What is Candlemas?
This coming Sunday is known in the secular world by two names: Groundhog Day and Super Bowl Sunday. The stars have aligned! And on one day, we will know the answer to two questions: Will the groundhog see his shadow? Will it be the 49ers or the Chiefs? Lost in the shuffle is the Church’s celebration of Candlemas, also known as the Feast of the Presentation of Our Lord in the Temple. As the law commanded, Mary and Joseph brought their baby boy to the Temple and Mary presented a pair of young pigeons or doves as a sin offering for her purification. This was, firstly, the offering commanded in Leviticus 12 for cleansing of sin and thanksgiving for a healthy birth. Birth was then, as it is now, a dangerous event. It involves blood, and in the Jewish understanding, blood requires cleansing. The idea is that an animal dies so that we might have life. This sacrifice was also a sign of the Mosaic Covenant, that “Every male that opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord.” Every firstborn son in Scripture is a priest, and his life must be redeemed from this burden at a cost of five shekels. (Numbers 18:15-16) We know that Jesus is the perfect priest, holy to the Lord, and so we read nothing about him being redeemed from the burden of the priesthood. Luke recounts nothing of a lamb being offered, which was also required by the Law. He only says that the birds were offered. You can see where this was going. She brought with her the perfect Lamb of God - both priest and victim -and so we remember the Lord’s Presentation in the Temple as a revealing of the perfect Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. On that particular day, something surprising happened. A pair of prophets, a man and a woman, prophesied over the boy. Simeon, a righteous and devout man, who was looking for the salvation of Israel, was called by the Spirit to enter the Temple. And as soon as he saw the child, with his parents, he took the baby in his arms and began his prophecy: “'Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel.' And his father and his mother marveled at what was said about him. And Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, 'Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.'” (Luke 2:29–35 ESV) Then came along the old woman Anna, who Luke tells us was widowed seven years after her marriage and had lived to the age of 84. For some time, she had lived in the Temple, in a state of permanent worship, fasting, and prayer. On this day, as the Lord Jesus was brought into the Temple, Anna told everyone who hopes for the redemption of Israel that this was the promised Redeemer. As we commemorate these events, a few truths come into view. The first is Simeon’s prophecy, that Jesus is a light for revelation to the Gentiles. The second is the fulfillment of Anna’s hopes that what Isaiah had foretold was coming true: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone.” (Isaiah 9:2 ESV) Of course, we know the rest of the story. Jesus would say later in his life: “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” (John 8:12 ESV) On this feast, celebrated 40 days after Christmas day, the Church remembers this offering and consecration of the Lord in the Temple and these two prophets, Simeon and Anna. We also remember Mary’s purification, her offering of thanks for a healthy birth and the preservation of her life. As a symbol of this, it became customary for families to bring their candles (usually made to last for the entire year) to the Church to be blessed. It was also a day when the candles for the parish church were replenished. I have known some people through the years that have made candles for this purpose. You might consider having a candlelit dinner or reading by candlelight that evening, remembering how in Jesus Christ “the light shone in the darkness.”