M. Rebecca Stramoski
Mal 3:1-4; Heb 2:14-18; Lk 2:22-32
Forty days ago we opened our Christmas Season with the turning on of our Christmas tree lights. However, before electricity each Christmas tree branch held candles. So initially and traditionally, Christians called the Nativity “the Feast of Lights” in honor of Him who was born as the Light to the Nations. The Christmas tree with its many candles represented Christ our Light coming into the world. This morning each of us will receive and hold a candle that represents Christ our Light, this time coming into our hearts. Prior to Vatican II, the Church officially closed the Season with the Feast of the Presentation. So we see that the Christmas Season began and ended with the celebration of divine light.
However, throughout history this feast has had so many titles that it is hard to know what exactly we are celebrating. The Eastern Church has always celebrated it as the Presentation of the Lord. But they also call it “the Feast of the Encounter” or “the Meeting of our Lord”. The West has celebrated it as the feast of the Purification of Mary. But we also call it”Candlemas”. So which is it: Jesus’ Presentation in the Temple? Mary’s purification? Simeon and Anna and all humanity’s encounter with God? Or the Light for the Nations in candle bearing? Rather than reflecting confusion, I think it reveals how full this mystery is!
I realize you know the source of this feast but I will repeat or refresh it anyway. The presentation of Jesus in the temple served 2 purposes: the first is the redemption of the first-born and the second is the purification of a mother after childbirth. According to Exodus (13:1-2), the first born son belonged to the Lord but the Book of Numbers (18:15-16) tells us the first-born could be redeemed or bought back by paying 5 shekels. (How ironic that at the end of Jesus’ life we will sell him for 30 pieces!) Then also, according to the Jewish Law in Leviticus (ch 12) Mary, as any Jewish mother, needed purification after childbirth.
While meditating on the gospel for this Feast, I could visualize Mary as an unassuming young girl carrying her 6 week old infant up the steps of the temple. She might have been a bit dusty and tired from the long journey but I can imagine her joy as they entered the temple. Mary understood the importance of this act and ritual for her and her baby. The purification was normally performed in the local synagogue but Mary and Joseph wanted it to take place in the temple. So we see, Mary was acting not out of duty and law but out of devotion and love.
How come she was able to pass everyone around the temple and go unnoticed, yet Simeon and Anna recognized the Savior right away? Was it because Simeon and Anna were waiting with expectation?...was it because they were vigilant? When one is mindful and watchful, they will see with greater depth. The child Jesus and Mary enter unobserved, yet Simeon and Anna in their desirous anticipation saw the Lord. This is why we as monks and contemplatives are called to be vigilant – so we can recognize the Lord in unassuming places and in people otherwise unobserved. Does our monastic life express with such confident expectation our own encounter of Christ? And is it with the same intensity that Simeon and Anna cherished in their hearts?
Today we follow in the footsteps of Mary as we walk to the Church carrying in our hands the candle which represents Christ within our hearts. Perhaps today we enter a little tired or dusty from the journey of our lives but we also carry the joy of this act. We, like Mary, do this not out of duty but devotion; not out of law but out of love.
Many years later Jesus will enter the temple again and announce, “I am the light of the world; he who follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life”. When he was crucified “there was darkness over all the land” but on the third day this darkness made way for the light of the resurrection. Light shined out from the Cross and opened the way for eternal life. It is the same imagery of those candles in the Christmas tree, a tree symbolizing the wood of the Cross, that carried the Light of the World.
But what is this Light the Incarnate Word brings? How does He dispel the darkness of the world? What is the revelation He brings? It is a revelation of God’s unconditional, unchanging, uncomplicated love – always there, simple and pure. God’s love can brighten the darkest night of the year as well as the darkest spaces in each of our lives. When asked what does this light illume? Pope John Paul II answered that it illuminates the darkness of human souls. “How much personal toil it costs each of us in order that – through everything in us that is “dark” – we can reveal what is luminous”. This is a challenge. There is a cost (a human effort) for us to dispel the darkness and allow Christ to lighten and enlighten our soul. We see this accomplished in a person of simplicity, of humility, of love, of self-sacrifice. So again, what is illumined by this light? The answer is our life and it is answered BY our life…. (how we live).
I’d also like to bring out another point from the other readings for today. In the book of Malachi, he prophesizes that in the future “the Lord will suddenly enter his temple” and the sacrifice of the Levite priests will be purified so that a pure sacrifice will be offered to God. The second reading from Hebrews confirms that Jesus will also be the High Priest who offers himself at the altar of Calvary. This pure sacrifice is offered to us today and every day in the Eucharist. In the procession before mass we will be holding in our hands a candle representing Christ’s Presence, but today in the mass we will be holding in our hands the “Real Presence” – the Body of Christ. It is here at the altar that we, too, will be celebrating the Feast of the Encounter…the meeting of the Lord.
So this morning as we receive the candle and process into church and place them on the altar, let us pray that we may be like Mary: women filled with devotion and love for Christ. Let us pray that we may be like Simeon and Anna: women who eagerly anticipate and keep vigil for the coming of Christ. Let us pray that we will be like the candles we carry: women who bear the light of Christ for all to see. And let us pray that we will be like Jesus Christ in the Eucharist: women who offer their lives to God in worship and serve others with selfless love.
There at the altar we will leave our candles burning to represent this participation in God’s Light, Life, and Love…a participation OF our life and BY our life.