On the Solemnity of the Annunciation we post an article written by Fr Adrian Graffy earlier in the year on the significance of another feast connected with the incarnation, the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord. He finds answers to some questions raised by the story in Pope Benedict’s ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ volume three.
The Feast of the Presentation of the Lord, also traditionally called ‘Candlemas’, which falls forty days after Christmas Day, looks two ways. It looks back to Christmas and forwards to Lent and Easter. In recent years many parishes have been keeping their Christmas cribs until 2nd February, in an effort to encourage continuing reflection on the mystery of Christ’s Incarnation. This practice can also suggest the connection between the Christmas season and the season of Lent.
The story of the presentation of Jesus in the temple is found only in the Gospel of Luke. For a start, Luke is intent on stressing that the ‘parents’ of Jesus fulfil the ‘law of the Lord’ (Luke 2:27). They comply with the law of circumcision on the eighth day, and they observe the rules about purification and redemption of the first-born. Luke may also have in mind the words of the prophet Malachi. This is the coming of the Lord to his temple. The Liturgy of the Word for this day points to the realisation of the words of Malachi, that ‘the Lord whom you are seeking will suddenly enter his temple’ (Malachi 3:1). There is a lot going on in this gospel story.
It is also possible that Luke is modelling the presentation of Jesus to Simeon in the temple on the story of Hannah’s presentation of the child Samuel to the priest Eli in the sanctuary of Shiloh, which is narrated in the opening chapters of the first Book of Samuel. Eli blessed the parents of Samuel, just as Simeon now blesses Joseph and Mary. Both episodes conclude with statements about thechildren growing up in the favour of God. Luke seems to imply that, just as Samuel remained in the service of the Lord in the sanctuary of Shiloh, so Jesus, despite returning to Nazareth with Mary and Joseph, was from this moment in the service of the Lord.
The presentation is the feast of Jesus’ dedication to do the will of the Father. In this way this feast, which might be regarded as the climax of an extended Christmas season, looks forward to the cross and resurrection.
The words of Simeon are of course most significant. He has for a long time ‘looked forward to Israel’s comforting’ (Luke 2:25).Prompted by the Holy Spirit, heannounces the identity of the child, who is to be ‘a light to enlighten the pagans, and the glory of your people Israel’ (Luke 2:32). Clearly, it is from these prophetic words that the ritual of blessing candles arose. This is the light the darkness cannot overcome, the light which will shine in triumph at Easter.It is most appropriate that Simeon’s words in the canticle Nuncdimittisare always prayed at Night Prayer in the Liturgy of the Hours.
Simeon also addresses Mary. She in particular is told that this child is destined ‘for the fall and for the rising of many in Israel’, destined to be a ‘sign of contradiction’ (Luke 2:34). Pope Benedict writes in the third volume of Jesus of Nazareth: ‘What proves Jesus to be the true sign of God is that he takes upon himself the contradiction of God, he draws it to himself all the way to the contradiction of the cross.’ (page 85)
Pope Benedict continues: ‘We are not talking about the past here. We all know to what extent Christ remains a sign of contradiction today, a contradiction that in the final analysis is directed at God. God himself is constantly regarded as a limitation placed on our freedom, that must be set aside if man is ever to be completely himself. God, with his truth, stands in opposition to man’s manifold lies, his self-seeking and his pride.’ (page 86)
Simeon also addresses to Mary a prediction of her suffering: ‘a sword will pierce your own soul’ (Luke 2:35). Pope Benedict comments: ‘The contradiction against the Son is also directed against the mother and it cuts her to the heart. For her the Cross of radical contradiction becomes the sword that pierces through her soul. From Mary we can learn what true com-passion is: quite unsentimentally assuming the sufferings of others as one’s own.’ (pages 86-87)
In this way we aretransported from the tranquil scene of this devout family in the temple to what this scene signifies, the offering of Jesus Christ to God in the giving of his life, and his mother’s share in the suffering of her Son, her compassion for her Son.
We must not forget the prophetess Anna, who is also witness to the scene. While Simeon has declared in his Nunc dimittis his willingness to die now that he has seen the Messiah, she still has a mission to perform. She speaks of the child to all those she meets. Pope Benedict writes: ‘Her prophecy consists in her proclamation – in passing on to others the hope by which she lives.’ (page 87)
As it looks back to Christmas, the story of the presentation contemplates the fulfilment of the hope of Israel in the human birth of the Son of God, presented on this day to the Father. As it looks forward to Lent and Easter, it initiates the story of the gospel,the story of Christ’s self-giving love, which will culminate in his gift of himself on the cross and his resurrection to new life. It introduces the gospel of salvation ‘prepared for all the nations to see’.
This article first appeared in the February 2013 issue of Faith Today.