In the book of Leviticus it is written, The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: If a woman conceives and bears a male child, she shall be ceremonially unclean for seven days. On the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised. Her time of blood purification shall be thirty-three days; she shall not touch any holy thing, or come into the sanctuary, until the days of her purification are completed.
This is the Law of Moses referred to in the gospel. Mary was unclean from the day of Jesus’ birth seven days and then thirty three days, making forty. And yesterday was forty days after Christmas, so we find Mary obeying the Law of Moses in which it is written,
When the days of her purification are completed, she shall bring to the priest at the entrance of the tent of meeting a lamb in its first year for a burnt-offering, and a pigeon or a turtle-dove for a sin-offering. He shall offer it before the Lord, and make atonement on her behalf; then she shall be clean from her flow of blood. This is the law for her who bears a child, male or female. If she cannot afford a sheep, she shall take two turtle-doves or two pigeons, one for a burnt-offering and the other for a sin-offering; and the priest shall make atonement on her behalf, and she shall be clean.
For this reason, the second of February used to be called The Purification of the Virgin Mary.
But it has another name. The second of February is also called The Presentation of Christ in the Temple. This is because, in the law of Moses it is written, The Lord said to Moses: Consecrate to me all the firstborn; whatever is the first to open the womb among the Israelites, of human beings and animals, is mine.
This means that Jesus, Mary’s first-born son, belonged to God according to the Law of Moses. But the Law also required the child’s father to redeem the child, that is, buy it back from God with a sheep or turtle doves or pigeons. So, our Gospel reading today, Jesus was presented at the temple in Jerusalem so that his parents could redeem him with the sacrifice of two turtle doves or two pigeons.
So far, Luke has described what happened in every Jewish family after a first-born son arrived. Birth, then circumcision on the eighth day and sometime later, presentation in the Temple to be redeemed. Families often combined the ceremonies of the Presentation of the child with the Purification of the mother because it saved time; you only had to go up to the temple in Jerusalem once.
But Luke wants us to understand that Jesus is no ordinary Jewish boy. The story goes on, Now, listen very carefully, says Luke, there was a man in Jerusalem called Simeon. Luke mentions the Holy Spirit three times to emphasise the truth of Simeon’s words. Luke tells us that the Holy Spirit rested on Simeon; the Holy Spirit revealed to him that he would see the Lord’s Messiah; and the Holy Spirit guided Simeon into the Temple, over to Mary, Joseph and Jesus and put these words into his mouth.
Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.
This passage gives us the third name for February 2nd, Candlemas. Simeon says, Jesus is a light for revelation to the Gentiles. The light of Christ reveals God to us. The whole of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection is like a mighty flash of lightning, which not only shows God to the whole world, but whose dazzling light pierces the darkest holes and corners of creation.
Almighty God, to whom all hearts are open, all desires known and from whom no secrets are hidden is shown in all God’s saving power and glory in the person of Jesus Christ.
In the church, candles were needed to light up the altar so the priest could see what they were doing. Candles also remind us of the light of Christ and the tongues of fire of the Holy Spirit. In years gone by, at Candlemas, the priest would bless the candles which were to be used in the church as well as smaller beeswax candles which people would take home. Some would put the candles in their windows during storms because they thought the light of Christ would protect them from danger.
Candles are no longer the best way to light up a church; and candles are not the best way to protect ourselves from natural disaster. But even now, candles are a powerful, mysterious and fascinating symbol of the light of Christ. We use them in church, we use them to symbolise prayer, and we use them as a sign to point to Christ’s saving presence in our homes and workplaces.
On the other hand, there are many millions of people, Christians included, who see in the soft light of candles an atmosphere of luxury and romance. Candles are seen at weddings, at dinner parties and in restaurants, so for many they lose their power to show the light of Christ.
How then are we to reveal to the gentiles the salvation of God? How can we show other people the wonder of God’s kingdom? How do we go start to share God’s unconditional love and acceptance of all people, regardless of age, gender, race, marital or family status, sexual orientation, disability or wealth?
I suggest that the answer is found in the Gospel reading. Simeon and Anna, by the inspiration of God’s Holy Spirit, saw that Jesus was the Messiah. In Jesus they saw the fullness of God’s character – the maker of all things, the eternal and gracious wisdom, the undying love and forgiveness, the help in time of trouble, the giver of life, the gentleness, the strength, the awesome power and astounding self-control, and above all, the perfect goodness and loving-kindness, always desiring the well-being of all people.
For people in today’s world, the first glimpse they may have of God is in who we are and what we do.
Candlemas, the Purification, the Presentation, call it what you will; is the last great feast after Christmas and before Lent. And Lent is a time when all we Christians need to look at ourselves very carefully to make sure that others may see in us the salvation of God, the light of Christ and the glory of the Holy Spirit.