by Fr. Edward Foley, Capuchin
Admittedly this is not a feast
most Roman Catholics expect to encounter
on what should be just another Sunday in Ordinary Time.
Be assured, I was a little surprised myself
to discover it on the horizon
when I started preparing for today’s preaching.
We are used to having Lent sneak upon us.
[Heads up: it’s less than a month away.]
And know that sometimes a major feast
supersedes the Sunday liturgy.
But I would guess that most of us
neither expected the feast of the Presentation
nor might have guessed that it is a major feast
that would liturgically kidnap this Sunday,
even though the event of the presentation
shows up as one of the joyful mysteries of the rosary.
Ironically, some might be more acquainted with tomorrow’s feast –
that of St. Blaise,
with its accompanying tradition of the blessing of throats,
than with this rich and complex feast.
There are a number of ways to characterize this feast.
In some traditions today is considered
the last day of the Christmas season.
I know … reminds me of the ad campaign for the sequel to Jaws,
“Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water,”
“Just when you thought it was safe
to put away the Christmas decorations.”
Yet there are many who observe this
as the close of the Christmas season.
And until a few years ago even the Vatican
didn’t take down the nativity scene in St. Peter’s Square
until after this date.
One way to excavate something of the richness
of this feast with its very complex history
is to juxtapose it with the more popular occurrence
that this day, the 2nd of February, is known for:
No … not the Super bowl, but Groundhog Day.
Now while it might sound slightly irreverent
to put the Feast of the Presentation and Groundhog Day
even in the same sentence,
such has happened for centuries.
Some think that Groundhog Day actually developed
from this feast also called the feast of Candlemas.
and predicting the length of winter
was related to the size of candles
blessed and distributed on this day.
The key event in the groundhog observance,
and not just in Pennsylvania,
where all eyes are on Punxsutawney Phil,
is about light and shadow.
If there is enough light for “Phil” to see his shadow,
then six more weeks of winter.
Or as summarized in the old Scottish couplet:
ZIf Candlemas day is bright and clear
They’ll be two winters in the year.”
Not surprisingly, this feast of Presentation,
when Mary presents herself for purification
as required by Jewish law
on the 40th day after giving birth to a son (Leviticus 12:1-4).
And when Jesus as the first-born
is presented for dedication to God
by Joseph and Mary,
also required by Jewish law (Exodus 13: 12-15).
This feast is also about the interplay of light and shadow,
of purification and renewal,
even of life and death.
If the advice of deep throat in the Watergate mystery
was “follow the money,”
to unlock the Christian mystery here
we need to “follow the shadows.”
One obvious starting place
is the Gospel text which pivots on the prophecy
of the aged sage Simeon,
who announced that the child Jesus,
whom he takes into his arms in blessing,
would be the light of the nations
and the glory of Israel.
But this luminous prophecy has multiple shadow sides.
For Simeon understands that his encounter with the child
announces his own death,
gis own diminishment, going in peace before the Lord.
And in the process,
Simeon foretells that Mary’s joy at the birth of her son
will also be a source of unimaginable sorrow,
anticipating that she will be a witness
to his own crucifixion and death.
That prophecy calls to mind the poignant reflection “On Children”
by another sage, Kahil Gibran (d. 1931), who writes:
Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow …
That is the light and shadow, the joy and the foreboding
of birthing a child in the flesh, from what I have observed,
and also of being birthed in the spirit
of being baptized, that I have experienced.
If you’ve been to an infant baptism recently,
you remember that the first ritual action
after the opening questions to the parents
about name and faith
is signing the child on the forehead with the cross,
that ultimate image of shadow and light,
of death and resurrection.
It announces that each child also and ultimately
belongs to God …
and from birth is invited through the shadows of life
to that ultimate luminosity off eternal life.
While this feast of Purification
doesn’t seem to have many baptismal overtones,
they are here … but sometimes in hidden ways.
Christians may be surprised to learn, for example,
that part of the “purification” for a new mother like Mary
included a ritual bath … a mikveh.
Archeological evidence demonstrates
that the Temple that the Holy Family visited
was punctuated with places for such ritual baths …
and it is likely that Mary entered the Temple
only after moving through such cleansing waters.
More explicit are all the light images
that have evolved over the centuries for this feast,
including the many rituals regarding candles
that are hallowed,
used in processions,
and employed in the blessing of throats,
as we will do today.
Candles are a traditional image of Christ,
and every Easter we bless a special Christ candle
that burns in the sanctuary throughout that holy season,
a reminder of Christ, the risen one,
Christ, the light to the nations.
Every child at baptism is given a candle,
ignited off that Christ candle
(usually facilitated by a tall godparent)
to symbolize the infant’s new life in Christ:
A light to be kept burning bright throughout her life.
But even this sweet light, so promising and luminous,
casts a symbolic shadow,
for the only way the candle can enlighten
is for the wax to sacrifice itself against the darkness.
Spiritual guru Thomas Merton poetically captures this insight
in his reflection on this feast and gospel text, musing
that we are like “new Simeons” who kindle our own life’s candle,
that each of us receives one flame
ad revelationem gentium,
a revelation to the nations,
that our lives are like candles
slowly consumed like wax, that “sweet work of bees,”
and that this sacrifice is like us being burned and consumed
by God’s holy will.
Nor burn we now with brown and smoky flames, but bright
Until our sacrifice is done,
(By which not we, but You are known)
And then, returning to our Father, one by one,
Give back our lives like wise and waxen lights.
And what is the sacrificial work we are called to?
Where do we direct our light? Our energy?
For what purposes do we expend the wax of our lives?
Our own sweet being?
Each of us answers that question in our own way,
and have commitments to family and friends,
to careers and avocations,
to joys and precious pursuits.
But there is a particular challenge in this feast,
in these readings,
to be light not just for a local household,
or some close circle of compadres,
but as a community, as a church,
to be a light to the nations.
Before Mary and Joseph and the child Jesus
could enter the inner temple in Jerusalem
with its Court of the Women,
its Court of the Israelites,
and the exclusive Court of the Priests
leading to the Temple’s Holy of Holies,
they had to pass through the largest section of that Temple,
the outer court of the Gentiles,
an expansive place calculated to encompass 35 acres
open to anyone – and thus the “unholiest” place
in this sacred realm.
You and I metaphorically live in the court of the Gentiles,
in schools and malls, neighborhoods and workplaces,
a place many consider unholy,
populated by folk who increasingly
don’t look like us …
don’t believe like us …
don’t vote like us …
don’t think like us …
Some assume our growing diversity is implicit permission
to denigrate …
to oppress …
to exclude …
to announce the ungodliness of others,
though each is a child of God,
and this good earth – this global court of the Gentiles,
from its foundations, was proclaimed in Genesis
to be “good” in the eyes of our creative God.
This unexpected feast thus carries an unexpected revelation,
an invitation into the court of the Gentiles,
into baptismal purification before the Lord,
and the nations of the world,
an immersion into the Christ-light
that disallows any casting of shadows on the other,
any “light hording,”
in a world darkened with greed and division,
any gloom-mongering in a world eager for the dawn,
and instead invites us
to present ourselves humbly before the Lord,
new prophets like Simeon and Anna,
like God’s own mother, Mary,
allowing his presence to burn brightly before all people,
that they might know that he is God
and we are his …
through Christ our Lord.