“…a light for revelation to the Gentiles and the glory of your people Israel.” (Luke 2:32)
Yup, February 2nd, long before it became Groundhog Day, was celebrated as Candlemas. It’s also known as the Feast of the Presentation of Our Lord or the Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary. It probably won’t come as a shock to Lutherans that we don’t use that latter designation, but I think a word of explanation for it is in order.
Normally, we don’t make a big deal out of this minor festival in the liturgical calendar unless February 2nd happens to fall on a Sunday. It celebrates an event in the life of Our Lord which Luke records and is used as the Gospel reading for the day (Luke 2: 22-40). Mary and Joseph come to the temple in Jerusalem out of pious observation of Levitical law. They’d already had Jesus circumcised on the eighth day after his birth. Now they’re observing two other statutes. The first is to present this little guy, Mary’s first born, as an offering to the Lord.[i] The second is to offer sacrifice so Mary can become ritually clean again after giving birth.[ii] The price of being a mom was the sacrifice of a lamb, but poor people like Mary and Joseph could get the discount price of a bird. I always like this detail Luke includes because it reminds us all that Jesus came from poor folk.
When Mary and Joseph bring their little tyke to the temple, they encounter two really cool senior citizens, Simeon and Anna. Old Simeon blesses the baby boy because God has promised that he wouldn’t die until he had a chance to see the Messiah. He sings a little song of praise which, in liturgical Latin, is called the Nunc Dimittis, which are the first words of the hymn—roughly translated “now thou dost” or “now you do.” We use this hymn often as part of our liturgy for the canticle we sing after we’ve received Holy Communion. Like ol’ Simeon, we too have seen the Lord’s salvation through the Holy Supper and can depart in peace.
Where the term “Candlemas” comes in is Simeon’s belief that this little baby boy has come to bring light to the nations of the world. Subsequently, church tradition held that candles were to be blessed on this festival. But preaching Jesus to non-Jewish folks isn’t the only kind of light Simeon suggests. He tells Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed…” (v.35)
Now think about that: Would you really want your inner thoughts revealed? If the candle of Jesus’ righteousness were lit in the cellar of your brain, what do you think it would illuminate? We’ve always been taught that Jesus is the light of truth. Jesus in the gospels is a light of compassion, mercy, inclusivity, generosity, and forgiveness. It’s just possible that we don’t really want that light to shine on us, you think? Compassion, after all, will cost us. It will require sacrifice we might not want to make. Inclusivity, as Jesus showed to the Gentiles, might mean we lose our feelings of superiority over others. Forgiveness means we might have to surrender the grudges which provide a sugar high for the voracious appetite of our brittle egos. If our inner thoughts were revealed, would we embrace Jesus or oppose him? Would we fall or rise?
There’s something else I love about this passage. I really dig that it lifts up the wisdom of two mature individuals. Anna is celebrated as a prophet (or profhtis in Greek), a term which refers to one who is a channel of communication between the divine and the human worlds. There aren’t that many women who get this title in the Bible, so you’ve really got to love Anna. She’s the first to see in this little boy the promise of God, and she’s not afraid to tell folks about it. She may be old, but she gets around. In my ministry I’ve known many an elderly widow who has spent lots of time doing God’s work in a house of worship, and—believe me!—the church could not stand without the faith and prayers of such as these.
So, Merry Candlemas, everybody. The challenge for this feast, I think, might be to let a little of the light of Jesus into your inner thoughts and, like Simeon and Anna, be ready to receive him.
So glad you visited today. Please come again.
[i] See Exodus 13:2
[ii] See Leviticus 12:4-5. Mary had to wait 33 days after Jesus was circumcised before she could step back into society. If Jesus had been a girl, Mary would have to wait 66 days. Those ancient Hebrews were really sexist bastards, weren’t they?