Sunday, February 02, 2014

The Candlemas of Our Salvation: On Jesus, Candles, and Groundhogs

Year A • The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple
Malachi 3:1–4 • Psalm 84 or 24:7–10 • Hebrews 2:14–18 • Luke 2:22–40

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Sermon available on YouTube by clicking here,
as an Audio File by clicking here,
and as a PDF by clicking here.
The Sermon

Dear God, make known to us the salvation that
you have prepared in the presence of all peoples. Amen.

The Feast of the Presentation of Jesus — a.k.a., Candlemas
Today is the Fourth Sunday in the Season of Epiphany, but we are not actually celebrating the Fourth Sunday of Epiphany. Instead, we are celebrating the Feast of the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple. This is a feast of the church year that is always celebrated on the Second of February. So, whenever the February 2nd falls on a Sunday, the Feast of the Presentation takes precedence.
     But why February 2nd? Because it is forty days after Christmas, forty days Mary gave birth to the Lord and Savior of the world. According to legislation laid down in the book of Leviticus, if a woman conceives and gives birth to a male child, she shall be ritually unclean for seven days. Afterwards, she enters into a period of purification that lasts for another thirty-three days. So for forty days after the birth of a baby boy, a woman couldn’t touch anything holy and she couldn’t enter the temple. At the end of the forty days, she would come to the temple to offer a sacrifice for her purification (Lev 12). That’s what Mary is doing at the outset of today’s Gospel. Her period of purification has concluded, and she has come to the temple to offer the appropriate sacrifice. So that’s why the Feast of the Presentation occurs on February 2nd.

By the way, this feast goes by another name, Candlemas. It used to be that this was the day of the year—when all the candles that were to be used during the coming year —were blessed. So it was known as the Feast, or the Mass of Candles, thus Candlemas. The first time ever heard the term was when I was attending the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. The Fall semester was called Martinmas, and the spring semester, Candlemas.

Groundhog Day
I should add that over the years some superstitions have grown up around Candle-mas. For example, there is a proverb about the weather that goes like this:
If Candlemas Day be fair and bright
      Winter will have another fight.
If Candlemas Day brings cloud and rain,
      Winter won’t come again.
Or, how about this little proverb from Germany.
The badger peeps out of his hole on Candlemas Day, and if he finds snow, walks abroad;     but if he sees the sun shining, he draws back into his hole.
Does any of this sound familiar? Clearly these proverbs regarding Candlemas stand behind our American tradition of Groundhog Day. But enough of superstitions, let’s get back to the gospel where we might find the truth that will challenge and inspire us.

The Holy Family
Luke’s account of the presentation of Jesus in the temple discloses some interesting and important details about the Holy Family.
     First, it emphasizes their commitment to the Old Testament covenant with Yahweh, the God of Israel. No less than five times are they described as acting in accordance with the Law, and these references to their covenant obedience serve as bookends to today’s episode. So in the opening scene, reference is made to “their purification according to the law of Moses,” to their presentation of their firstborn “as it is written in the law of the Lord,” and to their offering a sacrifice in accordance with what is “stated in the law of the Lord(Luke 2:22­–24). Then, in the closing scene, they return to Nazareth having “finished everything required by the law of the Lord(2:39).
     This is a faithful family; this is a religious family. This is the family that raised and nurtured the salvation of God—Israel’s Messiah and the world’s Light. Because we know Jesus to be the incarnate Son of God, I think we often overlook the fact that he grew up and matured like any other human being. He didn’t benefit from any spiritual shortcuts. He didn’t get to skip puberty. He didn’t get to skip stages of emotional, social, or spiritual development. He had to pass through every one of them as we do. This, I think, is part of the point that the author of Hebrews is trying to make.
Since the children [God has given him] share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things.... For it is clear that he did not come to help angels, but the descendants of Abraham. Therefore he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God,.... Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested (Hebrews 2:14–18).
There is no doubt in my mind that Jesus’ growth and development—his character, his strength, his wisdom, his compassion—everything that endeared him to God and human beings, all of it was shaped by his family, this holy, yet ordinary family who was committed to the covenant—to the worldview, values, beliefs, practices, and traditions of the people of God. That’s not to say that God was not at work in Jesus’ life. Far from it. It is to recognize that God’s work in Jesus’ life was in part—and I would say—was in large part mediated by Jesus’ religious and faithful family. This is something worth reflecting on.
     The second thing that today’s episode reveals about the holy family is their social status. They are poor. This, of course, comes as no surprise to Luke’s readers. In his account of Jesus’ birth, we are told that the infant king was wrapped in bands of cloth and laid in a feeding trough. Not exactly the clothing and furnishings of the rich and famous, nor even of the middle class, for that matter.[1] In today’s episode, we find additional evidence that Jesus’ family belonged to the very large peasant class of first-century Palestine. The clue is Mary’s sacrifice. According to Leviticus, when a mother’s days of purification are completed, she is to bring two offerings to the temple: a year-old lamb for a burnt offering and a pigeon or a turtledove for a sin offering. The law states, however, “if she cannot afford a sheep, she shall take two turtledoves or two pigeons” (Lev 12:8), which is exactly what Mary does.
     The holy family is poor; they are economically and socially challenged, which makes what is said about Jesus all the more remarkable. How is this child, this son of a carpenter, going to bring glory to Israel and salvation to all the nations of the world? How is this eldest son of a poor family, with all of the obstacles and limitations that entails, going to turn the world and its systems of injustice upside-down? This is something worth thinking about. Jesus was the firstborn of peasants. The Son of God is a peasant. That’s why there is no fanfare when this infant king comes into the temple, into his temple. Recall the words from the prophet Malachi:
See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me,
and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple (Mal 3:1).
“The Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple.” Malachi said he was coming, but nobody was watching, so nobody noticed when the young Master entered his temple. Well, that’s not exactly true. In my sermon on Christmas Day, I said that God entered the world quietly, that he wanted to keep his arrival a secret. But I also noted that God isn’t very good at keeping secrets, especially where his Son is concerned. So, God let it slip to some homeless shepherds that his son had been born in a stable. Likewise, when God’s six-week-old Son makes his first trip to the temple, his first visit to his heavenly Father’s house, God let it slip again. He just had to let a few more people in on the secret. And, unlike the shepherds, we know their names.

Simeon and Anna
Simeon and Anna are not related, but they share a number of things in common. They are both quite old (and God sure seems to like old people). They are both aware of what God is doing in the world, having attuned themselves to the movements of the Spirit. And, they are both awaiting the redemption and restoration of Israel. Recall, at the time of Jesus’ birth, God’s people had been subject to foreign domination for the better part of five hundred years, and most recently they had endured six decades of foreign occupation by the Roman legions. So it is not surprising that Anna—eighty-four-year-old, animated Anna—goes about the temple precincts, telling anyone who will listen about this special child. After all, she was alive before the Romans came; she knew what life had been like. And it is of no great wonder that Simeon is so overjoyed having finally setting his eyes on the one God has appointed to deliver his people from their bondage. Simeon picks up the child and blesses God for he knows that what he holds in his hands is God’s salvation, not only for Israel, but for the whole world.
     But it is not all salt and light. Simeon blesses Mary and Joseph, but the words he speaks to Mary are filled with dark things to come.
“This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel,” he says, “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 (Luke 2:34b–35).
For the past few weeks, as I have read and studied this passage, as I have allowed it to play in my thoughts and prayers, I have been repeatedly brought back to these portentous words of Simeon’s. And I am not exactly sure what to make of them. I mean, on the one hand, it’s fairly clear what Simeon talking about. When Jesus becomes older, he is going to make some waves. He is going to challenge some cherished traditions, and he is going to frighten and anger some very powerful people. He will be betrayed by one of his closest associates, he will be rejected by the leaders of his people, and they will deliver him up for destruction. And through it all, his mother will be there, watching in horror, unable to lift a finger. Surely, this is the sword that will pierce her soul. But… I wonder. I wonder if she will feel the prick of that unfeeling blade long before she sees her beaten, bruised, and bloodied son hanging from a Roman cross. I wonder. When Jesus turns twelve, he will stay behind in Jerusalem, and it will take his parents three frantic days to find him. And when they finally do, he will dismiss their anxiety with a matter-of-fact question, “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” Luke says that Mary treasured all these things in her heart, but I wonder if she noticed the sword among all those treasures.
Later, when Jesus is older, he will leave his hometown and moves to Capernaum. He will travel about the occupied region proclaiming the arrival of God’s kingdom. Mary will get concerned and come to visit him with her other sons. When they arrive, there will be so many people that they cannot get to him. When word reaches Jesus that his mother and brothers are outside wanting to see him, he turns to the crowd and says, “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it” (Luke 8:20). I wonder, will she feel the sword then?   
     And I also wonder, will we feel this sword? The author of Hebrews writes that “the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (4:12). Well, Jesus is the Word of God, and Simeon said that he would “be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed”(Luke 2:). I wonder, are we among those whose inner thoughts will be revealed. I kind of think we are, because there have been times in my life where the inner thoughts of my heart were laid bare. Sometimes it’s been a pleasant surprise, but mostly it has been painful, at least initially. God shines the light of Christ into the dark recesses of our hearts. God already knows what he will find there, and so he is not shocked by what the light reveals. We, however, we who are good at hiding from ourselves, we can become frightened by what is revealed. Like the groundhog who sees his shadow and so retreats into his borough, we are tempted to retreat back into our boroughs, hoping to hide ourselves until winter has passed.
     But that would be a mistake, for that would be to miss out on the salvation that awaits us. For when the light of Christ reveals the darkness of our hearts, it is not to judge us as unworthy, nor is it to punish us; it is, in fact, to set us free. For only that which is revealed by the light of Christ can be healed. The light of Christ is the light of salvation. It is a sword that cuts without wounding. It is a sword that heals, for it is a sword wielded by our Creator in grace, mercy, and love.
     And so, on this day of Candlemas, on this Feast of Lights, let us celebrate the Light that shines into the darkness, which the darkness is not able to extinguish. and with Anna and Simeon, let us rejoice in the salvation that God through Christ has prepared for all the world to see.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[1] Sometimes, we assume that Jesus must have grown up in the middle-class, because he was the son of a carpenter. But in first-century Palestine, there really wasn’t much of a middle-class to speak of, and in any case, carpenters weren’t associated with the middle class, but with the peasantry. Why? Because if you carried on a trade that wasn’t connected to agriculture, it was a possible indication that your family had at one point lost its ancestral lands.

The Scriptures
Click Read More for the text of the Scriptures
Year A • The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple
Malachi 3:1–4
Psalm 84 or 24:7–10
Hebrews 2:14–18
Luke 2:22–40

Other Relevant Scriptures
Leviticus 12:1–8

The Collect
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.

Malachi 3:1-4
Thus says the Lord, See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight—indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?
      For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness. Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former years.

Psalm 84 • Quam dilecta! • BCP 707
   1      How dear to me is your dwelling, O Lord of hosts! *
                  My soul has a desire and longing for the courts of the Lord;
                  my heart and my flesh rejoice in the living God.
   2      The sparrow has found her a house
           and the swallow a nest where she may lay her young; *
                  by the side of your altars, O Lord of hosts,
                  my King and my God.
   3      Happy are they who dwell in your house! *
                  they will always be praising you.
   4      Happy are the people whose strength is in you! *
                  whose hearts are set on the pilgrims’ way.
   5      Those who go through the desolate valley will find it a place of springs, *
                  for the early rains have covered it with pools of water.
   6      They will climb from height to height, *
                  and the God of gods will reveal himself in Zion.
   7      Lord God of hosts, hear my prayer; *
                  hearken, O God of Jacob.
   8      Behold our defender, O God; *
                  and look upon the face of your Anointed.
   9      For one day in your courts is better than a thousand in my own room, *
                  and to stand at the threshold of the house of my God
                  than to dwell in the tents of the wicked.
10      For the Lord God is both sun and shield; *
                  he will give grace and glory;
11      No good thing will the Lord withhold *
                  from those who walk with integrity.
12      O Lord of hosts, *
                  happy are they who put their trust in you!

Psalm 24:7–10 • Domini est terra • BCP 614
   7      Lift up your heads, O gates;
           lift them high, O everlasting doors; *
                  and the King of glory shall come in.
   8      “Who is this King of glory?” *
                  “The Lord, strong and mighty,
                  the Lord, mighty in battle.”
   9      Lift up your heads, O gates;
           lift them high, O everlasting doors; *
                  and the King of glory shall come in.
10      “Who is he, this King of glory?” *
                  “The Lord of hosts,
                  he is the King of glory.”

Hebrews 2:14–18
Since God’s children share flesh and blood, Jesus himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death. For it is clear that he did not come to help angels, but the descendants of Abraham. Therefore he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.

Luke 2:22–40
When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, the parents of Jesus brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”), and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”
Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying,
      “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
            according to your word;
      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.”
And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “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 was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.
When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.

Leviticus 12:1–8
1 The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: 2 Speak to the people of Israel, saying: If a woman conceives and bears a male child, she shall be ceremonially unclean seven days; as at the time of her menstruation, she shall be unclean. 3 On the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised. 4 Her time of blood purification shall be thirty-three days; she shall not touch any holy thing, or come into the sanctuary, until the days of her purification are completed. 5 If she bears a female child, she shall be unclean two weeks, as in her menstruation; her time of blood purification shall be sixty-six days.
6 When the days of her purification are completed, whether for a son or for a daughter, she shall bring to the priest at the entrance of the tent of meeting a lamb in its first year for a burnt offering, and a pigeon or a turtledove for a sin offering. 7 He shall offer it before the Lord, and make atonement on her behalf; then she shall be clean from her flow of blood. This is the law for her who bears a child, male or female. 8 If she cannot afford a sheep, she shall take two turtledoves or two pigeons, one for a burnt offering and the other for a sin offering; and the priest shall make atonement on her behalf, and she shall be clean.

Delivered on Sunday, February 2nd, a.d. 2014
at St. John's Episcopal Church (Wichita, Kansas)

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