Today marks the fortieth day after Christmas, and in Church Liturgical circles, we know it as the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord. It is the final feast of the Lord on our calendar which is dated by Christmas, the last one having been the Epiphany. Like the Feast of the Epiphany, the feast of the Presentation of Jesus is another occasion for us to learn something of how God reveals himself to us. In this case, Luke’s gospel shows Jesus to be “a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and glory for your people Israel” (Lk 2:32).
The tradition, according to Exodus 13, is that every first-born male was consecrated to the service of the Lord God. A family could “redeem” their first-born son from that service, by making an offering of a yearling lamb, or if the family was poor, an offering of two turtledoves or two pigeons. This ritual took place on the fortieth day following the birth, according to the rituals outlined in the Book of Leviticus.
In Luke’s gospel, when Mary and Joseph bring their son to the temple in Jerusalem, on their return to Nazareth from Bethlehem, they encounter the old priest, Simeon. According to the evangelist, Simeon had a revelation from God that he should not see death until he looked on the face of the Messiah. When the parents bring Jesus to the temple, it happened that Simeon was “on duty,” and it fell to him to carry out the ritual sacrifice for the presentation of the child. He recognized in Jesus the fulfilment of God’s promise of a Meshiach, or Messiah, or Christ (Anointed of the Lord God. The child’s parents make the offering proper to a family of limited means, and that is instructive for us in that Luke’s Jesus is always described in his adult ministry as favoring those who have little or nothing, those who live on the margins of society, and those who are considered “little” by the world. Keep in mind, too, that it is in Luke’s gospel that Mary shares the words of the “Magnificat,” which speaks of the lowly being lifted up and the mighty being cast down.
In an old European tradition, it was on this day that candles would be borne in a large procession into the Cathedral churches, signifying Jesus as the Light of the Nations. It was also the day on which, traditionally, the beeswax candles for use in the church throughout the year would be blessed, and in some cases distributed to the faithful for use in their homes. Another name for this day developed, and many called it Candlemas, from the Mass of the Candles. I have a memory of my grand-aunt, keeping her candles from Candlemas specifically to be lit during times of trouble or difficulty in the family. Difficulty could be understood as anything from illness to thunderstorms. (She had a terrible fear of thunderstorms and so she’d light the blessed candles and sprinkle every window and door in the house with the holy water that she’d replenish every year at Easter.)
These traditions can seem old-fashioned and even silly to the modern mind, but they witnessed to some deep truths which are important for us in our faith. Jesus is the light of the world. He is the light for all nations, revealing to us the very face of God. Jesus is the salvation of the world. His death is our ransom from death, and his resurrection is our rising to life. Jesus shows us what the compassion and love of God looks like with skin on. It involves his preference for the poor and downtrodden, for the sinner and the alienated in the world. This revelation of God for the world is a revelation of a God who gives us “Jesus Christ, your Son, as our Lord and Redeemer.” As a preface to one of our Eucharistic Prayers puts it, this Jesus “always showed compassion for children and for the poor, for the sick and for sinners, and he became a neighbor to the oppressed and the afflicted. By word and deed he announced to the world that you are our Father and that you care for all your sons and daughters.” This reflects an understanding of a Jesus who shows us, who is for us, the face of a God ever-caring, and ever-faithful.
For the disciple, then, when we recognize in Jesus the face of a compassionate and caring God, we are also confronted with our own call to witness to God’s care and mercy in our world. Every time we light our blessed candles, every time we stand in the breach of the world’s darkness, we proclaim that the mission and mercy of Jesus in the world continues. The story of God’s salvation in the world continues to unfold in our lives and in our times.