Happy Feast of the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple! Or perhaps you know it as “Candlemas.” Maybe it’s the more secular incarnation of “Groundhog Day” that you remember best. Whatever you call it, this fact remains: it’s been exactly 40 days since Christmas.
All of this goes back to the book of Leviticus, part of the Torah, the law that Moses received from God at Mt. Sinai. Women were ceremonial unclean after the birth of a child, and at the conclusion of that time, they were to come to the house of worship and make an offering. Mary and Joseph appear in the Temple on the appointed day for her purification in order to do just that. Additionally, they came to present Jesus as the first born son before the Lord, also a requirement from the Torah as found in the book of Exodus. Luke tells us that Mary and Joseph provided two turtle doves for their offering, and we learn in Leviticus that this was Option B. Option A asked for a year old lamb and a turtle dove to be given, but if your financial situation didn’t allow for it, then two of the birds was sufficient. Quietly Luke reminds us that Mary and Joseph are poor, but that doesn’t ban them—or others in their station—from the temple nor does it make them inferior to those of means. They come to the temple to keep their religious observances following the birth of Jesus as faithful Jews.
While they are there, an older man appears from the shadows whose name Luke tells us is Simeon. Simeon was also faithful and devout in his practices, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. At some point along the way, the Spirit of God revealed to him that he would not die before he had seen the Messiah with his own eyes. That same Spirit prompted him into the temple on exactly this same day that Mary, Joseph, and the infant Jesus came to the Temple—exactly 40 days after his birth. As the Holy Family partakes in their duty before the Lord, Simeon came over to them. I suspect Mary and Joseph, like any new parent, was unsure of what to make of this old man who came bounding over to them and then they were likely alarmed when he took the baby from Mary’s arms.
But the uncertainty and fear dissipate when Simeon begins proclaiming this prayer over Jesus. “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” Simeon is saying that the Lord has fulfilled the promise made that he would see the savior before his death, and that now he could die in peace because that had happened. He had indeed seen the savior. And then he makes this amazing declaration about the Messiah of Israel being not just for the people of Israel, but a light for the entire human race, a light for revelation to the Gentiles in addition to being for the glory of the people of Israel. Mary and Joseph are astounded by the words and the blessing that follows.
Jesus would be a light, according to Simeon. And it’s exactly for that reason that the two other names for this feast day have emerged. It came to be known as Candlemas because traditionally on this day the beeswax candles for the next year that would be used both at private homes and in worship at church would be blessed. Here is a portion of the traditional prayer over the candles, “Bless and sanctify these candles that their light may be for us a visible reminder of the true light who enlightens everyone coming into the world. As these candles, kindled with a visible flame, scatter the darkness of night, so also may our hearts be enlightened by the invisible fire of the Holy Spirit that we might avoid the darkness of sin, see your salvation, and attain to the Light that never fades away.”
And it was in Germany on the celebration of this day, that people began looking to animal prognosticators like the badger to determine how long it would be until Spring. It gave an indication of how many candles they might need to use against both the dark and the cold. When those German immigrants came to Pennsylvania, they closest animal they could find was the groundhog. Steeped in this day is the desire to find light.
Which is befitting that today is the traditional conclusion of the Christmas Season. (If like me you still have a creche or other decorations out, alas friends, it’s time!) Christ came into the world in order to bring light. Remember it was John the Evangelist who proclaimed in his Prologue—the closest thing we get to a birth narrative— these words about Jesus, “In him was life and that life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” And back in the temple, the prophet Anna gives a hint on the details of that light as one involving redemption.
Jesus was born into this world to bring light into our dark places so that we might be redeemed from the bondage of sin. And nothing in this world can overcome that light. So where might you personally need that light in your life today? What dark places exist in your world—or in our collective world—that could benefit from the light of Christ?
There’s a delightful children’s book that came out recently entitled Dragon Night. The story is about a young boy named Georgie who is afraid of the night, of being alone in his room in the dark, and the silence that comes when everyone else in the house is asleep. Suddenly Georgie’s favorite book about St. George and the dragon falls off his bed where he had left it. (You may well know that story of St. George, the patron saint of England, who goes off hunting a dragon.) The pages of the book land open next to Georgie’s bed. and they begin to crackle and spark. Suddenly out of the pages pops Georgie’s favorite animal, a dragon! The dragon looks at little Georgie and whispers to him that he’s running away because he’s afraid of the knight. (He doesn’t tell him that it’s the kind with swords and goes off hunting dragons.)
Well once Georgie tells him he’s afraid of the night too, the dragon proposes that they run away together. So they fly out of Georgie’s bedroom window into the dark night sky. Along the way they discover a carnival with rides all lit up at night, and a baseball game being played under stadium lights. Georgie sees shooting stars and the lights of a faraway city. Soon the dragon realizes that they are talking about being afraid of two different things—the darkness and a soldier in armor—and he helps young Georgie recognize that he doesn’t always need to be afraid of the dark because of all the wonderful things they saw on their flight. The dragon however worries when it’s almost time for morning that he will have to go back and face the kind of knight he’s afraid of. I won’t spoil it, but a quick thinking Georgie helps out his new friend too.
In a world before electricity, there wasn’t much in the way of light at night, so it makes sense that churches would bless candles, especially during the time of year when the darkness of night lasted longer than the daylight hours and the joys of the Christmas season came to end. Candles bring courage when the darkness begins to creep in and when fear plays its awful tricks on our minds. Telling us that we are all alone and that no one cares. Or that there’s no way out of a situation. Or that things will never change. Or that we aren’t loved. Or that the things we’ve done will define us for the rest of our lives.
The light that Jesus brought into the world at his birth was to dispel those fears, to bring light into the darkness in our lives so that we might find hope. Jesus came holding out that light for all of the nations, and he still does that today.
He wants to redeem us from those things that weigh us down and cause us to be afraid. Friends, I hope that you will see that light before you today, that you will see Jesus here offering you his light. His light brings us courage and the belief that all will be well and all will be well and all manner of thing shall be well, as the great Julian of Norwich put it. We do not need to be afraid of the night for the light of Christ has dawned among us. So let us stream to that light, let us allow that light to shine in us, and then let us radiate that light to others for there is much darkness in our world. And of this one thing I am sure: the light of Christ shines on in the darkness, and the darkness can never—will never—overcome it. Amen.