Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The Meeting of the Lord

The Feast of the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple celebrates an early episode in his life. The Eastern Orthodox Church calls this feast, one of the twelve Great Feasts, the Hypapante = literally, the Meeting. It is also traditionally referred to as Candlemas, the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin, La FĂȘte de la Chandeleur, and the Meeting of the Lord.

The Mosaic Law is clear in its prescriptions: " shall set apart to the Lord all that first opens the womb..." (Exodus 13:12)  "If a woman conceives and bears a male child, she shall be ceremonially unclean for seven days...Her time of blood purification shall be thirty-three days; she shall not touch any holy thing, or come into the sanctuary, until the days of her purification are completed...When the days of her purification are completed, whether for a son or for a daughter, she shall bring to the priest at the entrance of the tent of meeting a lamb in its first year for a burnt-offering, and a pigeon or a turtle-dove for a sin-offering...If she cannot afford a sheep, she shall take two turtle-doves or two pigeons, one for a burnt-offering and the other for a sin-offering; and the priest shall make atonement on her behalf, and she shall be clean."(Leviticus 12:2-8) St. Luke tells us that Joseph and Mary take the option provided for poor people.

Jesus' Presentation is described in Luke 2:22–40. To everyone's surprise, a devout old man, Simeon, full of the Holy Spirit, appears in the temple as the Holy Family enters. He's described as one who's been "waiting for the consolation of Israel". Seeing  Mary and Joseph with the infant, he takes Jesus into his arms and praises God: "‘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.'" We know this today as the canticle, Nunc dimittis, used in Compline. Through the early ages of the Church it was sung, and candles blessed, lit, and carried in procession through the streets on the night of this feast. Thus, Candlemas in England and in other places: an ancient Feast of Lights.

Another figure in the Presentation scene emerges at the end of Luke's narrative: Anna, a prophetess, daughter of Phanuel of the tribe of Asher, of great age -- 84 -- and a widow. She'd been married to her husband for seven years, after which he died. Luke notes that "She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day..." 

The deacon and poet, St. Ephrem of Syria (c. 306-373), has left us a beautiful hymn describing the Presentation. He speaks of Simeon carrying Jesus and singing him a lullaby. He also says that
"Anna embraced the child; she placed her mouth 
upon his lips, and then the Spirit rested
upon her lips, like Isaiah
whose mouth was silent until a coal drew near
to his lips and opened his mouth.
She sang to him a lullaby:
'Royal Son,
despised son, being silent, you hear;
hidden, you see; concealed, you know;
God-man, glory to your name.'"

Sophronius, an Arab who was Patriarch of Jerusalem (634-638), bids his hearers in a sermon: "Let us all hasten to meet Christ, we who on honor and venerate the divine mystery we celebrate today. Everyone should be eager to join the procession to share in this meeting. Let no one refuse to carry a light. Our bright shining candles are a sign of the divine splendor of the One who comes to expel the dark shadows of evil and to make the whole universe radiat with the brilliance of his eternal light. Our candles also show how bright our souls should be when we go to meet Christ..." 

Blessed Guerric of Igny, 12th century Cistercian monk and abbot, also in a sermon, makes a touching suggestion to us who celebrate today's feast: "Behold then, the candle alight in Simeon's hands. You must light your own candles by enkindling them at his, those lamps which the Lord commanded you to bear in your hands. So come to him and be enlightened that you do not so much bear lamps as become them, shining within yourselves and radiating light to your neighbors. May there be a lamp in your heart, in your hand and in your mouth: let the lamp in your heart shine for yourself, the lamp in your hand and mouth shine for your neighbors. The lamp in your heart is a reverence for God inspired by faith; the lamp in your hand is the example of a good life; and the lamp in your mouth are the words of consolation you speak...My friends, in order to light all these lamps for yourselves, I beg you to approach the source of light and become enlightened -- I mean Jesus himself who shines in Simeon's hands to enlighten your faith, who shines in your works, who inspires your speech, who makes your prayer fervent and purifies the intentions of your heart..." 

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