by Nick Jones, University of Rhode Island
It hardly seems possible that Christmas was 40 days ago. And yet here we are, having arrived at Candlemas, the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Presentation of our Lord Jesus Christ. We’ve arrived at the completion of the Christmas cycle of the liturgical year. Today’s Gospel is the last pericope from the Infancy Narratives. Soon enough, our liturgical focus will shift to Our Lord’s Passion, Death, and Resurrection. But until then, we have this great feast given us by the Church to contemplate.
First, let’s start with some etymology. Colloquially, regardless of the Form of the Roman Rite being celebrated, this day is known as Candlemas. There exists a special blessing for and procession with the candles, which are customarily used throughout the rest of the year, especially on the Feast of Saint Blaise which falls tomorrow. In the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite, today is known as the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary. According to Jewish law, a mother would incur ceremonial uncleanliness, which would bar her from entering the temple until she was purified. In the Ordinary Form, today is known as the Presentation of Our Lord Jesus Christ. This is also the Fourth Joyful Mystery of the Holy Rosary. Another precept of Jewish law was that the firstborn son of each family was to be taken to the temple and presented for service to God. The parents would also offer a certain type of sacrifice. This harkens back to the Passover in Egypt, when the firstborn sons of the Israelites were spared from death.
These titles which relate to Our Lord and Our Lady remind us of the first important lesson of this feast. The fruit of the Fourth Joyful Mystery is that of obedience. The Church invites us to consider the perfect obedience obedience of Our Lord and Our Lady even as they were not subject to the Law. To be sure, Our Lord did not need to be offered to God, since He Himself was God and Man. He already knew even as His little infant Self that He would perfectly submit to the will of the Father and die on the cross for all mankind. Similarly, Our Lady was freed from all the facts of Original Sin before her conception. Thus, she incurred no impurity, either in physical actuality or merely ritually. And yet, in spite of this, they both presented themselves in the Temple in a spirit of true, humble obedience. We would all do well to imitate this perfect devotion in our own lives. Our submission to the will of God should not be a matter of why but rather of how. When the Lord tells us jump, as it were, we ask, “How high?” There is not room for a partial or half-hearted devotion to His will. As will be seen, the perfect obedience of Our Lord and Our Lady enable great things to happen for others as well.
Any discussion of this great feast would be incomplete without a contemplation of Simeon. Our Lord speaks through Malachi in our first reading, asking who will endure in faithfulness until the Lord appears in the Temple. Simeon is the first character who greets the Holy Family in the Temple. Recall that he had been promised by God that he would not see death he had seen the Messiah. For Simeon, and for all the Jewish people, the Messiah was the embodiment of all of their hope in the Lord’s promises. In the Messiah, to them, was the fulfillment of every desire for freedom, both from oppression in the world and from the oppression of sin. How often do we find ourselves yearning for something more? How often do we find ourselves dissatisfied with the material goods of this world? How often do we find ourselves doing everything the world tells us we need to do in order to be happy, and still end up feeling empty? If only we could learn to think like Simeon. If only we could imitate his perfect contentment with God. We would all do well to beg of the Lord the grace we need to think like this, to modulate our dispositions to be of one accord with Simeon’s. When we try to think this way, we can join our hearts to the wonderful Canticle of Simeon, prayed by the Church every night. We too can come to recognize that once we possess this relationship with the Lord and His sanctifying grace, once we catch sight of Him and take Him into our arms, we have all that we need to rest in peace.