In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today is the feast of the Presentation of our Lord in the Temple – also called the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary – and colloquially known as “Candlemas.”
We are commemorating today an event that took place forty days after the birth of Jesus. And you will note that this day, Feb. 2, is indeed forty days after Christmas, Dec. 25, the feast of our Lord’s Nativity, the commemoration of his birth.
In today’s Gospel reading from Luke, Mary and Joseph take the infant Jesus to the temple, for Mary’s “purification according to the law of Moses,” (Luke 2.22). Luke is referring to a passage in Leviticus, the third book of the Jewish Law, the Torah, which says:
“The LORD said to Moses, “Say to the people of Israel, If a woman conceives, and bears a male child, then she shall be unclean seven days… And on the eighth day the flesh of [the child’s] foreskin shall be circumcised. Then she shall continue for thirty-three days in the blood of her purifying; she shall not touch any hallowed thing, nor come into the sanctuary, until the days of her purifying are completed.” (Levticus 12.1-4)
After that time, the Law specified that she was to offer a sacrifice for her purification: a lamb for a burnt-offering, and a pigeon or a turtledove for a sin-offering. The Law provided that poor people could forego the offering of a lamb, and instead offer two turtledoves or two young pigeons only. And St. Luke makes clear that it was the latter offering, the offering of the poor, that Mary brings to the temple. Pope Emeritus Benedict points out in his book (“Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives”) that St. Luke thus makes it “abundantly clear that Jesus’ family belonged to the poor of Israel, and that it was among such as them that the promises would be fulfilled,” (p. 81).
Already in this action there is a mystical contradiction, almost a divine joke: just as when John the Baptist protested when Jesus came to him for Baptism: “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” So here, as Jesus said to John: “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Mary does not need to be purified from having given birth to Jesus: his birth ushers in the purification of the whole cosmos. But she submits to the Law of Moses, and this act of humility and discretion serves the fulfillment of God’s promises through the Law and the Prophets. (Cf. Benedict, p. 82.)
But there is another mystical contradiction in the episode we commemorate today. Just as the Law mandated the ritual purification of the Mother, so it also mandated the ritual “redemption” of a firstborn son, who was regarded in the Jewish Law as God’s special possession. The book of Exodus says that “Every male that opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord,” (2.23), and as the Lord’s special possession, he had to be ritually “redeemed,” or purchased from God, by offering five shekels to a priest. The parents of a firstborn son had to, as it were, purchase him from God. The divine irony is, of course, that Jesus is himself the redemption of Israel, and indeed of the whole world, and yet here are his parents in the temple, submitting to the Law that demanded that their firstborn son be redeemed.
But actually the text in Luke’s Gospel does not mention Jesus’ ritual redemption. It speaks instead of his “presentation” – “And when the time came for [Mary’s] purification according to the law of Moses, [Mary and Joseph] brought [Jesus] up to Jerusalem to PRESENT him to the Lord,” (Luke 2.22). Pope Benedict observes that the Greek word used by Luke, here translated “present” (parasthsai) “also means ‘to offer,’ in the way that sacrifices… were offered,” (p. 82). So instead of Jesus being ritually redeemed, or purchased from God by his parents, he is brought to the temple and offered, as it were in sacrifice, to God by his parents. Mary and Joseph give Jesus over entirely to God and to God’s purposes. By offering Jesus to God in the temple, Mary and Joseph do, in essence, what we do at every Eucharist: they offer to God the Body and Blood of Jesus, his whole person – to whom we have, of course, been united in Baptism.
And here we are reminded of a very basic, and very important, principle of our faith: it is not about us! It is about God. All authentic worship has nothing to do with our getting anything whatsoever from God, but is about our giving to God what rightfully belongs to him: giving him GLORY. Our sacrifice, our worship, what we do in this place, on this altar, Sunday by Sunday, and day by day, has nothing to do with our finding peace or fulfillment or meaning or even forgiveness, or anything at all. We may get something out of it – we may get these things out of it – but that is not what it is about, in essence; that is not why we are here. This worship, this mass, this action, is not about us at all, in the final analysis. We are here doing this thing because it is, in the words of the old Anglican mass, “our bounden duty and service.” We OWE IT TO GOD. God is WORTHY of being worshiped. And if we do not worship him, if we do not offer him this sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving, if we do not offer him the Body and Blood of his Son, to the very best of our ability, then we are being derelict in our duty, we are failing to give God what we owe him – the price of our life.
When Mary and Joseph give Jesus to God in the temple, St. Luke says that the “righteous and devout” priest, Simeon, took Jesus into his arms and, inspired by the Holy Spirit, spoke the words that have become familiar to us as the Canticle Nun Dimittis, translated in the more familiar words of the Prayer Book, which we sang at the beginning of this mass during the blessing of the candles:
“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 / a light to enlighten the nations / and the glory of your people Israel.”
Candles have been blessed and carried at this mass since ancient times because of the association of the Presentation of Jesus with this Song of Simeon: with the Savior whom God has prepared “for all the world to see,” “a light to enlighten the nations.” This day is about the presentation, the proto-sacrifice, of Jesus, his being given over completely to God. And now, connecting the spiritual dots of the narrative, we can begin to see that it is Jesus’ “presentation” – his sacrifice – that is the light that enlightens the world. His being-offered to his Father reveals him to the world as light, and indeed as the Savior whom God has prepared for all the world to see.
The Benedictines have an ancient saying: Crux sacra sit mihi lux: May the Holy Cross be my light! The narrative of today’s Gospel takes on a decidedly cruciform character, revealed too in Simeon’s prophecy about Jesus and Mary:
“Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, ‘Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is spoken against [a sign of contradiction] (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), that thoughts out of many hearts may be revealed.'” (Luke 2.34-35)
Jesus’ vocation to be Light to the world will find its fulfillment on the cross, where he will be finally and definitively “presented” to God as an acceptable sacrifice, a “sweet smelling holocaust.” But the cross will also be a sign of contradiction.
Pope Benedict says:
“Beneath the language about the falling and rising of many, there are echoes of a prophecy from Is 8.14, in which God himself is designated as a rock against which men stumble and fall. So within the Passion saying, we see the deep bond that links Jesus with God himself. God and his word – Jesus, God’s living word – are “signs,” challenging us to make a choice. Man’s “contradiction” of God runs all the way through history. What proves Jesus to be the true sign of God is that he takes upon himself [man’s] contradiction of God, he draws it to himself all the way to the contradiction of the Cross.
“We are not talking about the past here. We all know to what extent Christ remains a sign of contradiction today, a contradiction that in the final analysis is directed at God. God himself is constantly regarded as a limitation placed on our freedom, that must be set aside if man is ever to be completely himself. God, with his truth, stands in opposition to man’s manifold lies, his self-seeking and his pride.
“God is love. But love can also be hated when it challenges us to transcend ourselves. It is not a romantic “good feeling.” Redemption is not “wellness,” it is not about basking in self-indulgence; on the contrary it is a liberation from imprisonment in self-absorption. This liberation comes at a price: the anguish of the Cross. The prophecy of light and that of the Cross belong together.” (p. 85f)
Look at the Cross. Look at this definitive “presentation” of Jesus to God on our behalf, the price of our freedom. Crux sacra sit mihi lux! May the Holy Cross be my light! What does the light of the cross illuminate in you? How is Christ challenging you, even now, to transcend yourself, to be liberated from yourself, and to be united to God in his Body? We are all in daily need of the liberation of Jesus: to be free of worldly pleasure; to be free of the fear of having nothing; to be free of the fear of loneliness; to be free of the fear of being small in the service of God’s immensity. May the Holy Cross be our light. May the most pure Mother of Jesus pray for us. May we find freedom in union with the sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.