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Presentation of Christ in the Temple, Candlemas

23 January 2020

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


CANDLEMAS marks the close of the liturgical movement from Advent through Christmastide to the Epiphany season. Simeon hails the Christ-child as “a light for revelation to the Gentiles”. Yet his prophecy ends on a stark note, as he tells the Blessed Virgin Mary that Jesus is “a sign that will be opposed”, and that a sword will pierce her soul.

Simeon’s severity echoes that of Malachi, who declares that the Lord will come to his Temple “like a refiner’s fire”. As Benedict XVI explains, “love can also be hated when it challenges us to transcend ourselves. It is not a romantic ‘good feeling’.” Redemption is not about “basking in self-indulgence”: rather, it is “a liberation from imprisonment in self-absorption” (Jesus of Nazareth: The infancy narratives).

At Candlemas, Mary and Joseph exemplify the self-giving love of God: the only love that can liberate humanity from the prison of self-absorption. In doing so, they follow the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience (Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Threefold Garland: The world’s salvation in Mary’s prayer).

The poverty of Mary and Joseph is manifest in their sacrifice of “a pair of turtle-doves or two young pigeons”. This was the gift that the law stipulated for the poorest. Benedict XVI writes that “Luke, whose entire Gospel is shot through with a theology of the poor and a theology of poverty, is once again making it abundantly clear that Jesus’ family belonged to the poor of Israel, and that it was among such as them that the promises would be fulfilled.”

The virginity of Mary meant that, under the Jewish law, no purification was necessary. As St Bede explains, she “nevertheless did not shun being made subject to the principles of the law for the sake of showing us an example of humility”.

The story of Candlemas contains the same paradox — the same kenosis — as Jesus’s baptism in the Jordan. Mary comes to be purified after the birth of the one who purifies the world. With Joseph, she offers a sacrifice to redeem him, even though it is his sacrifice that redeems a fallen Creation.

The sacrifice that Mary and Joseph offer for their son reveals the extent of their obedience. As Luke explains to his readers, the Jewish law stipulated that “every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord,” which is why sons had to be bought back (or “redeemed”). On this occasion, however, the child being bought back from God is his eternal Son.

Although Mary and Joseph offer the sacrifice prescribed by the law for the buying back of a first-born son, Luke’s narrative makes clear that the fundamental movement is in the opposite direction: they are, in fact, presenting their son back to his heavenly Father.

Commenting on the first verse of our reading, Benedict XVI explains that “the verb paristánai, here translated as ‘to present’, also means ‘to offer’, in the way that sacrifices in the Temple were ‘offered’. The language of sacrificial offering and priesthood is evoked here.”

This same language of priestly sacrifice is evident in our epistle. The author describes Jesus as “a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God”. It is precisely by becoming like us “in every respect” that he is able “to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people”.

In describing Christ’s priestly office, the Letter to the Hebrews draws a deliberate and striking contrast with the understanding of priesthood which has gone before. As Mary Healy explains, “The law of Moses underscores the need for a priest to be set apart from the people so he can approach the holy God.” In contrast, the efficacy of Christ’s priesthood flows from the fact that he is divinely sinless and yet completely identified with his “brothers and sisters” — experiencing their temptations, and taking on himself the punishment that is their due (Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture: Hebrews).

The purity of each disciple flows from that of Christ, our head. With his parents, we are both redeemed by and drawn into his self-offering. This is the message of our collect: because of the sacrifice of Christ, who “was this day presented in the Temple, in substance of our flesh”, we can now ask the Father “that we may be presented to you with pure and clean hearts, by your Son Jesus Christ our Lord”.

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