The familiar carol stops at day 12, but today is actually the 40th day of Christmas & the true end of the Christmas season. It Italy and much of Europe, the presepio or nativity scene remains in place in church until today. So last year 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. (My own Peruvian nativity scene in my office will also get packed up and put away int he next day or so).
In the Latin Church, today is currently called the Presentation of the Lord, but for several centuries it was known as the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary. According to the Gospel we just heard [Luke 2:22-40], 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 an direct contact with blood. The second concerned the special status and religious responsibilities of a 1st-born son (because of God’s having spared Israel’s 1st-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 identification with Jesus.
Whether officially titled the Presentation of the Lord of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary, however, the most common popular title for today’s celebration in the West has consistently been Candlemas Day, because of the Blessing of Candles and Procession - originally in Rome an early pre-dawn procession – with which today’s Mass began. The name Candlemas calls attention, obviously, to the candles, but also to their light – and the One whom that light symbolizes.
Meanwhile, a secular version of Candlemas is “Groundhog Day.” Many people today have forgotten Candlemas Day. Yet many who have never heard of Candlemas recognize the folklore connected with today related to the change of seasons. While the weather is still wintry, the days are noticeably getting longer. Whereas Christmas comes at the mid-point of winter’s darkness, with the year’s shortest day and longest night, Candlemas comes midway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. Soon, day and night, light and dark will be equal. So this last of the winter light festivals invites us to look ahead to what these winter light festivals are meant to symbolize.
So today, even while we recall with joy the Lord’s entry into his Temple, we hear, in wise old Simeon’s words to Mary, the first reference to what lies ahead, the first reference to the cross. So, even as we take a last look back at winter and Christmas, Candlemas looks ahead to spring and Lent and Easter. 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.
Every Christmas we encounter Christ in a special way in the image in the manger. 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 from 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, 2013.