Presentation of Our Lord Jesus Christ in the Temple, Year A, 2020
Kevin Gore, St. Andrew’s Mountain Home
I saw a note on Facebook this week that explained why one should use incense on the Feast of the Presentation. In fact, this statement made the case that one should be using huge amounts of incense. It explained that in this wise and ancient tradition, everyone knows that on the February 2nd, if the thurifer can see their own shadow, there will be six more weeks of Winter!
Now of course that’s convoluting a couple of the three very sacred things happening today. First, February 2nd, regardless of what day it falls on, is Groundhog day celebrated in the United States and Canada, and this Sunday is always the sacred feast of the Super Bowl no matter what the actual date on the calendar is, and then, I certainly hope most importantly, February 2nd is always the Feast of the Presentation of our Lord Jesus Christ in the Temple, also known as Candlemas.
Candlemas is observed forty days after Christmas. It marks the traditional end of Christmas, so for those of you with decorations still up, not to worry, you were just waiting for the correct day to take them down. The thing about observing Candlemas today though, is that it is always 40 days after Christmas, and since Christmas moves around as to what day of the week it will fall on, so does Candlemas. We don’t often get a chance to observe it on Sundays.
The readings for this feast day focus on the arrival of the messiah, on the promises fulfilled by God. This all centers around Mary and Joseph taking the baby Jesus to the Temple in Jerusalem as the Mosiac law required. They had to bring an offering and sacrifice to God, and Mary had to be purified by the ritual at the Temple. For those of you who know your Leviticus, you’ll recall that a woman who had given birth was considered unclean because of the bodily fluids she would necessarily come in contact with. So they all go to the Temple for these two reasons.
This particular story from the Gospel of Luke is overflowing with meaningful details. For instance, we actually get a window into how Mary and Joseph lived, by the description of their bringing a sacrifice. In the book of Leviticus, chapter 12, it outlines what is required for this sacrifice. The preferred sacrifice is a lamb. But, in the event that it is too expensive, you can bring two turtle-doves or two pigeons. So we can surmise from this that Mary and Joseph had a fairly simple life. They weren’t very wealthy if their sacrifice was what Luke tells us.
That detail is small but, I think, very interesting, and exemplifies how we can use scripture when studied contextually to understand the broader picture of the story we are being told. But the main event in this particular story, the most important detail, is what happens with Simeon. Now we don’t really know anything about Simeon other than what the author of the Gospel of Luke tells us. There are stories that have come out of Christian traditions about him, but they are all conjecture. From the Orthodox Church, we have stories that put him at well over two hundred years old when he finally sees Jesus. In truth we don’t know any of that. What we do know is what he is waiting for.
Simeon is told by the Holy Spirit that he will not die until he has seen the messiah. Can you imagine the kind of patience that would require? Scripture tells us that this is very important to Simeon, that he was, “looking forward to the consolation of Israel.” If you recall at this point, right up to the birth of Jesus, it had been four hundred years since the last major prophet had been reported, which was Malachi. So this is a period of silence as it pertains to God’s active word to the Hebrews. I’m not saying that Simeon has been around for those four hundred years, what I mean is that this is a period of time where hope is scarce supply. Yet, Simeon gets the promise from the Holy Spirit. So he waits. We don’t know how long he waits, it could have been a day, it could have been decades. But imagine getting a promise from God that you will not die until the most important event to occur happens, and all you can do is wait.
When he sees Jesus he knows instantly that this baby is the answer to all his prayers and hope. This little baby, about forty days old, is the long awaited messiah. Simeon praises God and gives us the Song of Simeon. This is the revelation by someone who was not present at the birth with the angels and the shepherds and all the chaos, proclaiming again that the messiah has come. This man who has waited for the, “consolation of Israel” says something very curious while praising God. He says that this child, the messiah, will be, “a light to enlighten the Gentiles.” He knows that the Light of Christ that is shining in the world will be a light for everyone. He knows that the salvation that the incarnation of God will bring about is offered to everyone, not just the Hebrews who have waited for this messiah to come.
The Song of Simeon, his praise to God, is a much loved canticle used in Evening Prayer in the Anglican tradition, even in the 1662 Prayer Book. It is used in evening prayer because it reminds us of the religious practice of monastics throughout the ages. Their last prayers to God before going to sleep, the words of Simeon, praising God that the work is done, who then says, “O Lord you now have set your servant free to go in peace as promised.” These words are Simeon himself thanking God that the work is done and he can now die and be at peace that the Messiah has come. He can finally let go.
This passage teaches us of patience and steadfast faith. It shows us those who are rewarded as God promised, with seeing the messiah finally come to save all people. Simeon’s words remind us that Christ is the one true light that enlightens all people, that he brings the light of God into a dark world that has nearly lost hope. We, as followers of Christ, are commanded by Jesus himself to proclaim the good news of this light that has come. We are tasked with carrying this light out to everyone and sharing it with those who need it most.
As we pray the Song of Simeon, as we contemplate what it looks like to have patience for God’s revelation in your life, on this Feast of Candlemas, remember that Christ’s incarnation has brought the light of God into the world. Share that light with those who cross your path. Be like Simeon, proclaiming the good news that salvation has come and the light of the World is Jesus Christ.