The Feast of the Presentation of the Lord – 2 February 2020
Lectionary Readings: Mal 3:1-4; Ps 24:7-10; Heb 2:14-18; Luke 2:22-40
Celebrated forty days after Christmas, this feast has taken on different meanings throughout history. Once called the “Purification” from Luke’s description of the completion of the days for “their purification”, it has also been called “Candlemas” from the tradition of carrying candles, a symbol of Jesus in the arms of Simeon who describes him as bringing the “light (of) salvation”. In Luke’s telling of the story, there is a slight confusion about the Jewish practices it describes. Three ceremonies are included, those of the purification of the mother, the redemption of the firstborn male child, and the presentation of a child to the service of God. “Their purification” is a misnomer, for the ceremony only involved the mother. Mary makes the offering of the poor (cf. Leviticus 12:6-8). The redemption of the firstborn male child is a separate ritual (cf. Exodus 13:2, 12-13), though it could have happened in the Temple and at the same time. Luke gives the third element, the dedication of the child to God, an emphasis which reflects his understanding of Jesus’ significance – and also by the account of the dedication of the child Samuel (cf. 1 Samuel 1:21-28), the song of whose mother, Hannah, has already been used by Luke as a pattern for Mary’s song, which we traditionally refer to as the Magnificat.
This episode shows Mary and Joseph as Jews faithful to the Law of their ancestors, reminding us again how rooted Christianity is in Judaism. They carry out the Jewish religious tradition which was focused in the Temple, making possible God’s redemption in Jesus. It also enables the Temple to make, as it were, its witness to Jesus through the figures of Simeon and Anna, who are living in a world of patient hope and expectant fidelity, where suffering has become a way of life. Simeon is waiting for God to comfort Israel. Anna is in touch with the people who are waiting for the redemption of Israel. Both symbolise God’s presence among people of little power and influence who rely solely on God.
There are indications that God’s appointed redeemer will deal with this suffering by sharing it himself – something that is echoed in our reading from Hebrews: “Since all the children share the same blood and flesh, he too shared equally in it, so that by his death he could … set free all those who had been held in slavery all their lives by the fear of death.” Simeon speaks dark words about opposition and conflict – and about a sword that will pierce Mary’s heart also.
Our reading from the prophet Malachi, speaks of “the Lord you are seeking will suddenly enter his Temple”, just as Psalm 24 speaks of “the king of glory” entering the Temple. At the beginning of this psalm (which, sadly, we do not read today), the question is asked, “Who shall climb the mountain of the Lord?/Who shall stand in his holy place?”, and the answer is given: “The man with clean hands and pure heart,/who desires not worthless things,/who has not sworn so as to deceive his neighbour.” The same sentiment is found in Malachi, which contains a unique set of dialogues in which the complaints and fears of the people, living in a time of great lawlessness and injustice, are expressed, and in which God reproves the people, answers their complaints and stresses his own trustworthiness. We see in our reading that God is about to act decisively and will send his messenger (“Malachi” is the Hebrew for “my messenger”), finally identified at the end of the prophecy with Elijah, who will prepare for God’s coming. In the original ordering of books in the Hebrew Bible, as still used by the Jewish community, Malachi concludes the books of the Law and the Prophets, which is why the references to Moses and Elijah in 4:4-6 are appropriate: “Remember the Law of my servant Moses to whom at Horeb I prescribed laws and customs for the whole of Israel. Know that I am going to send you Elijah the prophet before my day comes…” In the Christian ordering of the Bible, Malachi concludes what used to be called the “Old Testament”, and the reference to the coming of Elijah is immediately taken up by Matthew’s Gospel in the Elijah-like figure of John the Baptist.