The Presentation of Christ in the Temple, Candlemas

31 January 2019

Malachi 3.1-5; Psalm 24; Hebrews 2.14-end; Luke 2.22-40

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OUR readings from Hebrews and Malachi draw out the meaning of this feast of light, as the Christ-child comes in both humility and judgment.

The epistle emphasises his humility. To “make a sacrifice of atonement” for us, Christ must become like us “in every respect”. Just as Jesus’s baptism will be an act of humility (in which the sinless one expresses his solidarity with sinful humanity), so, at Candlemas, both he and his Virgin Mother undergo rituals that would otherwise be superfluous.

Mary is purified — even though she has given birth to the one who will purify us. With Joseph, she offers the sacrifice required from Jewish parents to “redeem” their first-born male — even though he is the Redeemer of us all. Luke emphasises the humble state of Mary and Joseph as they bring the offering designated for the poorest: two turtle doves or pigeons rather than a lamb. While they offer these sacrifices for their son, he will grow up to offer himself as the sacrificial lamb upon the altar of the cross.

In recognition of both the origin and the vocation of their son, Mary and Joseph also come to the Temple to dedicate the Christ-child to his heavenly Father. This echoes Hannah’s dedication of her long-awaited son, Samuel. As David Lyle Jeffrey writes, “Since the offering for the firstborn did not require the presence of the child (though the distance from home may have), but dedication would certainly require it, it may be that Luke means to say that the offering of the poor for Mary’s purification was paid, but that Jesus was in fact dedicated thus, like the child Samuel, to the service of the Lord” (Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible: Luke).

The parallel with Samuel is a deep one; for he is the one Old Testament character who anticipates the three offices of Christ as prophet, priest, and king (Francesca Aran Murphy, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible: 1 Samuel).

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If our epistle emphasises the humility of Candlemas, our Old Testament reading reveals it to also be a moment of long-promised judgement. As Elizabeth Achtemeier explains, the prophecy of Malachi was not a comfortable one: it was addressed to a disobedient people who had “ceased to live in intimate fellowship with him” and, in consequence, had become “indifferent to his will”.

Achtemeier tells us that “the phrases ‘whom you seek’ and ‘in whom you delight’ are ironical.” To a people who think that the covenant relationship and its God are “non-existent or merely memories from the past”, the coming of the Lord of the covenant is a frightening prospect (Interpretation Bible Commentary: Nahum to Malachi). Malachi warns that his return will be “like a refiner’s fire”, burning away all that is not holy and righteous.

The New Testament applies the prophecy of Malachi to the first coming of Jesus in humility, and not simply to his return in glory (Matthew 11.10; Mark 1.2; Luke 1.76). This point is reinforced in our Gospel reading. The prophets Simeon and Anna both hail the humble Christ-child as the fulfilment of the promise that they have been waiting for so patiently. But Simeon then goes on to warn Mary that her child “is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed”, and that “a sword will pierce through your own soul also, that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.”

The word for “sword” here is rhomphaia (which Jeffrey tells us is “a particularly lethal two-edged broadsword”). St Ambrose connects this to the “two-edged sword” (makaran distomon) of Hebrews 4. The Word of God, as it comes both in scripture and in Jesus Christ, pierces our souls and reveals the thoughts of our hearts.

Jesus does not come into the world to judge us. As the Lord comes in humility to his Temple, the judgement is rather that “The light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil” (John 3.19).

From infancy to cross, in word and in sacrament, Jesus meets us in humility because he seeks our friendship, not merely our obedience. Are we willing to accept this invitation to be filled and refined by his light and love? Like a sword, this question cuts to the heart of each and every life.

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