Today is the Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, also known as the Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary, also known as Candlemas. Yes, we have three names for today’s feast, each of which emphasizes a different aspect of our celebration, all based in some way on our Gospel passage from Luke 2:22-40, which can also be found on page 232 in your Prayer Book.
The third of the names, Candlemas, refers to a medieval tradition of blessing and processing candles on the feast day. The tradition most likely came about because of the line from the Nunc Dimitis in today’s Gospel, where the Prophet Simeon refers to our Lord as “a light to lighten the Gentiles.” While most of us take our Christmas decorations down at Epiphany, other Christians wait until Candlemas and consider today’s feast the true end to the Christmas season.
The second name for today’s feast is the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The Purification is one of two Marian Feasts retained in the American Book of Common Prayer from medieval times (the other being the Annunciation on March 25), hence the special blue-and-ivory chasuble. The “Purification” in the name refers to the beginning of our passage from Luke 2:22: “And when the days of her purification according to the Law of Moses were accomplished….” Leviticus 12 describes the rituals surrounding the birth of children in the Old Testament. Old testament Ceremonial Law includes sacrifices and systems for ritual purity and impurity, for ceremonial cleanness and uncleanness. Remember that while ritual impurity is supposed to remind us of sin, it does not necessarily equate to sin. To be ceremonially unclean in the Old Testament is not necessarily to have committed a sin, though many aspects of ritual impurity do remind us of the consequences of the Fall.
Leviticus 12 is an example of this. In the chapter, we are told that when a male child is born, the mother goes through two stages of ritual purification. First, she is ritually impure for seven days, after which the boy is circumcised, as God commanded Abraham back in Genesis. Circumcision is the Old Testament sign of the covenant; the sign of Israelites being set aside as God’s people. The day of the circumcision begins a period in which the mother is ritually impure for another 33 days (40 days in total), after which she is to bring offerings to the Temple to complete the ritual purification. These offerings are described as a sin offering and an atonement offering, normally consisting a lamb for each, though for poor people pigeons or turtledoves could be substituted.
This tells us a few things. First, we see why Candlemas is on February 2; it is 40 days after Christmas. Second, it tells us that the Holy Family was poor at this point, indicating that the Magi’s visit was sometime after their return from Jerusalem. Third, we see that the offering and ritual impurity is based on the Curse of the Fall, when childbirth becomes painful, bloody, and dangerous. That is, even though childbirth is certainly not sinful, but is rather one of the most beautiful blessings of God’s creation, its beauty has been marred by sin and death. If you look through Church records from generations past, you often see men who have several wives over the course of their life because their first wives all died in childbirth. The average life expectancy in past centuries was so low in part because of women dying young in childbirth and in part because many children died at birth or soon after. In fact, had this been even 50 years ago, Neither Heather nor Leah would likely have survived Heather’s preeclampsia, Tori never would have even been born, and I’d be all alone!
Yet, despite this connection between the dangers of childbirth and Old Testament ritual impurity, remember that we do not have such a category in the New Testament. In Christ, categories of ritual purity and impurity simply do not exist. This is why our Churching of Women service on pages 305-307 of the Prayer Book, though rooted in the events of Candlemas, is a service of thanksgiving rather than purification. Indeed, the other title for the service is “The Thanksgiving of Women after Child-birth.” In some Christian countries, women would bring a candle in the Churching service as a reminder of that first Candlemas when Christ changed everything. Even though the blessed virgin Mary was too poor to offer up lambs for her sin offering and atonement offering in today’s Gospel, she had brought the Lamb of God, our Lord Jesus Christ, into the Temple, and he would become the ultimate sin offering when he became our atonement on the Cross. As St. John said at our Lord’s baptism, “Behold the Lamb of God, who taketh away the sins of the world.”
And then we have our Prayer Book’s primary emphasis of the Feast: The Presentation of Christ in the Temple. This refers to another Old Testament passage, Exodus 13:11-13, which the firstborn males are set aside as belonging to God as a result of the events of the First Passover. If you remember the Exodus, the final plague on the first Passover was the death of the firstborn sons of both men and animals in Egypt. But God had told the Israelites that he would spare their firstborns and pass over them if they would slaughter a lamb without blemish and paint its blood on the doorposts of their houses. With that sacrifice, God had purchased all the firstborn of both men and beasts among the Israelites. The firstborn males of ceremonially clean animals (such as cattle and sheep) were sacrificed in the Temple. The firstborn males of people and ceremonially unclean animals (such as donkeys) were to be redeemed by a lamb. The firstborn males belonged to God and were to be a constant reminder of God rescuing his people from slavery in Egypt.
Again, this ceremony was to point us to our Lord Jesus. Just as God rescued his people by the blood of the lamb, so would the blood of God’s Lamb rescue us from our sins. Just as God’s people were to present their firstborn sons to God, so would God present his only-begotten Son for the sake of his people.
Our “for the Epistle” passage from Malachi hints at another aspect of the Presentation, an aspect that speaks to our Lord’s divinity and our Lord’s mission. Please turn in your bibles to Malachi 3:1-5 (also found in your Prayer Book on page 232):
“Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me. And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; and the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming says the Lord of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap. He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, and they will bring offerings in righteousness to the Lord. Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former years.
“Then I will draw near to you for judgement. I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired worker in his wages, the widow and the fatherless, against those who thrust aside the sojourner, and do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts.”
You may recall that from the Exodus until the time of Solomon, the Israelites worshipped God in the “Tent of Meeting” or Tabernacle. But Solomon built God a permanent Temple, and it was known throughout the Old Testament as God’s House. And on the day of the Temple’s dedication, the presence of the Lord manifested as smoke that was so thick, they had to stop the service! But due to the Israelites’ constant sin of idolatry, God eventually sent the Babylonians to conquer the Promised land, exile the people, and destroy the Temple. And at the time of Exile, the Prophet Ezekiel saw God’s presence depart the Temple. A few generations later, under the leadership of Ezra and Nehemiah, the Jews returned to Israel and eventually rebuilt the Temple. The Second Temple was a mere shadow of the First, and the people wept at seeing it. A bit before the birth of Jesus, King Herod (yes, that Herod) funded a major remodeling of the Temple that made it even grander than Solomon’s in many respects. Nevertheless God’s presence never returned.
Until the first Candlemas.
At the first Candlemas, God had indeed suddenly come to his temple, as Malachi had promised, though he came as a little baby. The strange and sad thing is, the Priests and Levites, the Teachers and Leaders, didn’t recognize him. But Simeon and Anna did. Empowered by the Holy Ghost, the two elderly prophets knew Jesus and spoke of him to “all them that looked for redemption in Jerusalem.” Most every day we continue to sing Simeon’s song, the Nunc Dimittis, every night as part of our daily offerings of prayer to the Lord.
You see, even though we don’t offer animal sacrifices in the Lord’s Temple today, we do indeed still offer him a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving. And, as St. Paul and the Liturgy saith, we offer God ourselves, our souls and bodies, to be a living sacrifice. This concept is found both in our Prayer Offices of Matins and Evensong (which have roots in the twice-daily Temple sacrifices) as well as in our Holy Communion service in which we participate in Christ’s one true sacrifice, offering, and oblation for us.
Because of Christ’s offering of himself as the ultimate atonement on the Cross, the offerings of God’s people are now “offerings of righteousness” as Malachi said. They are now pleasing to the Lord, even more so than during the glories of Solomon’s temple. As Our Lord said in John 4, we would now worship God in Spirit and Truth. The very priesthood itself would be purified. No longer would it be based on the bloodline of Aaron and Levi, but rather on the Blood of Christ into which all Christians are baptized.
Malachi said that both the Lord and his messenger would come, and the syntax of the text suggests that they would be the same person. At Candlemas, we find out that they are the same person indeed. When God the Son comes suddenly into the Temple, he brings with him the message of the Kingdom of God. The Son is the perfect messenger of the Father. Part of that message is acting as a refiner’s fire or a fuller’s soap, both of which purify and cleanse, though often in a harsh ways. The refiner’s fire uses intense heat to separate the impurities out of metals as part of the melting process. And the fuller would use harsh lye soap to purify raw wool before it could be used to make clothing.
In the same way, sanctification, the process growing in the Lord, can be a harsh, difficult, or even painful process. We’re called to die to ourselves as we live for Christ. Our flesh does not like that. As one of my old pastors used to say, the problem with a living sacrifice is that it likes to crawl off the altar! Our very conversion itself is a dying of our Old Self in order to be raised with Christ. Every baptism is a picture of burial and resurrection.
But as difficult as purification can be, it’s much less difficult than judgement. The last few verses of our passage from Malachi speak to that. When the Lord comes back to the temple, he brings purification as well as judgement. The very fact that the religious and political leaders of Jesus’ day didn’t recognize him is a witness against them. As St. John wrote, “He came unto his own, and his own received him not.” Imagine waiting for centuries for the coming of the Messiah, for the fulfillment of generations and generations of expectation, only to miss it due to pride and vanity!
“He came unto his own, and his own received him not. But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name.” The priests and Levites, the teachers and scribes may have missed him, but Anna and Simeon did not. They saw the fulfillment of God’s promise. They saw the Lord return to his temple.
And we, today, as baptized Christians, have the benefit of that return. We have seen the light of the world. We have been purified by the blood of the Lamb. We have received the presence of Christ in his temple.
In the Name of the Father, and fo the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.