The feasts and seasons of the liturgy provide steady spiritual food, if we don’t take them for granted. February 2nd, the Feast of The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple 40 days after his birth, for example. We can miss the importance of this beautiful feast, the climax of Luke’s Infancy Narrative.
Our Christmas decorations may be down, but look at Luke’s Gospel carefully and you’ll see the temple in Jerusalem is more important to him than the stable in Bethlehem.
The Jerusalem temple (above, as it may have been in Jesus’ time) appears throughout Luke’s Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles. The angel announces John’s birth to the priest Zachariah there. ( Luke 1: 5–25) Jesus is presented as an infant there. ( Luke 2: 25-38) His whole life revolves around that holy place. Luke notes his early connection to it in his account of the boy Jesus listening to the teachers in the temple and asking them questions. ( Luke 2:25-41)
The temple is a place of destiny for Jesus. Even as he embarks on his ministry in Galilee, he recognizes his “exodus” will take place there. “Yet I must continue on my way today, tomorrow, and the following day, for it is impossible that a prophet should die outside of Jerusalem.” (Luke 13:33)
On his final arrival in Jerusalem, Jesus goes to the temple. “And every day he was teaching in the temple area.The chief priests, the scribes, and the leaders of the people, meanwhile, were seeking to put him to death, but they could find no way to accomplish their purpose because all the people were hanging on his words.” (Luke 19,47-48)
Jesus’ death and resurrection take place as the Feast of the Passover is celebrated in the temple. (Luke 22:1) Risen from the dead, he tells his followers to “ stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high. “ ( Luke 24” 49)
After his ascension into heaven, they “ then returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and they were continually in the temple praising God. (Luke 24, 52-52) Their first vibrant proclamation of the gospel takes place in the area of the temple after receiving the Holy Spirit, to the crowds come to Jerusalem for the feast. (Acts 1-5)
Luke’s account of Jesus’ Presentation in the Temple doesn’t dwell on the ritual – he may not know much about it. He doesn’t write about what the priest does, or even describe much of what Mary and Joseph do. At the heart of his story, God reveals himself through the Infant to two elderly Jews, Simeon and Anna, who wait patiently for the Messiah.
They’ve waited for years, but long waiting has not dulled their eyes. Waiting in the temple has made them sharper; they see salvation in this little infant, ” a light of revelation to the gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel.”
Isn’t it true, though, waiting can also dull our eyes? Year by year can diminish what we expect and hope for. Day after day, faith can get tired. Prayers can become rote, sacraments routine. A holy place just another place.
It wasn’t so for these two elderly Jews. Their steady presence in the temple made them sharper, quicker to recognize the light that came to that place. Hopefully, it will be the same for us.
And so we bless candles today, praying that our church may never be dark, but a place to see the light of Christ and recognize his will for us and for our world. We pray that the temple of God that we are may never grow dark, but a place where we find the Lord.
Simeon holds the Child in his arms; Anna proclaims him to all. A beautiful example for us.
Our ancient Feast of the Presentation, like other ancient things, is not always easy to understand. It calls for a procession as well as for blessing candles. The procession goes back to the early church in Jerusalem when, on this day, people went in procession from Bethlehem to Jerusalem, symbolically accompanying the Child, Mary and Joseph to the Temple of God, carrying candles to light their way.
When the feast was celebrated in Rome, the procession took place from the church of St. Simeon in the Roman forum to the church of St. Mary Major on the Esquiline Hill, the church where many early feasts of Mary found a home.