Malachi 3.1-5; Psalm 24.7-end; Hebrews 2.14-end; Luke 2.22-40
THERE is an interplay of law and grace in the story of Candlemas. The acts that the Holy Family undertake at the Temple are, in one sense, superfluous. Mary and Joseph do not need to present their son to the Lord, for he is God incarnate. Nor does Mary need to be purified from Jesus’s birth, for “his birth ushers in the purification of the world” (Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth: The infancy narratives).
As our epistle reminds us, Jesus has “become like his brothers and sisters in every respect” (Hebrews 2.17), to make atonement for our sins. This explains Mary and Joseph’s willingness to undertake these acts of the law, just as Jesus will later receive a baptism of repentance from John.
As Luke reminds us, the law designated every firstborn male as “holy to the Lord”. Most Jewish parents would visit the Temple to make an offering of five shekels to redeem the first-born son. Luke makes no mention of Mary and Joseph’s making this offering. Perhaps the implication is that — like the infant Samuel — their son is presented to the Lord rather than being bought back. In Jesus’s case, there is a deeper mystery of grace: this time, the child presented in the Temple has come from God, to save the world from the punishment that the law demands.
The interplay between law and grace is one of several which Luke explores in this rich narrative, full of scriptural allusions. Another interplay is that between age and youth. While the central characters in the Christmas story are young, Luke begins and ends his narrative with elderly worshippers. The first characters in Luke’s narrative are Zechariah and Elizabeth. Like Samuel’s parents, they have spent many years waiting and praying for a child. Here, as Luke’s infancy narrative draws to its close, we meet the aged Simeon and the 84-year-old Anna.
This interplay continues in our own time. Today’s Church is rightly concerned both to share the gospel with each new generation, and also to attend to the wisdom that older worshippers can offer the wider body. Like Anna, they often show an exemplary constancy and commit-ment in prayer and worship. Those who are Anna’s age have negotiated a level of cultural and religious change that is almost unimaginable to anyone who has lived only half those years.
The Candlemas story draws attention to a third interplay in Christian discipleship: between action and contemplation. It is a prompting of the Holy Spirit that brings Simeon to the Temple at the necessary hour; Anna has spent years constantly at prayer in the Temple. It was a lifetime’s experience of prayer that enabled both these prophets to recognise the Christ when he came to his temple.
Pope Francis is likewise challenging today’s Church to “waste time” in adoration, besides acting for social justice: “One cannot know the Lord without being in the habit of adoring, of adoring in silence . . . wasting time — if I may say it — before the Lord.” Without such contemplation, our activity will be shallow and exhausting.
The final interplay in Luke’s story is between celebration and judgement. It is a tension echoed in the candles of the liturgy for this great feast. As the reading from Malachi reminds us, flames offer not only celebratory illumination, but also the refinement and purification of God’s merciful and truthful judgement (Malachi 3.2).
As Simeon prophesies, he speaks of Christ’s glory as “a light for revelation to the Gentiles”. But he reminds his hearers that this glory is accompanied by judgement. Jesus will be the cause of people’s “rising and falling”, and, through him, “the inner thoughts of many will be revealed”. In each generation, the Church has to discern how to proclaim afresh the good news of God’s unconditional love without evading the realities of sin, repentance, and judgement. After these extraordinary events, the Holy Family returns to a humble life in Nazareth. Luke emphasises the lowly status of Jesus’s family, recalling that they offered the purification sacrifice prescribed for the poor.
For Jesus to be “like us in every respect” involved three decades of living and working like any other Galilean. For each of us, too, it is in the rhythms of everyday life that these great interplays — of law and grace, youth and age, action and adoration, celebration and judgement — need to be worked out in practice.
Canon Angus Ritchie is director of the Centre for Theology and Community, and Priest-in-Charge of St George-in-the-East, London.