Our Lady of Candelaria, Basílica de Nuestra Señora de la Candelaria, Tenerife, Canary Islands.
When the days were completed for their purification according to the law of Moses, Mary and Joseph took Jesus up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord….. Luke 2:22.
Today is special for many people; for some, it represents the end of the Christmas season. Another angle comes to us from the gospel, which tells us that Joseph and Mary were obeying the Mosaic law. This states that 40 days after the birth of a baby boy, he must be presented to God, to whom he belongs, to be “bought back” into the care of his parents for a certain price, two young pigeons in the case of the poorest people. Also, the birth-woman had to be “purified” according to the Jewish tradition as stated in the Book of Leviticus. Additionally, when Jesus, Mary and Joseph entered the Temple precincts in Jerusalem, an old man called Simeon approached them, gazed upon the child, and proclaimed this famous speech:
Lord, now lettest thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word. For mine eyes have seen thy salvation, which thou hast prepared before the face of all people; To be a light to lighten the Gentiles and to be glory of thy people Israel.
This prayer is perhaps better known for its first two words in Latin: Nunc dimittis. For centuries his proclamation has been sung as part of evening prayer as the day dies and night approaches. Simeon had been promised by the Holy Spirit that his eyes would see the long-promised Messiah before he died. Additionally there is an ancient title for this day, namely Candlemas. It is associated with Jesus, the light, coming into the world, as Simeon says. Churches traditionally bless their candles for the year on this day. They represent light in the darkness, and are a pre-echo of the lighted paschal candle being brought into the darkened church at the great Easter Vigil Mass. That ties the aged Simeon, now ready for death, with Jesus conquering death. The candles on either side of the lectern when the gospel is proclaimed therefore remind us of Jesus as the light of the world. So this is a many-faceted feast, but light does seem to be the overarching symbol, in its way it is yet another epiphany, with the Holy Spirit’s promise to Simeon.
Candlemas, uCatholic, January 2015.
It is said that we today, in the 21st century, can have very little idea of what life was like in Jesus’ day, also the time after him right up to the 19th century when everything changed. But we do have direct experience of that time if we think about it. When a church bell rings out, that is the sound of the Middle Ages; candles connect us directly to days long ago. The chant in the Nunc Dimittis link above would be instantly recognized by people centuries ago. There is the treasury of sacred art from the Middle Ages (see below and the current stunning exhibition in Ghent, Belgium) which many feel has never been surpassed. We are more children of those times than we think! And of course the message of today’s readings is as relevant now as it was then. Simeon’s words can cleave into our hearts in exactly the same way: is there any darkness there that begs for the light of Christ to enter? Is there any coldness there that longs for the warmth of the presence of God? Jesus’ sacrifice for us is the price he paid for that light and warmth of our salvation….. not two pigeons. That’s how much God wants us back; that is how much Jesus was prepared to pay for our redemption. If we allow that light, that fire, to enter our hearts, then will today’s first reading come true: …who can stand when he appears? For he is like the refiner’s fire….. the purifying fire of the presence of God even within us. As today’s second reading says, he himself was tested through what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested. We are never, ever, alone if we are brave enough to let that light, that fire, enter into us which allows us to be true, responsive, active children of God.
The Presentation in the Temple, Lorenzetti, 1342, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence, Italy.
Reflections on the following Sunday’s Mass Readings will be posted on Wednesday.
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