Candlemas musings

I’ve been pondering a few random thoughts on my way towards a sermon for Sunday.

The Presentation, Fra Angelico 1433-34
Tempera on wood, Museo Diocesano, Cortona

Luke includes three episodes in the life of young Jesus: circumcision, presentation and holding a seminar in the temple at the age of twelve. The first two get a festival, the last gets no liturgical commemoration. Why?

I’m speculating on two possibilities. The first two correspond to cultural life experiences for most of Christian history: thanksgiving for birth focussed on baptism, and thanksgiving for the mother’s survival, focussed on a rite of re-emerging from seclusion. The last doesn’t have the same correspondence: until the late middle ages 12 doesn’t seem to have been a particularly marked age for anything.

(Incidentally, pondering that made me read through the rite for the Churching of Women in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer. There is no mention in it of any need for purification. The whole focus is on thanksgiving for safe delivery of the woman from “the great dangers of childbirth”. I was amused to note that the psalm intended to express the woman’s prayer includes “I was sore troubled: I said in my haste, All men are liars.”)

The other possibility I was considering was whether the finding of the adolescent Jesus in the temple came a bit too close to disturbing conventional piety about the Holy Family. It is terribly tempting to imagine a distraught Mary saying “You’re a very naughty boy.” Or to characterise Jesus’s reaction as “Oh mother, why do you always have to be so thick?” It is perhaps a bit too “Life of Brian” for its own good. But certainly a rather startling demonstration of the Hebrews reading used at Candlemas – a reminder of what it might mean to take seriously those words “made like his brothers and sisters in every respect.”

I also found myself speculating on the choice of Malachi as a reading for this feast. “Suddenly, the Lord whom you seek will come to his temple.” (Mal 3:1) I have been unable to track down when this reading became associated with the Presentation. It’s clearly well established before the Reformation: both the Tridentine rite and the BCP (neither normally using an Old Testament reading) provide Malachi as “The Epistle” for Candlemas.

But why this appearance in the temple, rather than the more forceful one of his overturning the tables of the money lenders? Perhaps it’s as simple as being his first visit, without any benefit of the preparation for ministry. Yet it seems a rather emphatic way of emphasising the faith of the incarnation: Before the language-less infant is capable of teaching, before the one who makes the lame walk can walk himself, he is still the Lord, still the one for whose worship the Temple exists.

Luke dramatises Paul’s pithy summary (Gal 4:4): this is what it means to be born of a woman, born under the law – the law that mandates circumcision, purification, and the sacrifice that marks the birth of their firstborn. As the reading from Hebrews puts it (I paraphrase rather differently from the NRSV): he clearly took not an angelic body, but took a body from Abraham’s family. (Heb 2:16)

The fuller reflection of the church would emphasise much more a common human nature than a belonging to an Abrahamic race, but it is about “being like his brothers and sisters in every respect”. And so Simeon can truthfully proclaim he is “a light of revelation for the Gentiles, and a glory for God’s people Israel” (Luke 2:32). The thing about the light of Christ is that it shines in the darkness, not on the darkness.

It is by tasting death that he gains the victory over death. He learns to be faithful by uttering cries and tears to God – for the writer of Hebrews, I think, the cries and tears of the Gethsemane tradition, but equally, surely the cries and tears of the infant: the infinite fullness of God discovering what it is like to have physical and emotional needs.

And it is with the hints of death that the story draws to an end. The sword that will pierce Mary’s soul, Joseph, making his last but one appearance in the story of Jesus, the great age of Anna, whose life must be surely drawing to a close, the foreshadowing of Simeon’s death: the servant who is now ready to depart in peace. We assume from the language that Simeon is old. As a friend pointed out to me, Luke’s text says nothing about his age — how differently might we read this story if Simeon was facing death as a younger man? After all, in this intergenerational celebration of a birth, it is a young man’s death that is being foreshadowed.

Mary comes to celebrate the safe delivery of her son and gift him to the one who gifted him to her. In Simeon’s prophecy, however, comes a hint of the last time he will be delivered into her arms. The image of the Madonna will be succeeded by the image of the Pietà. The gospel will now fast-forward some thirty years, and through the story of the ministry, the blurred cruciform shadow which falls across this Presentation will come into sharper focus, until it stands stark against the Golgotha sky, and the Mother of God once again receives God’s body into her arms.

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