The Mother of God, the most pure Virgin, carried the true light in her arms and brought him to those who lay in darkness. We too should carry a light for all to see and reflect the radiance of the true light as we hasten to meet him.
(from a sermon of St. Sophronius of Jerusalem,
c. 560 – March 11, 638)
Today is the Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, also known as the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary, or Candlemas.
That last name comes from the ancient tradition of worshippers forming a procession into the church building on this Feast, each bearing a lamp or candle in commemoration of the words of St. Simeon recorded in the Gospel for this day (from Luke 2):
…for my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel."
Light in the midst of darkness has always formed a major part of this feast’s significance, long before Christianity came to the Northern regions of long winter nights. One of the central themes in the New Testament is that of light—the Light of Christ—shining out in the darkness of this world. There are many kinds of darkness that afflict us, and Christ is the One Light capable of confronting and overcoming them all.
In a sermon on this feast quoted above, St. Sophronius likens the use of lamps held by worshippers at Candlemas to the Theotokos (the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God). This brings up some points to ponder in our “light-bearing” ministry.
The Blessed Virgin was a first-time mother when she brought the infant Jesus to Jerusalem. Like all new mothers, she had a great deal to learn about how to take care of a child. There were likely times when she experienced the exasperation in this new role, and there may have been moments when she did not practice the craft of mothering smoothly or effectively.
How many new moms have confidentially told me of forgetting their baby asleep in the crib and starting to go out on an errand, or not knowing quite what to do at the signs of an illness and panicking, or putting their newborn through a great deal of unnecessary misery in order to follow a system or technique someone else suggested as the best way to get “good results” in children? The birth of a child is just the beginning: life afterwards can be confusing, frightening, and often laced with humbling failure.
It is much the same with being a Christian. Baptism is just the start. Like the young Holy Theotokos, we carry the Light of Christ into the world each day. The way we bear that Light often shows our inexperience: we are unskilled, anxious, or occasionally willful or even negligent. When we forget what and whom we bear, this can become lethal; not to Christ, but to our discipleship in him.
The Holy Eucharist, the Daily Office, spiritual direction, confession, and the various occasions of prayer and service in a Christian’s life are opportunities to be renewed in the knowledge of just what we carry. In these encounters, we are recalled to the truth of what it means to be a “Little Christ” (the true meaning of “Christian”)—one who should be likened to Christ Jesus in our being, our mind, our will and actions.
We also are recalled to our true identity and purpose by looking upon the Blessed Virgin in today’s Gospel lesson. Though uniquely called and graced, she shares with us a common humanity, a common need to learn, grow, and risk everything for the One who has given everything for us. The Scriptural record tells us that, while there were times she did not grasp the fullness of her son’s nature or ministry, she did not “put out the light” or give up in bearing it. She, like all of us, may have at times stumbled in her carrying the Lord, but she did not walk away from her vocation, her chosen and given path. Neither may we.
The Feast of the Presentation is a glorious Holy Day, a gentle and beautiful moment of reflection in the midst of life's often head-long rush. Each of us is being called to stop for a moment and join St. Mary, St. Joseph, and St. Simeon in gazing upon the Christ-child whom we bear in our arms. It is a tender and grace-filled stopping place. But, it is more than that.
We are bidden to join St. Anna, daughter of Phanuel, in rejoicing and sharing the good news of what God has done—and is doing—through Christ in the world and our lives. But—it is also an important day to reflect on just how carefully we are holding that candle, that lamp of God’s presence in us...the "lamp of the Lord" that had not yet gone out in Samuel's day, and is not to go out in us. Yet, there is more.
This day also recalls the Blessed St. Simeon’s words to the Most Holy Theotokos: "This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed-- and a sword will pierce your own soul too."
There is no way to be associated with Jesus Christ and be insulated from the very real confrontation between life and death, love and sin, good and evil. That confrontation is essential to the Incarnation (they cycle celebrating the Incarnation actually officially ends today...peering out towards Lent, Holy Week, and Eastertide). It began at Christ's birth, and continued through his earthly ministry…and goes on still in the world and in the Church (and its members) today. We still are accountable for the light we were given at baptism and how we are carrying it. That light is no trifle: it is a flame of love and truth.
If we become careless, that flame might burn us, or we might cover it up, or (worse still) be snuffed out in us through our own neglect. And this would mean the loss not only of light for our own journey, but for others who are groping in the darkness of this world and crying out for the “Light that knows no setting” we celebrate at Easter in the Exultet. This great Holy Day, listed as one of the Feasts of Our Lord, points us back to the true path and purposes of the light we bear. Let us be about this work with renewed joy, purpose, and peace.
The Collect for the Feast of the Presentation
Almighty and everliving God, we humbly pray that, as your only-begotten Son was this day presented in the temple, so we may be presented to you with pure and clean hearts by Jesus Christ our Lord; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.