Today, as millions prep for the 54th annual ritual of the Super Bowl, Christians throughout the world will first celebrate the Presentation of the infant Jesus in the Temple, once called the Feast of the Purification of his mother, Mary, and also Candlemas. The events coincide, as the presentation and redemption of the firstborn son would follow on the completion of the period of ritual purification of his mother, and Luke adverts to this ancient Jewish custom. The association of candles as an offering to the Church goes back as early as the fourth century. The association with light can be traced to the Song of Simeon, the shortest of the three “Canticles” found in the first two chapters of Luke’s gospel and which contains the evangelist’s understanding of the entire scene:
“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” [Luke 2:30-32].
The first reading from the book of the Prophet Malachi is possibly best known to most of us from Handel’s
brilliant setting of it in “The Messiah.” It contains majestic, powerful imagery, even a little frightening. The words are well chosen for a festival once known as the Purification. Then, of course, it was a reference to the ritual purification of the Mother of Jesus, who with Joseph, brought Jesus as a baby to Temple. And as the liturgy says that at his baptism years later Jesus’ immersion cleansed the waters of the Jordan, so the Purification of the Virgin Mary brought God’s purifying presence to the Temple in a wholly new way – suddenly and unexpectedly, except, perhaps, to two unexpected witnesses.
Simeon had waited long and patiently for the revelation of “the Christ of the Lord,” and had been promised he would see him before he died. There is no indication that he was aged, although he is often represented as a very old man. This is likely from association with the remarkable appearance of a truly old woman, another prophet, Anna, whom Luke describes in far more detail: 84 years of age, truly elderly by the standards of the time, and a widow for perhaps 65 of those years. She was the daughter of Phanuel and of the lost Tribe of Asher, once known as the happiest of the tribes (“Asher” means Happy.) Such detail indicates that Anna was well known. Luke may well have learned about this mysterious couple from Mary herself, who just a few verses earlier is said in regard to the events of the Nativity to have “treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart” [Luke 2:19].
A dark cloud falls over this remarkable scene when Simeon prophesizes to Mary that not only would Jesus be the occasion of the “falling and rising” of many in Israel, but also that “a sword will pierce through your own soul” [Luke 2:35a]. There was no offering without sacrifice, and Luke notes that Joseph and Mary had dutifully brought two innocent birds to be slaughtered as a substitute offering for the life of their son, as the law prescribed – the offering of the poor.
Luke tells us that after the ceremony the family went directly to “their own town, Nazareth,” returning to Jerusalem when Jesus was about 12, where presumably lost, and significantly for Luke in particular, he is again found in the Temple, “my Father’s house” [Luke 2:45]. Although the Gospels record that much of Jesus’ later life and ministry were bound up with the Temple, where he taught, preached, prayed, and debated with the priests, scribes, and Pharisees, his identification with the Temple is especially remembered in two passages. In the first, Jesus says, according to John’s gospel,
“Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The Judeans then said, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will you raise it up in three days?” But he spoke of the temple of his body [ John 2:19-21].
Perhaps the most significant reference comes very near the end of Scripture in the Book of Revelation, when the New Jerusalem, the Holy City, is finally revealed by God: “And I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb” [Rev. 21: 22].
For Luke, too, Jesus is the living and eternal Temple of God, and his followers, as members of Christ’s body, are also God’s Temple. Which is why St. Paul also insists, “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If any one destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, and that temple you are” [1 Cor. 3:16-17]. Not just singly or even especially singly, but as corporate members of Jesus the Christ, God’s people: “For we are the temple of the living God,” Paul says, “as God said, “I will live in them and move among them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people” [2 Cor 6:16].
So the Presentation of the infant Jesus in the Temple has particular meaning for the People of God, one which commemorates the dwelling of God among human beings, the last liturgical echo of the Christmas season, and a prelude to the sobering liturgies of Lent. We are left with an image both charming in its simplicity and intimacy, as two prophetic souls call to mind the great promises of the past, but also chilling in its forecast of the suffering and sacrificial death this costly identification with God’s presence will bring into the lives of Jesus and also his mother. But it also looks ahead to Resurrection. The year has found its pivot.