The Presentation of Our Lord (Candlemass), 2 February 2014

Malachi 3:1-4
Psalm 84
Psalm 24:7-10
Hebrews 2:14-18
St. Luke 2:22-40

Background:  The Presentation of Our Lord
This feast day used to be known to us as The Presentation of Our Lord and the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and in that name lies a history.  The feast originated in the Eastern Church as a feast day that celebrated “The Meeting” (Hypapante), although the Armenians call it “the coming of the Son of God into the Temple.  It is known in Jerusalem in the fourth century and then was introduced to the Constantinopolitan churches by Justinian in 542 CE.  It was first celebrated in the west in the seventh century, found in the sacramentaries of both Gelasius and of Gregory.  The day, then, was called “The Purification of Mary,” and the associated procession with candles was introduced at that time, as it appeared in other Marian feasts.  Originally the procession had a penitential aspect to it, and purple vestments were worn. 

As the day evolved, the blessing of candles to be used during the year was added and the name of Candlemass was introduced, especially in England.  It marks the end of the Christmass celebration and serves as a bridge to the Passion.  See especially the Gospel where Simeon says: and a sword will pierce your own soul too."  The background for the purification rites of the Hebrew Scriptures can be found in Leviticus 12:2-8, where the particulars of ritual purity are laid out in terms of the time of the purification, different for son than daughter, and the type of offering is prescribed.  It is this law that Mary fulfills in the ceremonies described by Saint Luke.

Malachi 3:1-4

Thus says the Lord, See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight-- indeed, 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 descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the LORD in righteousness. Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the LORD as in the days of old and as in former years.

Malachi, named for an unknown prophet (the name actually means “my messenger”), was written probably in the sixth century BCE.  We know this from the mention of the rebuilt temple in 3:1,10, and from the list of sins that Malachi laments, for they are the same list of vices that are mentioned in Nehemiah, and Ezra.  The action of the book centers on the Temple, and the sermons resound on the theme of marriage.  The reading for this morning is taken from the fourth oracle – “Yahweh, the God of Justice” that extends from 2:17 through 3:5.  The message of the reading speaks to the prophet’s hope of a coming messiah. Unlike other prophets who centered their messianic language on a present figure, this prophet hopes for someone that is not yet.  Malachi’s readers would have known the God that intervenes in human history – the promises to the Patriarchs and Matriarchs, God’s presence at the Red Sea, and the Covenant at Sinai. 

In the second paragraph, God becomes the object of our and the prophet’s observation, as comparison after comparison are applied to God’s presence in history, and God’s hoped for presence in the future.  The sentence: “then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord,” needs our attention to Malachi 1, where the prophet speaks against the sacrificial practices of Jerusalem.  Here the former times are linked with a renewed practice of present and future times. 

Breaking open Malachi:

1.     In what ways are you God’s messenger?
2.     What is the message you’ve been given to report?
3.     How can the offerings of the present day Church be purified?

Psalm 84 Quam dilecta!

How dear to me is your dwelling, O LORD of hosts! *
My soul has a desire and longing for the courts of the LORD;
my heart and my flesh rejoice in the living God.

The sparrow has found her a house
and the swallow a nest where she may lay her young; *
by the side of your altars, O LORD of hosts,
my King and my God.

Happy are they who dwell in your house! *
they will always be praising you.

Happy are the people whose strength is in you! *
whose hearts are set on the pilgrims' way.

Those who go through the desolate valley will find it a place of springs, *
for the early rains have covered it with pools of water.

They will climb from height to height, *
and the God of gods will reveal himself in Zion.

LORD God of hosts, hear my prayer; *
hearken, O God of Jacob.

Behold our defender, O God; *
and look upon the face of your Anointed.

For one day in your courts is better than a thousand in my own room, *
and to stand at the threshold of the house of my God
than to dwell in the tents of the wicked.

For the LORD God is both sun and shield; *
he will give grace and glory;

No good thing will the LORD withhold *
from those who walk with integrity.

O LORD of hosts, *
happy are they who put their trust in you!

This is a pilgrim psalm that expresses the intense longing (with overtones of the erotic) of the pilgrim for the temple, “my being longed, even languished” (Alter).  The brief mention of the “bird” that has found a home gives us an idea of jealousy, that such a humble creature could have constant access to the sacred courts.  The associations of temple and pilgrim provide for a hopeful and exuberant association.  The desert through which many had to pass in order to “go up” to the Temple is described as “a place of springs.” 

There is a metaphor in the psalm that is worthy of some meditation, namely the notion of “O Lord of hosts (armies)”, and the “climb from height to height”, which Alter[1] translates “they go from rampart to rampart.”  That this longing for God’s dwelling should be also seen as a longing and dependency upon God’s strength and rule, should become grist for not only the preacher’s mill, but for our devotions as well. 

Breaking open Psalm 84:
  1. What have you longed to see in your lifetime?
  2. So you long for time in conversation with God?  Why?
  3. How does your prayer life give you strength?


Psalm 24:7-10 Domini est terra

Lift up your heads, O gates;
lift them high, O everlasting doors; *
and the King of glory shall come in.

"Who is this King of glory?" *
"The LORD, strong and mighty,
the LORD, mighty in battle."

Lift up your heads, O gates;
lift them high, O everlasting doors; *
and the King of glory shall come in.

"Who is he, this King of glory?" *
"The LORD of hosts,
he is the King of glory."

In this familiar psalm we think of the Advent hymn.  In its final verses (7-10) some propose a separate psalm whose verses focus not on the pilgrims, but on the “King of glory,” who enters the city.  The repetition of refrain verses might indicate a series of versicles and responses sung or spoken during a liturgical procession into the city.  Perhaps this is a recalling of the move of the Ark of the Covenant into the Temple proper.  There is a military air to the verses as well, and in a way, perhaps, this is similar to the comments on psalm 84 (above) where the Temple = strength and God’s protection.  For those of us celebrating the Presence of Christ in the Temple, the question of “Who is the King of Glory” directs our attention to the little baby who has been brought there by Mary.

Breaking open Psalm 24:
  1. Who do you think is the king of glory?
  2. For what are the pilgrims hoping?
  3. For what do you hope?

Hebrews 2:14-18

Since God's children share flesh and blood, Jesus himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death. For it is clear that he did not come to help angels, but the descendants of Abraham. Therefore he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.

This reading seems to be intended by the framers of the lectionary as an elegant commentary on the day, “Therefore he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect.” The author of the Letter to the Hebrews if fascinated with the ritual of the Temple, and is equally fascinated with Jesus’ as the great high priest performing that ritual.  So it is that Jesus is brought to Temple (and later to Baptism) to fulfill all things.  Jesus does not ride above the difficulties of life, but “he himself was tested by what he suffered.”  It is a difficulty that Simeon, in the Gospel, hints at as well, and it is a reality that is the center of the good news. 

Breaking open Hebrews:
  1. What does the incarnation mean to you?
  2. What about the humanity of Jesus speaks to you?
  3. Have you been tested such as Jesus was?  How?

St. Luke 2:22-40

When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, the parents of Jesus brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, "Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord"), and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, "a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons."

Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord's Messiah. Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying,

"Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
according to your word;
for my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel."

And the child's father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, "This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed-- and a sword will pierce your own soul too."

There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.

When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.

Luke begins his story with introductory comments on the cultural and religious aspects of the action.  He cites the Law, and describes the family’s response to its requests.  This is not only a moment for Mary, but for Jesus as well.  Both are subject to the demands made by the Law.  In complete agreement with Luke’s concentration on the poor, Mary and Joseph offer a humble offering – two turtledoves, the offering of a poor family.

Once that is completed the lens quickly focuses on Simeon, righteous and devout.  He looks forward to the “consolation of Israel”.  (See II Kings 2:11 – in rabbinic thought, this conversation’s subject was “the consolation of Israel” which would be revealed with the coming of Elijah.  Luke sees Simeon as prophetic, for “the Holy Spirit rested on him.”  Thus he is shown as knowing the true nature of the child brought to him, whom he takes up in his own arms - such an eloquent description of the Incarnation.  Simeon’s call is to be a watcher, and his task is completed with the appearance of Jesus.  His song, the Nunc Dimittis, seems to be an executive summary of not only his life, but of his hopes as well.  He is finished, and all things are completed and move on into a new future that includes gentiles as well.

Simeon’s blessing is difficult; for it is blunt about the downside of the incarnation, even to Mary’s own soul.  Anna seems to follow in a train of female prophet’s from the Hebrew Scriptures: Sarah, Miriam, Deborah, Hanna, Abigail, Hanna, and the wife of Isaiah.  She is a widow of Phanuel (Face of God), and would have occupied an honorable place in Jewish society.  She is the psalmists (84) ideal, living in the Temple and worshipping there.  Like Simeon she waits, and once she has seen, she proclaims.  With their blessings, the two introduce the Holy Family to a new life – a life of growth, strength, and understanding – most likely for all of them.

Breaking open Gospel:
1.      How do you understand Simeon’s aside to Mary?
2.      Have you suffered in your faith?  How?
3.      What female prophets have you known?  What did they say?

After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday:

Almighty and everliving God, we humbly pray that, as your only-begotten Son was this day presented in the temple, so we may be presented to you with pure and clean hearts by Jesus Christ our Lord; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

All questions and commentary copyright © 2014, Michael T. Hiller

[1]      Robert Alter, The Book of Psalms, a Translation and Commentary, W.W. Norton and Company, New York, 2007, page 298


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