Today we celebrate the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord which fortunately this year falls on a Sunday. Forty days after the birth of Jesus his parents present him to the Lord going up to Jerusalem to do so. For many years this feast was called the Purification of Mary or sometimes Candlemas but these days we refer to it as the Presentation of the Lord. The account of these events comes in chapter two of Luke’s Gospel where the Purification of Mary and the Presentation of Jesus are combined.
It is not clear from the text whether the Holy Family remained in Bethlehem after the birth of Jesus until the forty days were up. But it is unlikely that they would have travelled the seventy miles back to Nazareth only to return to Jerusalem a couple of weeks later. Most likely they remained in the vicinity of Bethlehem which was only five or six miles from Jerusalem.
Most ordinary people would not have undertaken a long journey even to present their first-born son in the Temple as the Law of Moses required. But in the case of Jesus Mary and Joseph both presumably thought it was fitting and quite important that Jesus is seen to observe the Law and so would have surely delayed their return to Nazareth until they could do what the Law required.
When they get to the Temple the Holy Family encounter Simeon who we are told was promised by God that he would see the Messiah. He takes Jesus in his arms and pronounces the words, ‘Now, Master, you can let your servant go in peace, just as you promised; because my eyes have seen the salvation which you have prepared for all the nations to see, a light to enlighten the pagans and the glory of your people Israel.’ This prayer is recited in the Church every day in the service of Compline, which is what we call Night Prayer.
But Simeon, who is clearly a prophet, warns Mary that a sword will pierce her own soul too. By this we understand that she will witness her son’s death on the Cross of Calvary. Clearly Simeon recognises very well what Jesus’ mission is going to entail. We are also told about the prophetess Anna who praised God and spoke of this child to everyone who looked forward to the deliverance of Jerusalem.
Clearly these two devout people understood the scriptures well and had realised that a Saviour was to come to rescue the people from their sins and inaugurate the Kingdom of God. They are two people who are incredibly devout and who spend their time in the Temple offering prayer and sacrifice to God and who are therefore given the ability to recognise the true identity of this little child. They understand the incredibly wide scope of his mission and realise that a new age has dawned. Neither of them will live to see its fruition but they are filled with joy that the promises of God are about to be fulfilled.
Finally, we are told that, once the requirements of the Law had been fulfilled, they returned to Nazareth and the child grew to maturity. Jesus was filled with wisdom and enjoyed the favour of God. These years in Nazareth are hidden years but they are important in the life of Jesus. He grows up and acquires the human maturity he needs in order to be effective in his mission.
Essentially, this feast of the Presentation of the Lord is a festival of light which is why we bless candles today. Christmas and Epiphany are also feasts of light. Christmas celebrated at the darkest time of the year marks the arrival of the Light of the World, the one who is to rescue mankind from darkness and bring him into God’s wonderful light. The Epiphany too in a sense is also a feast of light since Christ is made known to the Gentiles in the shape of the Magi and we understand that through this Christ has come to bring light to foreigners as we as to the people of Israel. It is no mistake that the Magi are guided by a star which leads them to the stable in Bethlehem where Jesus was born.
And here in the Feast of the Presentation Simeon reminds us that Christ has come as a light to the pagans and to give glory to the people of Israel. Often in the Church this feast has involved processions of the people bearing candles and it always includes the blessing of the candles which will be used in the Church in the coming year. Essentially, this lovely feast marks the true end of the Christmas season and on Monday we will take down the crib and our Christmas celebrations will have come to their conclusion.
An interesting element of the story is that neither Simeon or Anna have any specific status or role in the Temple. They are not part of the priesthood and they have no special function; they are simply devout people who through a lifetime of prayer and devotion have come close to God. It is because of their devoutness that they have been favoured to recognise the true identity of Jesus. The priests and the officials of the Temple do not see what these devout people see. This is something that we observe in the life of Jesus over and over again: the simple people accept Jesus for who he is while the religious functionaries explicitly reject him.
Another interesting feature of the account we are given by Luke is that both Simeon and Anna were elderly. We are told Anna’s age, eighty-four years; but we are not told Simeon’s age but since he was nearing death we can assume he was quite old. They had both spent years longing for the coming of the Messiah and praying that this would come about sooner rather than later.
I think that this longing is important and that it is often a feature of old age. Older people often have a longing in their heart, frequently this is for the welfare of their children but it could be more generalised and be simply for the fulfilment of God’s plan for the world. Our prayer life changes as we go through the different stages of life; the prayer of a child is not the same as the prayer of a teenager or of a young adult. And the prayer of an elderly person is not the same as that of those who have young families. It is important to recognise these differences and for us to adapt as we reach each stage of our life.
Simeon and Anna longed for the coming of the Messiah and their prayer was fulfilled. May we too obtain what we long for and let our prayers be answered. Amen.
Father Alex McAllister SDS
Parish Priest of
St Thomas à Becket