbolism in the messianic prophecies in Isaiah regarding Zion: (60 1-3)
Rise up in splendor! Your light has come, the glory of the Lord shines upon you. See, darkness covers the earth, and thick clouds cover the peoples; But upon you the LORD shines, and over you appears his glory. Nations shall walk by your light, and kings by your shining radiance.
And again in chapter 49:
I will make you a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.
On that particular day, as recorded in St. Luke, the Lord indeed came suddenly and unexpectedly into the temple, and thus after so many long centuries of waiting, there was fulfilled the prophecies of Malachi and Isaiah, and simultaneously there was fulfilled the very purpose for which that great edifice had been constructed and reconstructed – to receive the very Lord whose house it was. All of this fulfillment took place in a most unexpected manner, with unlikely witnesses and unlikely central players in this great drama. The Messiah, who is the light to the nations, enters the Temple unwitnessed, unseen, as an infant in his mother’s arms. This child is nonetheless the light of the world. He is the life who, as John says in His Gospel prologue, is the light of the human race, and the light who “gave power to become children of God, to those who believe in his name.” Yet he comes in this mysterious manner into His temple.
But then there were in fact two people in the temple that day who did by divine inspiration recognize the light, who were chosen by the Holy Trinity to welcome him, to honor him and to prophesy about him, and both were old and near death. Simeon and Anna had spent their long lives in the temple, praying, longing for the Chosen One, believing all that God had revealed would one day come true. Their faith was the perfect match for this saving light, and was in fact a product of that light. They were chosen because of their faith and because of their age. Their faith was the light that made it possible for them to see light, His light. And their advanced age made them perfect symbols/representatives of the mystery of the transformation or transition of the original ecclesia, now grown old, into the new ecclesia which would be forever young, because of this light. Moreover, these representatives also point us toward the mystery of each individual’s transformation from the old man into the new creation in Christ. Christ is not just the coming of the new light into the world, the new replacing the old, but he is the light who transforms the one who receives him, and thus Simeon is liberated, and with this light can become the new man who is ready to enter Heaven.
Thus when Mary hands the child to Simeon, who takes him in his arms, the immaculate fulness of the new ecclesia is seen to hand over the light by which the original ecclesia will be renewed, the old made young. Simeon and Anna are the representatives of the prophetic faith of Israel welcoming the fulfillment of that faith and hope which had prepared for His coming through the centuries. While Mary represents the absolute perfection of both the old and new, these two humble servants represent the old becoming transformed by the light of Christ. Simeon feels at last fulfilled, for he has seen that light, and it has renewed his being, just as it had magnified the being of the Immaculate One who handed the light on to him.
So it is with all of us. One day our parents entered the Lord’s temple and presented us for Baptism, just as Mary and Joseph Mary present Jesus for his redemption. It is Jesus who then entered us and transformed us by His light. This is the story of every Christian, the story of our salvation, the story of our life, which begins with our presentation for Baptism, all of which is marvelously anticipated in the Presentation of Jesus. When he entered the Temple, he brought the light of redemption to mankind, when we left the temple after Baptism we carried His light into the world.
During this liturgy in ancient times, candles were not only blessed but they were held blazing by the whole congregation during the Gospel and the whole Eucharistic Action. These candles were the symbol of Christ, the one whose light enlightens us and saves us, transforms us, restores our youth continually, and makes us a light to the world. During the Gospel he comes to us as light that transforms our minds and hearts. Then, during the Eucharistic action, that same light comes to us in the flesh, as he was once held in the flesh by Simeon, in order to transform our whole being. These sacramental events are no longer simply symbols, but the symbols lead us into the mystery in which God becomes flesh, so that flesh may become one with the light, partakers of His very divinity.
Of course, the world does not take any notice of any of this, or consider it of any importance for life. It is like that day in the Temple when the light first came into the world. That wondrous event took place with only four people in that whole massive place really perceiving in any way what was really taking place. God chooses to act just in this way, to underwhelm with his power and glory the creatures he calls to salvation by a free response of faith. The light is always shining in the world from that moment on till the end of time. This light always solicits our response of faith. Today blessed candles remind us of that consoling fact in the midst of the gathering darkness that threatens our world. Even these humble objects proclaim the glory of God, who has made both us, and them also, for his glory.