A Light to Lighten the Gentiles,
and the Glory of thy people Israel.
(St. Luke ii. 32)
Today we celebrate the Feast of The Presentation of the Child Jesus in the Temple, which is also known as The Purification of St. Mary the Virgin and also as Candlemas. It is called The Purification after the Jewish ritual custom proscribed in the Twelfth Book of Leviticus, where the mother of a newborn boy is commanded to undergo forty days of cleansing from the blood of childbirth and then to offer herself and the child at the temple with an offering. Her purification is accompanied by the presentation of her child. The ritual itself is a consecration of both the mother and child’s lives to God, and the offering is a sign of thanksgiving and gratitude for safe delivery and the continued health of the mother. If the parents were rich enough, they would offer a lamb. If they were poor, they would offer two turtledoves or two pigeons, as Joseph and Mary did. That the Feast is also called Candlemas originates with Simeon’s prophecy that the Christ Child would be a Light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of [God’s] people Israel. (Ibid, 32) Later Church tradition has this day as the Feast on which beeswax candles were blessed for use both in churches and in private homes throughout the year. In the old days, Candlemas Term denoted the second trimester in Scottish universities and secondary schools.
So let us study Candlemas. And I would like to do this because I think that it fits nicely in with our Epiphany Season of light. In the past few weeks, we have been focusing on Christ the Light, or on the Light that has begun to illuminate our minds and warm our hearts to the mission and meaning of Jesus Christ. What we have seen is that Christ the Light is the spiritual brilliance and radiance that comes to transform and redeem human nature in such a way that He confuses and confounds before He adjusts and assimilates our vision to His meaning. Think about our Epiphany Gospel readings. In them, we found that the Blessed Virgin Mary was left quite confused about the meaning of her young son’s life. She thought that she had lost Jesus, only to discover that it was she who was truly lost spiritually since she had forgotten why He was born and for what He had come into the world. Later, when she provoked Him to use His power to overcome the depletion of wedding wine, she was reminded that both she and He were destined to face the need for a far more potent wine -the wine of His Sacred Blood. In both cases, the Blessed Virgin’s spiritual vision was not able to see the heavenly Light that informed and defined her earthly Son’s earthly mission.
None of this should surprise us. The Blessed Virgin was Jesus’ earthly mother –the mother of Jesus’ humanity. In so far as she saw what she saw when she saw it, she was a good mother moved and defined by human nature’s light. In this, she was like you and me. She followed Nature’s light. Nature’s light is found in three ways. First, it is the light of the Sun that brings about new life, conserves and moves it to its appointed ends. Through the energy of the Sun the world, as we know it, lives, and moves, and has its being. Second, it is the light of the Sun that sheds its rays and enables us to see. Third, it is the light of man’s intellect by which he comes to study the universe and explore its length, breadth, depth, and height, so that he might order and arrange it to serve his needs. Nature’s light is a gift from God for which we ought to be eternally thankful. This is the light that moves most men, and, no doubt, defined and informed Mary’s relation to her son Jesus.
But there is another Light which stands above Nature’s light. This is the Light that lighteth every man that cometh into the world. (St. John i. 9) Of course, this Light is Christ or the everlastingly-begotten Word of God. This is the Light that not only makes and creates but calls all men back to God. This is the Light that then joins Himself to human nature in Jesus Christ in order to generate another Light –the Light of faith in the hearts and minds of those who will follow Him. But, this Light of faith is not obtained or possessed easily. The Blessed Virgin, more than others I think, knew this most acutely and painfully. Faith is a gift that grows only with suffering through the trial and error of realizing that we do not yet grasp or understand the true Light. The Light of faith demands humility and obedience. This Light calls us onto the path of Love that leads to true Life. The Light of faithgrows in the heart that listens to Jesus, heeds Jesus, and follows Jesus. One of the hardest truths that the Blessed Virgin had to accept was that her unique role did not entitle the Light of faith in her to the immediate and privileged possession of her Son or His will. She was His earthly mother. God was His heavenly Father. The whole of her life is about letting go of Jesus so that the Light of Faith might carry He to His Cross and beyond.
The Blessed Virgin would learn to follow Jesus in faith and discover in Him the light that lighteth every man that cometh into the world. Her encounter with the Light began with news brought to her by an unusual other –the Angel Gabriel, who told her of Jesus’ conception by the Holy Ghost. In the Light of [her] faith, she heard of the prophecy of her Son’s everlasting kingship. Nature’s lightcontinually confused her. God’s Son would be born in poverty. The praise brought by Angels and Shepherds reassured her for a time. Still, we must imagine how confused this poor Virgin Mother must have been! Nature’s light taught her that the other Light seemed to be shining in the most unlikely of places and through the strangest of mediums! How could this prophecy of glory and perfection emerge from conditions of such hardship and suffering, she must have wondered. But through it all, by the Light of faith, she followed, and pondered all these things in her heart. (Ibid, ii. 19)
And today we find more of what must have been, at the very least, still more confusing. She and Joseph take the babe to the temple for her ritual Purification and Jesus’ Presentation. And so here, thinking that she was doing only what every other Jewish mother had been commanded to do by Jewish Law after the birth of her male-child, her faith encounters the Light once again. There she and Joseph find old Simeon and Anna. St. Luke tells us that Simeon was just and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel; and the Holy Ghost was upon him. And it was revealed unto him by the Holy Ghost, that he should not see death, before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. (Ibid, 25, 26) Simeon sees God’s Light in Jesus and proceeds to sing the Nunc Dimitis.
Lord, now lettest thou 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;
a light to lighten the Gentiles,
and the glory of thy people Israel. (Ibid, 29-32)
Simeon sees God’s Light of salvation in the newborn Jesus; Mary and Joseph marvel at his prophecy. Simeon addresses Mary and reveals the meaning of Jesus’ birth. This child is set for the fall and rising again of many in Israel; and for a sign which shall be spoken against; (yea, a sword shall pierce through thy own soul also,) that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed. (Ibid, 34, 35) The Light of faith will lead Mary, through Jesus, to a future of fall and rising, of suffering and death before redemption and new birth. The process of faith’s journey into Christ the Light will demand that the Light still shine, even in the face of that darkness which will pierce and rend both Christ’s side and Mary’s soul on Calvary’s Cross.
The Feast of Candlemas reminds us that our faith must never hesitate or waiver in the face of confusion, perplexity, or suffering, as it journeys into Christ the Light, who comes to reveal the truth of God’s plan and purpose for us all. The Light of faith demands patience, watching, waiting, and courage. The Light of Faith demands compassion, mercy, forgiveness, and kindness. Today the Blessed Virgin once again is confronted by God’s Light and in Simeon and Anna sees something of what is to come. Both spent their lives in the temple guided by the Light of faith, patiently praying, keeping vigil, looking for the things that were coming from God with earnest expectation and hope. What was rewarded to them as the prize of their faith and hope was a vision of the Savior. They would not live to see and understand the Light and Love that this Life would bring into the world. They would not live to see how this Light would shine even in the Darkness of unjust suffering and death. But Mary would come to understand it all slowly and painfully. But first, the Lord places before her the Light of faith in the lives of Anna and Simeon. Through their faith, Mary is being purified of all earthly expectations –the usual end of Nature’s light, that the Light of her faith might follow and find, see and understand the spiritual meaning of her Son, Christ the Light.
Today, dear friends, let us be determined to walk by the Light of faith. Today’s Purification and Presentation in the Temple should provoke us to cultivate and grow that Light, and so to present ourselves to God with pure and clean hearts. (Collect) Let us with Mary, as the model of our purification, be patient, ever watching and waiting, and even suffering as the Light of faith leads us deeper into the Love of God in Jesus’ Life. From there, let us pray that the illumination of Christ the Light will enkindle our passion to follow Him wheresoever He bids us go and to obey Him in whatever He asks us to do. His Light never ceases to touch us with God’s Love. With Mary let us ponder all things in our hearts and:
Begin from first, where he encradled was
In simple cratch, wrapt in a wad of hay,
Between the toilful ox and humble ass;
And in what rags, and in what base array
The glory of our heavenly riches lay,
When him the silly shepherds came to see,
Whom greatest princes sought on lowest knee.
St. Michael and All Angels Sermons