A Homily for the Presentation of our Lord
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and Christ Jesus our Lord, a light to guide the nations and the glory of Israel. Amen.
Ok, I lied.
A few weeks ago, I told you Epiphany is the end of the Christmas season, which it is – but also sort of isn’t.
As you may have noticed, after a few weeks with grown-up Christ teaching and calling disciples, we’re back to the infant Jesus in Blessed Mary’s arms. For those keeping count, it’s forty days after Christmas, which means Jesus is just about five weeks old. Jewish law at the time required two things happen at this point: that the woman, having been made ritually unclean through childbirth, be brought back into the community, bathing in the mikveh and, having reentered a state of ritual purity, they could then go offer sacrifices at the Temple. If their newborn was also the firstborn son, the family would take the child to be presented and redeemed through an additional sacrifice – this following from the Exodus when, after the tenth plague, the Lord laid claim to all the firstborn, both human and animal.
Thus, today’s feast has a few names: the Presentation of our Lord, the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and Candlemas.
One of these things is not like the others…
Why in the world is it called Candlemas? As the prophets Simeon and Anna greet the Holy Family, Simeon sings out that Christ is a light to reveal God to the nations; starting in the Medieval period, Christians would put these words into action by bringing candles to the Church to be blessed, carrying the light of Christ out into the world and into their homes. (In a similar fashion, at the Easter Vigil we will process by candle light and bless the Paschal Candle, and at Baptism, we light a candle from that same flame, telling the newly baptized to let their light shine before others.) Eventually, it came to pass that local parishes would bless all of the new candles for use in worship during the coming year at Mass on February 2nd – in English, it was the Candle-Mass.
All of this is a bit of fun liturgical trivia, but it also roots us back in the miracle of Christmas and Epiphany: that through the Incarnation, Jesus the Son of God reveals the glory of the Lord to the entire world. Christ is the Light to the nations and the glory of God’s chosen people, the fulfillment of the covenant to bless the entire world through Abraham and Sarah.
And on this day, we find ourselves again invited to ponder the question, “Why the Incarnation?” What does it mean that the Eternally-Begotten Word took on human flesh? For surely if the Triune God desired to reveal Their divine glory to the world, there are other, less painful ways: a burning bush, a pillar of fire, a booming voice from heaven. But instead, we receive a human infant, born under the reign of violent tyrants. His life was as ordinary as possible: circumcised on the eighth day and redeemed by an offering in the Temple, in accordance with the Law. On a family trip in his preteen years, he wandered off – as all kids do. And while a few shepherds and magi and two old and easily-dismissed prophets in the Temple recognized his glory, everyone else seems to have been rather oblivious. Christ’s childhood wasn’t exactly a blockbuster spectacle; only two of the four Gospels even bother mentioning it. A massive pillar of fire would have likely garnered more attention without the nasty and painful business of the Cross.
Instead, though, we get a human infant who, like the rest of us, is fully mortal, bound for the grave. And it makes no sense. We worship Christ, and him crucified – foolishness and a scandal, as Saint Paul would later write.
Nevertheless, God persists, and in Christ we behold salvation from on high because our Lord has become one of us. Not merely like us, putting on some sort of theatrical mask and descending fully-grown from on high the way Greek gods do in stage plays. No, Christ was born like one of us, cried like one of us, was fed of a woman’s breast, soiled himself, endured the awkwardness of puberty, and went through all of those other rather undignified aspects of human existence. And at the fullness of time, he did not simply vanish from the earth but rather he became like us “in every respect,” even tasting the bitterness of death itself, and his body was placed in the tomb. To what end?
The Son of God became human so that we may become like God. The Divine Word shared in our flesh and blood that we share in his divinity. He endured the same trials and tribulations in order that he may help us endure through this age until the coming of the Kingdom. He shared fully in your sufferings just as fully as he became truly human.
Christ endured the same trials as us that we may also endure. Were we to have followed the lectionary for the fourth Sunday after Epiphany, we would have read the Beatitudes from the fifth chapter of St. Matthew:
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
In Christ’s Incarnation, we receive the fulfillment of those promised blessings. You who are poor, in spirit or in money, behold the coming King! You who mourn, behold the Holy Comforter! You who are meek, behold the King of the Universe! You who hunger, for righteousness or simply your daily bread, behold the Bread of Life! You who work for peace, you blessed children of God, behold the Prince of Peace!
And all we who live in the valley of the shadow of death, behold the light of the world illuminating the darkness! For though this holy Child will be laid in the tomb alongside us, though he will taste death, he will rise again victorious and raise us with him to new and everlasting life.