Twelfth in a series of reflections on Mass readings during the Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy
Feast of the Lord’s Presentation (Candlemas)
Readings: Malachi 3:1-4; Hebrews 2:14-18; Luke 2:22-40
(Note: apologies for the delay of a day. This post was very difficult to write; there is so much that can be talked about, the story is so rife with detail. So if the final post seems underwhelming, it is so in service of not making it overwhelming!)
The Christian celebration of Candlemas – the Feast of the Lord’s Presentation and of the Virgin Mother’s Purification – is little remembered or regarded by the Church at-large these days. Yet the event celebrated today is of great significance, and gives us key information about Jesus, the culture in which He was raised, the obligations He was meant to fulfill, and the expectations under which His Church began to operate. This feast commemorates the day that the newborn Jesus, Who as the firstborn son of an Israelite woman belonged completely to God the Father, was dedicated to God and ransomed back to His people by sacrifice. Such observance, according to the Torah, goes back to the time of the Exodus; God’s claim to the firstborn of Israel was meant to balance the cosmic scales offset by the plague that destroyed the firstborn of Egypt. It is one of those marvelous concepts that pervades the Law that is, as Benedict XVI would remark, “astonishing…both in its grandeur and its incompleteness, an idea that could not remain the last word.” That balance was finally achieved in the event we celebrate today, when the Incarnate Word Himself was brought into the dwelling place of the Name. Today, the Son is offered to the Father in the presence of the Holy Spirit.
Such a moment had been awaited since the time of the prophet Malachi, in the days after Jerusalem was rebuilt. The First Reading for today’s feastday is drawn from his writings, and speaks of God coming “suddenly” to the Temple to purify and refine His people who were still wandering in their hearts. Once this refinement process is accomplished, the sacrifices offered in Jerusalem will become acceptable once again. This coming was accomplished in Jesus’ presentation. His arrival is indeed “sudden” – that is, it is unexpected, and in two ways. First, this consecration of Jesus to the father takes place at the same time as His Mother’s purification sacrifice, 40 days after He is born. In fact, the sacrifice of “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons” is the sacrifice stipulated in the Law for the purification of the mother, and that for poorer families. That both requirements are met at the same time, and in the Temple in Jerusalem, is unusual and has resulted in much ink-spilling and head-scratching by scholars and theologians over the centuries. But it is not out of the realm of possibility either, since the Holy Family was very pious, low on resources, still likely close by in a crowded Bethlehem. In any case, whatever may be said about the timing, location and circumstances of this event as Luke’s investigation has made them known to us, it is at the least unexpected.
Secondly, His arrival is unexpected because…well, everything about the Incarnation was unexpected! The literal enfleshment of God from the moment of conception to beyond the moment of physical death ran counter to all expectation of what the promised Prophet, King and Messiah would be like – and, judging from the fractured state of the mystical Body on earth 2000 years later, and the resulting apathetic workings of the majority of its members, it still does! In this particular moment, He is recognized in the Gospel reading only by the holy man Simeon and the prophetess Anna, who praised God and openly preached about “the redemption of Jerusalem” when they saw the Child. Simeon goes even further in the great Nunc dimittis song recorded here, calling the Child “a light for revelation to the Gentiles and glory for Your people Israel.” The figure promised by Isaiah he now sees in the 40-day-old infant gently lying in his arms.
The expectation of Malachi’s prophecy and the reality of Luke’s report is bridged by the Letter to the Hebrews, a document so key to understanding why the Old Testament is fulfilled by Christ in the way it has been. In order to become the ultimate priest, the ultimate sacrifice, the ultimate atonement, “He had to become like his brothers and sisters in every way.” That meant experiencing life directly as one of us, living as one of us, subjecting Himself to the same strictures and structures as one of us. In order for us to experience the greatest possible mercy, He experienced the greatest possible severity. In order to carry the sufferings of “those who are being tested,” He Himself needed to be “tested through what He suffered.” In the paradox of consecrating to God the One Who is God from God, He formally declared Himself both liberator and servant – with no speech and almost entirely unnoticed.
One final note on the Paradox of the Presentation: a sacrifice of “two turtledoves or two young pigeons” was required for families who could not procure a lamb to sacrifice (along with one dove or pigeon). How “suddenly” rich, then, is the poor Mother who in presenting her Child offered the One Who would become the Lamb of God?