The feast of Candlemas (the Presentation of the Lord, February 2nd) is one of the great feast days of the liturgical year that most Catholics too often overlook. We will celebrate the special Mass, procession, and candle blessing ritual for Candlemas this year on Wednesday at St. Peter at 9:00 a.m. I encourage you to attend.
This feast day – and the beautiful Scriptures and devotions that go with the liturgy – really has it all. The great themes of purification, redemption, the high priesthood of Jesus Christ, and light shining through the darkness are all there. Traditionally, it marked the end of the Christmas season until the church’s calendar was altered in the 1960s. That makes sense because it is the last story regarding the infancy of Jesus in St. Luke’s Gospel.
Let’s look again at why this feast day is so significant. The faithful Jewish people had a devout custom of purifying the mother after the birth of her first-born son after which the father and mother would bring that son to the temple in Jerusalem and make a double offering of a lamb as a burnt offering and a turtle dove as an offering for their sins. (In biblical times, when animal sacrifices were made, the priest would literally burn that sacrifice on the altar as an offering). Poor families who couldn’t afford a lamb could offer two turtle doves instead. Those two turtle doves are what we see offered here by the Holy Family – of simple means, but devout and obedient to the law. We know “the rest of the story” of course – that Jesus Himself was to be the Lamb of God, that was being offered back to God His Heavenly Father, in anticipation of His holy sacrifice on the Cross.
We should back up and remember why the first-born sons were symbolically offered up in the first place. It was in grateful memory of the Lord saving the first-born sons of the Hebrew people when they were enslaved in Egypt. Because of their disobedience to God, the firstborn of the Egyptians were slain by the angel of death, while the faithful Jewish people who had marked their doorposts with the blood of a lamb were passed over and their sons redeemed.
At the Mass for the Presentation, the Church sings the triumphant Psalm 24, which includes “Lift up, O gates, your lintel; reach up you ancient portals, that the King of Glory may come in!” That refers to the ancient Jewish belief that when the Savior came, he would make a triumphant entry into the holy city of Jerusalem, which was surrounded by formidable gates, doorways and entryways to protect the city. When the Messiah came, these were triumphantly to be flung wide open.
Most of the Jewish faithful of course expected that this would come with great fanfare and perhaps a military show-of-force. That is what is so startling about this story. When the true King of Glory did come into His holy temple for the first time, He came not as a full-grown man – strong, powerful, dressed in chain mail or girded with a sword – but instead as a babe in arms. Tiny, helpless, almost naked, protected only by the nurturing arms of Mary His Mother under the watchful gaze of Joseph His father on earth. It’s no wonder, then, that the coming of the King into the temple would have gone almost completely unnoticed had it not been for the prayerfulness of the holy old man Simeon and the prophetess Anna. Because of his faith and her prayerfulness, they were able to see the King of Glory as He truly was.
This holy old man and woman could begin to foresee that because of His humble obedience to the will of God the Father, this Babe would become the great high priest Who would offer His life in atonement for our sins. All of the countless offerings for their first-born sons, offered thousands of times for generation upon generation in the temple since the great Passover in Egypt – all those would be taken up into that one great sacrifice on the Cross that saves all mankind from sin and death and opens the door to Heaven for those who believe and are obedient to the will of God.
Simeon saw with the eyes of faith the great light and joy that had come to the world, held in the arms of the Virgin Mary, as he took Him into His own arms. But it was a joy that he knew would be mingled with suffering, as he predicted to Mary that “You yourself a sword will pierce so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.” In other words, the mission of the Blessed Virgin Mary did not end with her giving birth to the Christ child, but she was to share in all of His redeeming work, above all in offering her Son back to the Father as He lay dying on the Cross. Just as Jesus was completely obedient to His Father, even to the point of suffering onto death (Heb. 2:17-18), so Mary was to fulfill her promise made at the Annunciation, “Be it done to me according to thy word,” (Luke 1:37-38) in sharing in this saving suffering with her Son.
No wonder then that Simeon rejoiced in the privilege to hold in his own hands before he died the Light of the World, the Great High Priest, who purifies us from sin and saves us from eternal death.