The familiar carol stops at day 12, but today is actually the 40th day of Christmas. It marks the definitive end of the Christmas season. In Italy (and some other places), the presepio or nativity scene typically remains in place in church until today. So two years ago at this time, when I was studying in Rome, I had almost a full month to visit the various presepe – some monumentally elaborate, some surprisingly simple – on display in Rome’s many churches.
In the western, Latin Church, today is currently called the Presentation of the Lord, but for several centuries it was also known as the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary. According to the Gospel we just heard, Mary and Joseph took the infant Jesus to Jerusalem according to the law of Moses, that is to say, in obedience to God’s law, in order to observe two important religious obligations. The first was the ordinary obligation to be purified after childbirth, reflecting ancient beliefs about the sacredness of blood, and the requirement of ritual purification after any direct contact with blood. The second concerned the special status and religious responsibilities of a first-born son (because of God’s having spared Israel’s first-born at the time of the Exodus). Jesus, Mary, and Joseph’s participation in these rituals highlights for us, first, the inviolable sacredness of all human life, and, second, the special status (and corresponding responsibilities) which now define our entire lives, because of our relationship with Jesus.
But, whatever the official title, the most common popular title for today’s celebration in the West has consistently been Candlemas Day, because of the Blessing of Candles and the Procession - originally in Rome an early morning, pre-dawn procession, originally somewhat penitential in character – with which today’s Mass begins.
The name Candlemas calls attention, obviously, to the blessed candles, but also to their light – and to Jesus the One whom that light symbolizes. The Church’s official ceremonial says that “on this day Christ’s faithful people, with candles in their hands, go out to meet the Lord and to acclaim him with Simeon, who recognized Christ as ‘a light to reveal God to the nations.’ They should therefore be taught to walk as children of the light in their entire way of life, because they have a duty to show the light of Christ to all by acting in the works that they do as lighted lamps.”
A secular version of Candlemas is “Groundhog Day.” Not so long ago, everyone in the Western world knew about Candlemas Day. Today many people, probably, have forgotten Candlemas completely. Yet even those who may never ever even have heard of Candlemas can recognize the folklore that connects the day with the change of seasons. While the weather is still decidedly wintry, the days are getting noticeably longer. Whereas Christmas comes at the mid-point of the winter’s darkness, with the year’s shortest day and its correspondingly longest night, Candlemas comes at the mid-point between the winter solstice and the spring equinox, the transition (according to one ancient way of reckoning the seasons) from winter to spring. Soon, day and night, light and dark will be equal. So this last of the great winter light festivals invites us to look ahead to what these ancient seasonal feasts are meant to symbolize.
Today we recall with joy the Lord’s entry into his Temple: and suddenly (so says the prophet Malachi) there will come to the temple the Lord whom you seek. At the same time, we hear, in wise old Simeon’s words to Mary, the first reference to what lies ahead, the first reference to the cross. Behold, this child is destined … to be a sign that will be contradicted – and you yourself a sword will pierce – so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.
So, even as we take one last look back at winter and Christmas, Candlemas looks ahead to spring and Lent, and reminds us that the point of Christmas is Easter.
Meanwhile, Simeon and Anna’s encounter with the infant Jesus in the Jerusalem Temple points us toward our own encounter with the Risen Christ here and now.
In the Eastern, non-Latin Churches, this day is appropriately called the Encounter, the Feast of Meeting. Today, Christ comes to meet us, and we in turn get to meet him. Every Christmas we encounter Christ in a special way in the image the infant Jesus in the manger. When we encounter the infant Jesus in the nativity scene in church and at home, we appreciate anew the great mystery of the incarnation of God’s Son. When Simeon and Anna experienced in the infant Jesus the human face of God, they spoke about the child to all who were awaiting the redemption of Jerusalem. They hastened to proclaim and share their good news. That remains our task today – to take the light of these candles out into our spiritually still so very dark world, and so to share with all the light reflected in our own lives from the brightness of the human face of God.
Homily for the feast of the Presentation of the Lord, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, February 2, 2014.