In the Name…
One morning, over breakfast, a woman said to her husband, “I’ll bet you don’t know what today is.” “Oh, yes”, he said, “I know”. And he left quickly for work. Later that morning, a dozen roses were delivered to the woman. And, then, in the afternoon, a box of expensive chocolates was delivered. When the husband got home he looked quite pleased with himself and said, “I’ve made dinner reservations at a fine restaurant so we can celebrate in style. I told you this morning I knew what today was.” To which his wife replied, “Well, I’m not so sure you do. I only meant did you know that it’s Groundhog Day.”
Well, here we are on February 2nd and the Church is decorated in festive white. But, we’re not celebrating Punxsutawney Phil. The Church’s liturgical calendar is like two intertwined solar systems. In one of these systems, Easter Sunday is at the centre and its “satellites”, if you will, are Ash Wednesday and Lent, Ascension Day, Pentecost and Trinity. The dates of these always change because they depend on the date of Easter, which changes every year.
The other “solar system” has as its centre Christmas Day, which is always December 25th. Advent always starts on the fourth Sunday before Christmas and the “satellites” of Christmas are celebrated on the same days every year: January 1st the Circumcision, January 6th the Epiphany, March 25th the Annunciation, and June 24th the birthday of John the Baptist, among others. These holy days, all satellites of Christmas, rarely get much attention unless they happen to fall on a Sunday, but today one of those satellites has come our way, - February 2nd, the fortieth day after Christmas, the Feast of the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple.
Now, we heard the Gospel read, but what was this “Presentation” all about? It was an act of thanksgiving for the safe delivery of a child made forty days after the child’s birth. It could be performed anywhere, but Joseph and Mary, living so close to Jerusalem, and aware that this was no ordinary child, decided to make their thanksgiving offering in the Temple, itself. And, while there, two very strange people accost them.
The first is Simeon, an elderly priest, and the second is Anna, an elderly woman, and the fact that both were elderly was seen as of great importance in the Early Church. Among Eastern Orthodox Christians, today’s feast is called, not the Presentation, but the “Hypapanti”, the “Encounter” and the significance is that this is an encounter between the capital “O” Old and capital “N” New; between the world without Christ and the world with a new beginning in Christ; between the sunset of the Old Covenant restricted to Jews and the dawn of the New Covenant for all nations. Something is ending and something is beginning.
In the prophecy of old Simeon, he referred to Christ as: “a light to lighten the Gentiles”, and that is why the image of light has also been a large part of today’s observances. Indeed, yet another name this day has been given is “Candlemas” because it became a day for people to bring candles from home to church and have them blessed.
Now, if candles seem a strange sort of thing for people to bring to church for a blessing, just imagine a world before electric lights, when candles were the only source of illumination and regarded as precious commodities. Maybe our modern equivalent would be to bring light bulbs to church. And yet, for all our technology, there is still, deep within us, some yearning for, and joy in, candle light suppers, candle-lit weddings, and hand-held candle light vigils and protests.
By the way, as Candlemas traditions evolved, many people in Germany embraced the legend that if the sun shone today and an animal should see its shadow, there would be six more weeks of winter. So, yes, because the German immigrants who settled in Pennsylvania brought this custom with them, that’s how today is popularly known in America as Groundhog Day.
But, the light we are celebrating in church radiates, not from the Sun, but from the figure of Jesus because, night or day, winter or summer, it is a dark world in which we live. "Better to light one candle than to curse the darkness," is sometimes the motto used by those who do good in this dark world. And the light of one good deed is never dim if Jesus is the one who has lighted that candle.
That’s because a special light has come to us from outside our darkness - the child of Bethlehem, the light of the world. As we heard forty days ago in the Christmas Gospel reading, that light shines in the darkness and the darkness, even two thousand years later, has not overcome it.
There is always the temptation, however, to avoid that light. Perhaps, we do not want to admit all the truth of our lives to ourselves and we do not want others to see the truth about us. The shadows, we tell ourselves, will hide us. Other times we live in the darkness because of fear, not knowing what will come next or how we will handle it. There are also times when sorrow and grief suck the life and light out of us and we seem unable to escape the darkness. And sometimes we experience the darkness of ignorance and confusion. We become lost on the path of life, seemingly without meaning or direction.
But, hide or be lost as we might, the shadowy places are always uncomfortable. For, no matter how large the shadows or how dark the night, the true light is still present because it is within you and it always has been, always will be and there is no escaping it. For that light reveals mercy and forgiveness in the shadows of guilt and shame, presence and courage in the night of fear, compassion and hope in the black holes of sorrow and loss, and a way forward in the blindness of ignorance and confusion.
So, as we go from here today we do not bring home candles of wax, but, we still take a blessing of light. Not our own, for no light of ours would be bright enough, but, rather, the light of Christ - the light which shined at the beginning of creation and which blesses all it touches.
And we take the Song of Simeon, for it has become our song.
Please return to the Scripture insert in our bulletins, and on the back you will see it, and let us say that song together:
Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace: according to thy word.
For mine eyes have seen: thy salvation,
Which thou hast prepared: before the face of all people;
To be a light to lighten the Gentiles: and to be the glory of thy people Israel.
Glory be to…