Sunday, February 2, 2020

The Feast of the Presentation of Our Lord


February 2, 2020

Luke 2. 22-40


+ So, let’s see if you can remember this. What happened 40 days ago today?

Yes, Christmas happened 40 days ago today. I know it’s hard to even think of that, now in early February. It feels so long ago already. But, yes 40 days ago we commemorated the birth of Jesus.

Which is why, today, we are commemorating the Presentation of Jesus.  Which simply means that, in Jewish tradition, the first born son was to be presented to the Temple on the 40th day after his birth.  And on that day, the child was to literally be redeemed.

Reminiscent of the story of Abraham and his son Isaac, an animal sacrifice would’ve made in the place of the life of the son, which in the case of Jesus’ family, who were poor, would have been two doves.

Now why, you might ask? Why 40 days?

Well,  until about the Thirteenth century, it was often believed that the soul did not even enter a boy child until the 40th day.  (The soul entered a girl child on the 80th day) So essentially, on the 40th day, the boy child becomes human. The child now has an identity—a name.  And the child is now God’s own possession.

This has been a very important feast in the Church from the very beginning. Of course the Eastern Church, which celebrates Jesus’ birth on January 6, doesn’t celebrate the Feast of the Presentation until when…

February 14th.


This day is also called Candlemas, and today, of course, we at St. Stephen’s, in keeping with a tradition going back to the very beginning of the Church, will bless candles on this day.  In the early Church, all the candles that would be used in the Church Year and in individual people’s lives would be blessed on this day.  The candles blessed on this day for personal use were actually considered spiritually powerful. They were often lit during thunderstorms or when one was sick or they would be placed in the hands of one who was dying.  Now all of that is wonderful and, I think, is interesting in helping understand this feast day and in its importance in the life of the Church and the world.  

But the real message of this day is of course the fact, in presenting Jesus in  Temple, the Law in Jesus was being fulfilled.

This morning, in this feast,  we find the old and the new meeting. That is what this feast we celebrate today is really all about.

Now, I love this feast. But I have to admit that it has taken on a bittersweet air for my personally. It was on this day, two years, that we celebrated the Requiem Mass for my mother at Gethsemane Cathedral in Fargo.  Many of you were there with me that day. And it was a beautiful mass. Fr. Mark Strobel even referenced this Feast day in his sermon for my mother that day.

In many ways, it was appropriate that her Requiem Mass was celebrated on this day. The Feast of the Presentation is all about the Old and the New meeting. In fact, in the Eastern Orthodox Church, this feast is called the Meeting  of Christ with Simeon.

In our Gospel reading for today, we find this righteous man Simeon representing the Old Law. He is the symbol of the Old Testament—the old Law of Moses. We have Simeon who is probably a priest in the Temple. He is nearing the end of  his life. He knows he is in his last days. But he also knows something new is coming. Something new and wonderful and incredible is about dawn.

As a priest, he performed those Levitical rites that fulfilled the Law. He oversaw the rites of purification. Mary herself would certainly be going through the purification rites all mothers had to go through on this fortieth day after the birth of a child.  Simeon would also have presided over the dedication service of the new child to God, which, of course, would have included both his naming and his circumcision.  All of this fulfils the Old Law.

Then, of course, there is a figure who we always seem to overlook in this scripture reading. But she is important. And, after I’m done here, you’ll see how really important she is to the story.

The Prophet Anna.

Now, Anna is important to this story. Do you want to hear an interesting story
related to Anna?  OK. Hold on to your hats. Because my guess is that you’ve never heard this before.

So, from our reading today, we find quite a bit of information about Anna. We know that she is a widow. We know that her father was Phanuel. We know she was a prophet and that she lived in the Temple.

But, here’s where it gets interesting. I recently read about this legend that actually makes some real sense. . According to this belief, Anna’s father, Phanuel, was actually a High Priest of the Temple in the line of Zadok the High Priest, in which the prophets predicted the Messiah would be born.  According to the story, Phanuel was killed by Herod the King to prevent the Messiah from being born, since Herod believed that the Messiah would be born in the lineage of Zadok.

Phanuel had three daughters.  Anna (or Hanna as she was also known), Elizabeth, and another daughter, Joanna.

And, according this story, Anna is the none other than the mother of Mary, the mother of Jesus.

So, when we encounter Anna in today’s Gospel reading, we are actually, according to this scholarship, encountering the grandmother of Jesus, which makes tremendous sense. Of course, the daughter of the High Priest would be in the Temple at the end of her life. Of course the granddaughter of the High Priest would bring her son and present him there, in the presence of his grandmother.

But we don’t stop there. If the name Elizabeth sounds familiar, it should. She is the mother of John the Baptist. The Gospel of Luke describes her as a “kinswoman” of Mary. She was then Mary’s aunt. Which makes Jesus and John cousins.

But we encounter these women one other place in the Gospel of Luke. Also in the Gospel of Luke, as Jesus is going to the cross, he encounters the “Daughters of Jerusalem.” According Jewish tradition, the “Daughters of Jerusalem,” are actually the daughters of the high priest. It was an actual title that was given to them.

So, essentially Jesus encounters his aunts (we get the impression that Anna, was probably older than her sisters, was long dead by that point).

I love this little microcosm into the story of Jesus and his presentation in the Temple

I just want to add one personal note to this: my mother’s patron saint was none other than St. Ann, the patron saint of mothers.  I did not know any of this when I planned her Requiem Mass for this day.

Now, I imagine one or two of you might be a bit skeptical of this. But, the fact remains, in scripture this how we see God work. God doesn’t just randomly do things. There is a building of up of all God does. There is a plan and a structure to the way God works, especially in the life of Jesus.

Each aspect of his life has meaning and purpose, even in those generations before he was born. We see that God was working in preparation in the world, even before Jesus was born. Anna represents God’s unique way of preparation.  Anna is an important part of the story we are encountering today.  She comes forward out of the background and begins praising God and speaking of the greatness of this Child.  What she proclaims is the New. What she praises God for is Jesus—born under the most unusual of circumstances.

In case we forgot what happened 40 days ago, he was conceived and born of a virgin, with angels in attendance, with a bright shining star in the sky and mysterious strangers coming from the East.

In Jesus, we have the Law fulfilled.  Eventually, in this baby that comes before Simeon, the old Law would find its fulfillment. The Law is fulfilled in this baby, who will grow up, to proclaim God’s kingdom in a way no else has before or since. This baby will also grow up to die on the Cross.

No longer do we need those animal sacrifices. We don’t need a lamb or two little doves or pigeons to die for us.   His death did away with all those sacrifices.

Now, this all sounds wonderful. But no doubt we start asking this important question: why do we even need the Old Testament. If Jesus came to fulfill it, it seems pointless.

But what we need to remember is that this New Law does not overcome or cancel out the old Law. It only solidifies it. It makes it more real.  The Old Law will simply change because now there will be no more need of animal sacrifices and atonement offerings.

In Jesus—the ultimate Lamb of God—those offerings are taken away. They were needed then. They are not needed now. But they foreshadowed what was to come. We have one offering—that offering of Jesus on the Cross—and through it we are all purified.

But even more so than that. This Feast of the Presentation is about us as well. We too are being Presented today.  We too are presented before God—as redeemed and reborn people. We too are being brought before God in love. From this day forward we know that we are loved and cherished by God. We know that we are all essentially loved children of God, because Jesus, the first born, led the way for us.

The Old Law hasn’t been done away for us. Rather, the Old Law has been fulfilled and made whole by the New . We see that there is a sort of reverse eclipsing taking place. The Old Law is still there. But the New has overtaken it and outshines it.

See, it really is a wonderful day we celebrate today. The Feast of the Presentation speaks loudly to us on many levels. But most profoundly it speaks to us of God’s incredible love for us.

So, this morning, on this Candlemas, let us be a light shining it the darkness. Let that light in us be the light of the Christ Child who was presented in the Temple.  We, like Jesus being presented to Simeon, are also be presented before God today and always.

So let us, like the prophet Anna rejoice.  Let us, like her, speak to all who are looking for redemption.

And with Simeon, let us sing:

“Now you may dismiss your servant in peace, according to your word;
For my eyes have now seen your salvation which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples.

Amen.

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