Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Presentation of Christ in the Temple

Presentation of Christ in the Temple – Year A
Malachi 3.1-4; Psalm 84; Hebrews 2.14-18; Luke 2.22-40
Wednesday, February 2, 2011 –
Trinity, Redlands

Today we commemorate the Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple. According to Jewish law, the firstborn male is to be consecrated to God 40 days after he is born. In addition, the mother must undergo ritual purification after giving birth, which also occurs 40 days after childbirth. Undoubtedly, the two rites, consecration and purification, were timed to coincide, allowing mother and child to be together for the event. For Jesus and for Mary, this would have occurred 40 days after Christmas, on February 2 by our calendar.

In the Western church, the term “Candlemas” (or Candle Mass) has also been used for this feast day. Candlemas refers to the practice whereby priests bless candles for use throughout the year, both in the church and in the home. The blessing of candles on this particular day is specifically in reference to the line in the Nunc Dimittis, or Song of Simeon, where Simeon refers to the infant Jesus as “a light for revelation to the Gentiles” (Lk 2:32). This commemoration of Candlemas with its blessing of candles taken forth from the church symbolizes the carrying of the light of Christ into the world.

But not only is today the Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple and the celebration of Candlemas, it’s also a lesser known feast day – that of St. Phil of Punxsutawney – what secular society refers to as Groundhog Day. Trying to figure out how all of this fits together is a little confusing to say the least.

I just love the story of the minister who visits the Sunday school class to see what they’ve learned. The teacher tells him that they have been studying the liturgical year and have been focusing on the upcoming seasons of Lent and Easter. The minister then says to the children, “Who can tell me about Easter?” Several children raise their hands, and the minister calls on one of the boys. “Tommy, why don’t you tell me what happened at Easter.”

“Well sir, Jesus and his disciples were eating at the last supper. One of the disciples named Judas betrayed Jesus and the Romans arrested him. They took him to be crucified. He was stabbed in the side. They made him wear a crown of thorns. He was hung on a cross with nails in his hands and feet. Then he died. Then they buried Jesus in a cave and closed it with a big boulder.” Tommy paused, a little nervous. The minister said, “Go on, you’re doing great.” With renewed confidence, Tommy continued, “And on Easter, the boulder is moved away so that Jesus can come out. And if he sees his shadow, there will be six more weeks of winter!”

Now, of course Groundhog Day has nothing to do with Easter. But there may actually be a connection between Groundhog Day and Candlemas. There is evidence that points to Groundhog Day as being derived from pagan festivals occurring in parts of Europe around the first of February – festivals entailing images of light and sacred fire, as well as healing and purification. These same festivals may well have been the reason the practices of Candlemas were introduced into the church as it spread into northern Europe – essentially a celebration placed in opposition to the local pagan practices, in an attempt to Christianize these pagan festivals.

Regardless of the origins of some of these more obscure festivals and practices, our celebration here tonight first and foremost centers on the presentation of the infant Jesus in the Temple, as an act of consecration of this holy child to God. As the firstborn male child, Jewish law and custom would require that Jesus be so consecrated. The thing is, Jesus is not only the firstborn of Mary; he is also the firstborn of all creation, God’s only begotten son. In some ways, it seems superfluous to be consecrating God’s own son to God’s divine purposes. If anything, the presentation of Christ in the Temple is not for God’s purposes as laid out in Jewish law, but rather for our own benefit. If anything, this is the Lukan version of the Epiphany event – Luke’s equivalent to the coming of the Magi, in which Jesus is revealed or manifested to the world.

As we look at the scriptural account of the Presentation, we are told nothing of the rite of consecration that Jesus would be part of, or the rite of purification that Mary would have been a part of. Rather, we are presented with two wise old souls – first Simeon and then Anna – who through the guidance and inspiration of the Spirit recognize this month and a half old infant for who he is, and for who he is destined to become. They recognize that this child is not so much being presented to God as he is being presented to God’s people – among the earliest revelations that this child is the long-awaited Messiah. This is beautifully articulated by Simeon in the canticle bearing his name, the Song of Simeon which we say every time we do Compline:

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.

Every time I say these words, I am right there with Simeon – proclaiming the glory of God as revealed to the world through Jesus Christ – “A Light to enlighten the nations, and the glory of your people Israel.” And just as Simeon expressed gratitude for being allowed to see the Savior before his death, I am able to share in those same words of gratitude. In saying them, I too am expressing thanksgiving that I have been allowed to know and serve our Savior. In saying the Song of Simeon, I often feel as if I am right there at the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, as Jesus is consecrated to God, as he is revealed as the one who would bring light to a dark world. And saying these words also serves as my own presentation of myself to God’s service through Jesus Christ.

As Christians, we are called to continually present ourselves to God for his service. When we enter into worship, we are reminded of who Christ is for us and for the world – a light to enlighten the nations. We are the Body of Christ. And in coming to worship in this, our temple, we are given the opportunity to present ourselves anew, through the liturgy and particularly through the actions that take place around the altar, where we are once again consecrated as God’s own, as God’s beloved, seeking to serve him through Jesus Christ, seeking to continue the Epiphany, the manifestation of Christ to the nations, through our own words and actions, carrying the light of Christ out into a world so much in need of that light.

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