The Light of the World comes to the Temple

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The Presentation of the Lord: Feb. 2, 2014
Mal 3:1-4; Ps 24; Heb 2:14-18; Luke 2:22-40

The feast of the Presentation that we celebrate today has traditionally been the conclusion of the Church’s Christmas season. Indeed, it was only about 5 years ago that the Vatican began taking down its Christmas decorations before today! And so today we return to the theme of Christ as the Light of the World.

  • 40 days ago, at the Midnight Mass on Christmas, we heard from the Prophet Isaiah: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.”
  • And on Christmas Day, from the Gospel according to John: “The true light was coming into the world … the light shines in the darkness.”
  • And then, 12 days later, on the feast of the Epiphany, the Magi followed the light of the star to find the newborn king. And we heard again from Isaiah: “Upon you the Lord shines … nations shall walk by your light.”
  • And today we hear the old man Simeon say it himself in a prayer, right in front of the Virgin Mary and St. Joseph: that the baby in his arms would be “a light for revelation to the Gentiles.”

And so we begin this feast with the blessing and procession of candles, and sometimes call it Candlemas. For our Lord Jesus is the Light of the World.

But what was going on that day? Why did the Holy Family come to present Jesus to the Father in the Temple? We answer this on two levels: the basic level of human plans; and the hidden but greater level of God’s plans.

First, the human reasons. Mary and Joseph came to the Temple that day to fulfill two requirements of the Law that the Lord had given to his People.

  • First, there was the requirement that every firstborn male child had been dedicated to the Lord and needed to be “redeemed” by paying five shekels to a priest (Exod 13:12). Following the return from the Babylonian Exile, there was the custom of doing this by bringing the baby boy to the Temple in Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (Neh 10:35-36).
  • Second, there was the requirement that any mother, 40 days after giving birth to a son, needed to bring a sacrifice for purification from her ceremonial uncleanness (Lev 12:1-8).

And so, to fulfill both purposes, the Holy Family came to the Temple on this day so many centuries ago: to present Jesus to the Father, and to purify the Virgin Mary. Which is a little strange, isn’t it? He who had come to redeem the world didn’t actually need to be redeemed himself. And she who, from the first moment of her Immaculate Conception, was completely pure from any sin, didn’t really need any purification.

And yet they came: to fulfill the requirements of the Law; to fulfill all righteousness. For Mary and Joseph—like Simeon and Anna who they met in the Temple; like Zechariah and the Elizabeth, the parents of John the Baptist—were the anawim, the little, poor, faithful ones. They were not the rich and powerful compromising with the Roman Empire; they were not running after a foreign culture or falling into public sin. No, they were seeking to quietly live out their faith. And the time had come for the faithful hopes of the anawim to be rewarded—indeed, in ways that went far beyond anything they could have imagined. As Simeon sang, “your word has been fulfilled,” as he held the baby Messiah in his own arms.

And that brings us to the second level—the level of God’s plans. Mary and Joseph had come to fulfill the requirements of the Law; but what else was going on, hidden from human view?

First, that prophecy that we heard in the first reading was being fulfilled: “Suddenly there will come to the temple the Lord whom you seek.” The Temple existed as the primary place of meeting between the Lord and his People. Within it there was the holy place, and the holy of holies; there had long been the Ark of the Covenant, closely associated with the Lord’s presence, perhaps as a sort of throne for him; and at times the Shekinah, or presence or glory of the Lord, was seen to rest upon the Temple. But none of this could compare with what happened that day: that God the Son himself, the Second Person of the Trinity, entered directly into the Temple—in the flesh, as a 40-day-old baby, carried in the arms of his mother Mary.

Now, the meeting between God and his People in the Temple especially occurred through the offering of sacrifice. People would bring sacrifices to the Temple and offer them to God, with the help of the priests. And the entry of Jesus into the Temple pointed toward the great work that he would accomplish some 33 years later:

  • He would appear as the perfect, eternal high priest, as the second reading explains: the perfect mediator between God and man; far purer than any of the priests of Levi; the perfect high priest.
  • And he would offer himself as the one, perfect sacrifice: not merely the sacrifice of an animal or some other object; and not a sacrifice contradicted by a disobedient heart; but the sacrifice of himself, of his own blood, of infinite value; completing the sacrifice of a life lived in perfect love and obedience to the Father.

Simeon anticipated all this, too, as he spoke about the fall and rise of many in Israel, and of how he would be a sign that would be contradicted; and of how a sword would pierce Mary’s own soul. It would not be easy, by any means; but it would be effective. And so it was the first time that our Lord Jesus entered Jerusalem and its Temple that day; but it would not be the last. He would come again, to shine in the darkness: to purify, to redeem, to save.

And so we gather to celebrate with gratitude this great gift of his and to meet him again. For here, in this Holy Mass, he will make himself just as present as he was in the Temple that day. As the perfect, eternal high priest, he will offer himself as the one perfect sacrifice to the Father. And, if we are prepared, we will receive him in Holy Communion: not only into our arms, as Simeon did, but into our bodies and our hearts. Truly, his word has been fulfilled and our own eyes have seen his salvation: a light for revelation to the Gentiles, the Light of the World.

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