Tuesday, February 2, 2010

The Presentation of Our Lord and Saviour in the Temple

At the end of the fourth century, a woman named Etheria made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Her journal, discovered in 1887, gives an unprecedented glimpse of liturgical life there. Among the celebrations she describes is the Epiphany (January 6), the observance of Christ’s birth, and the gala procession in honor of his Presentation in the Temple 40 days later—February 15. (Under the Mosaic Law, a woman was ritually “unclean” for 40 days after childbirth, when she was to present herself to the priests and offer sacrifice—her “purification.” Contact with anyone who had brushed against mystery—birth or death—excluded a person from Jewish worship.) This feast emphasizes Jesus’ first appearance in the Temple more than Mary’s purification. The observance spread throughout the Western Church in the fifth and sixth centuries. Because the Church in the West celebrated Jesus’ birth on December 25, the Presentation was moved to February 2, 40 days after Christmas. At the beginning of the eighth century, Pope Sergius inaugurated a candlelight procession; at the end of the same century the blessing and distribution of candles which continues to this day became part of the celebration, giving the feast its popular name: Candlemas. In Saint Luke’s account, Jesus was welcomed in the temple by two elderly people, Simeon and the widow Anna. They embody Israel in their patient expectation; they acknowledge the infant Jesus as the long-awaited Messiah. Early references to the Roman feast dub it the feast of St. Simeon, the old man who burst into a song of joy which the Church still sings at day’s end.

“Christ Himself says, ‘I am the light of the world.’ And we are the light, we ourselves, if we receive it from Him.... But how do we receive it, how do we make it shine? ...[T]he candle tells us: by burning, and being consumed in the burning. A spark of fire, a ray of love, an inevitable immolation are celebrated over that pure, straight candle, as, pouring forth its gift of light, it exhausts itself in silent sacrifice” (Paul VI).

The Holy Gospel of Jesus Christ according to Saint Luke (2:22-40 or 2:22-32)

When the time of their purification according to the Law of Moses had been completed, Joseph and Mary took Him to Jerusalem to present Him to the Lord (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, Every firstborn male is to be consecrated to the Lord), and to offer a sacrifice in keeping with what is said in the Law of the Lord: a pair of doves or two young pigeons. Now there was a man in Jerusalem called Simeon, who was righteous and devout. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord's Christ. Moved by the Spirit, he went into the temple courts. When the parents brought in the child Jesus to do for Him what the custom of the Law required, Simeon took Him in his arms and praised God, saying: "Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you now dismiss your servant in peace. For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all people, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel."

The Presentation of Christ
(Homily by Fr. E. J. Tyler)

There are many obvious reasons for striving to overcome illiteracy. Among those reasons is that by being literate a person has the benefit of being able to read not only practical everyday material, but excellent material which can enrich his cultural life. If this is so, then a principal benefit of being literate is that one is able thereby to read the inspired Scriptures. For the ordinary secular man, this benefit is scarcely notable, but for the person who knows that the Bible is the Book of books and that God is its author, not to be able to read it constitutes a serious lacuna in a person’s life. I say this as an introduction to some thoughts on the immense importance of Bible reading. Kierkegaard urged that a person read the Bible as one would a letter from a personal friend. Of course, it is an altogether special letter — a collection of short books of various genres, written over different centuries with very varied material. Though all these books have God as their fundamental author, they certainly vary in importance. I would like to suggest that our Gospel scene today (Saint Luke 2: 22-32) throws light on the Scriptures and how we ought approach them. To begin with, let us observe that in this Gospel scene we have surely the grandest gathering of those who embodied the purest and highest elements of the Old and New Testaments: Simeon and Anna representing so beautifully the Old Testament, Mary and Joseph as the bridge with the New, and the infant Messiah as the fulness of the promised blessing. In that singular group is represented all of God’s dealings with His chosen people and all of the Scriptures which record those dealings. Perhaps no-one else outside the little group noticed the gathering, yet that group of five represented all that the Holy Spirit had done up until the coming of Christ, and was a pointer to the salvation to come. Jesus, the long-awaited Messiah, was being presented to the Lord God. The aura of Christmas over, Calvary appears in the distance.

To begin with, the thought of this group at Christ's presentation in the temple ought inspire in us a profound love for the Old Testament, for we see in this group its products. Simeon and Anna were two of its saints, and beautiful souls they were! They lived holy lives, scrupulously and with love fulfilling their daily duty. They were led by the Spirit of God and longed with love for the Messiah. They were given the grace of seeing him and rejoiced. They embodied the spirit of the Old Testament, and I would suggest that if we wish for a key to the interpretation of the Old Testament, we have one in the image of these two souls. What they were and what they did tell us what the Old Testament is and what it is for. It points to the coming of the Messiah, and its various parts are to be read with the thought of the Messiah in mind. The climax of the lives of both Simeon and Anna was the presentation of the Child Jesus in the Temple. The climax of the Old Testament was the coming of the Saviour, and Simeon and Anna point to Jesus as that Saviour. The thought of Simeon and Anna ought convey to us a deep love for the Old Testament and an insight into how it is to be read. This scene of the Presentation of the Lord also shows the deep connection between the Old and the New. The Old and the New meet in this scene, and there is displayed a deep harmony and union between the two. The same Holy Spirit who led Simeon and Anna was the same divine Spirit who formed Mary and Joseph and who brought about the Incarnation. At the same time, our Gospel scene shows us that the most important part of the Scriptures is the simplest part, the part that is most accessible to the least literate: namely, the Gospels. The four Gospels are the heart of the Bible, and are the part that all ought read most often for they reveal the One who is being presented here in the Temple. Christ is the key, the summit and the focus of the Old Testament, and the Old Testament helps us appreciate the resounding message of the New. That message is that Christ is the salvation of the nations, the light of the pagans, the deliverer of Jerusalem, and the glory of Israel.

Let us linger in this Gospel scene of Christ’s presentation in the Temple. It is full of significance, and, as I have said, it also tells us much about the meaning and structure of the Bible itself. It illustrates the grandeur of the Old Testament; it shows forth the centrality of the New; it reminds us of the unity and harmony of both, and it sets forth the Gospel story of Jesus as the high point and key to all of the Scriptures. St Jerome once wrote that "Ignorance of the Scriptures will mean ignorance of Christ." So let us love the inspired Scriptures, and most especially the Gospels.

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