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 destined to be the rise and the fall of many in Israel, and a sign that is spoken against (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), that thoughts out of many hearts may be revealed.”
The Gospel According to Luke, Chapter 2
It is odd that this feastday -The Feast of the Presentation of Christ- (which is also called “Candlemas” because it is the day when the candles used throughout the liturgical year are blessed) is actually one of my favorite days of all, and yet I have seldom written about it.
Back when I was young and discerning a religious vocation I would sometimes wonder what name-in-religion I would get (it’s not an uncommon wondering during discernment), and I always hoped that, whatever my name would be, my title would be “of the Presentation.”
It’s not because I ever thought of myself as much of a presentment of Christ — God forbid such a thought — but because I loved the illumination of the day, and the setting. Christ is carried into the temple: the Theotokos (the God-bearer) carries within her arms the Light, which is immediately recognized and proclaimed by both man (dear Simeon, who gives us our great prayer before sleep) and woman, Anna (who I like to think of as the first female monastic). Already, in this small scene, we see that he is truly — as the angels said at his Nativity — a light “for all the people,” from prophets to lowly widows.
And then there is Simeon’s great prophecy, made to Mary; one that as a mother, I can barely read for understanding how it must have sounded to young Mary:
. . .the old man praises God for your wonderful baby and then tells you:
“…this child is going to be great, so great that the whole world will respond to his birth, and the response will never abate. And in that greatness, he will be the focus of tremendous love. And because he is great, he will also be the object of unfathomable hatred. He will be spoken against and contradicted – forever! Over him wars will be justly and unjustly fought. In his name men will justly and unjustly die. For his having come into the world, men and women will kill and be killed…and yet…over him great wars will be prevented or resolved. In his name, men will awaken from the sleep of the spirit and arise. For his having come into the world, men and women will perform great and lasting deeds of charity and unselfish love, which might otherwise never come into being…”
How Mary must have gasped to hear such a prophecy. To hear such jarring words spoken about the tiny, sleeping child she held to her chest. Perhaps at Simeon’s words, she held Jesus that much closer and thought, “do not wish such awful things on my child, such terrible power and privilege! He is just my little boy…”
Her little boy, and her God. He is taken from her flesh, as Eve was taken from Adam’s — Eden is recalled here, in a reverse-mirror. The Serpent told Eve the lie she wanted to hear; Simeon tells Mary (the New Eve) the truth she would perhaps rather not know.
For Candlemas, there is often — when blizzards are not blowing and ice is not storming — a procession and a prayer at the local parish and school. They gather at the church entrance with lighted candles, symbolizing the Light of Christ, and the pastor declares:
Forty days ago we celebrated the joyful feast of the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ. Today we recall the holy day on which he was presented in the temple, fulfilling the law of Moses and at the same time going to meet his faithful people. Led by the Spirit, Simeon and Anna came to the temple, recognized Christ as their Lord and proclaimed him with joy. United by the Spirit, may we now go to the house of God to welcome Christ the Lord. There we shall recognize him in the breaking of bread until he comes again in glory.
Then the candles are blessed, and Mass begins.
The first reading at Mass brings us the prophecy of Malachi: (Audio here)
And suddenly there will come to the temple
the Lord whom you seek,
And the messenger of the covenant whom you desire.
Yes, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts.
But who will endure the day of his coming?
And who can stand when he appears?
Can you see why I love it? I still think of this feastday as “mine” as I did when I was younger, but in a slightly different way. As I get older I realize that one of the things I am called (and privileged) to do is pray for the good of others, and so that puts a different spin on the notion of a “presentation:”
I prayed everyone by name – but even if I could not do that, I still brought it all forward. I felt so ragged and unworthy – like a slave, or the lowliest servant – escorting one person after another, one group after another into the presence of the King, each time introducing them thusly:
“Lord, the one you love is sick…”
“Lord, the one you love is weeping…”
“Lord, the ones you love are overworked and fretful…”
“Lord, the one you love is lonely…”
“Lord, the one you love is under siege…”
“Lord, the ones you love are oppressed…”
“Lord, the ones you love are over-burdened…”
“Lord, the ones you love are slaves to hate…”
I brought everyone in and then receded into the background, bowing low, imagining my own self nose-to-the-ground, almost prostrate and dared not look up, praying,
“…help them to comprehend the truth and strength and inviolability of your love, the generosity of your mercy – show to them the outpouring of your grace, gift them with your healing and let them recognize it and trust in it, for your gifts bestowed are never rescinded. You, Alpha and Omega, in whom we live and move and have our being, spread forth your peace like sweetest honey to refresh starving hearts and weary spirits. Let your light touch us like consoling balm to soothe and warm our chilled humanity, so that we might be opened to your justice and willing to be made whole. But I am no worthy intercessor, only a faulty and broken vessel trusting in your mercy. Consider not what I deserve in your sight but only the needs of these whom you love, these I bring before you, and for whom I, the lowest servant, plead. Let my prayer rise before you like incense, to carry these forward. Forgive my sins, especially my failures in love, my sins of omission (for you know those are vast and heavy) and cast them behind your back as your prophet Isaiah has promised, and with your grace may I do better. Jesus, Son of the living God, have mercy on me, a sinner, in your name I pray…”
That prayer wouldn’t be everyone’s cup of tea, I know. Some days it wouldn’t be mine, but yesterday it flowed and that’s the direction in which it meandered…and the meandering was good. It made me realize once again that prayer trumps everything.
Msgr. Charles Pope has a terrific post up that looks further at this feast, into something that “almost everyone missed”:
Singing these songs, Mary carried Jesus. The climb was even more difficult carrying a newborn babe. But the burden was sweet. A final ascent up the stairs to the Temple Mount. Likely they entered on the southern side through the Huldah gates. Going up the steep stairs, through the tunnel in the walls and emerging on to the bright Temple platform above.
God had returned to His Temple. He, and the Ark who carried him, were found. Mary the Ark, carrying Jesus in her arms. Jesus, very God, true God from True God. Yes, God and the Ark had been found and God was once again present among His people on the Temple Mount. Scripture says:
And the Lord, whom ye seek, shall suddenly come to his Temple, even the messenger of the covenant, whom ye delight in: behold, he shall come, saith the LORD of hosts. But who may abide the day of his coming? and who shall stand when he appeareth? (Mal 3:1-2)
What a dramatic moment. And yet what a remarkable understatement by God! If I were to direct the moment I would have called for trumpet blasts, peals of thunder and multitudes of angels! And everyone would fall to their knees in recognition of the great fulfillment and the great return of God to his Temple.
Considered thusly, this is definitely a feastday worth being glad about, and making especial note of!
Pope Benedict XVI: Prayer is essential for grasping life’s meaning
At Moniales, they remind us that this is also the World Day of Prayer for the Consecrated Life and they post a lovely hymn.