Malachi 3:1-4; Psalm 84; Hebrews 2:14-18; Luke 2:22-40
Happy Groundhog Day! We have had a very mild winter, but I still find myself longing for Spring. I certainly hope the groundhog didn’t see his shadow this morning, because I’d be happy for it to get warm as soon as possible!
This is also the Feast of the Presentation, or Candlemas. The church calendar notes this as a Feast, and as such, if February 2nd falls on a Sunday, we are to observe this holiday by reading the lessons assigned for it and praying the prayers designated, rather than those for the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, which is also this day. This is one of the oldest feasts of the Christian church. We have records of it being celebrated since the 4th century AD.
The Feast of the Presentation refers to event triggered by Jewish law—the law of Moses requires that, 40 days after the birth of a child (this is the 40th day after Christmas), the mother undertakes a purification ritual, and then comes to the Temple to make a sacrifice and be declared ritually clean. Mary and Joseph come to the Temple in obedience to this law, as well as the call to present their son to God.
Candlemas is one of the names that Christians have given this day, picking up on Simeon’s prophecy that Jesus would be light to the Gentiles. It has become a tradition that this day can include the blessing of candles that will be used in worship throughout the year.
And interestingly, there is a connection between Groundhog Day and Candlemas—a reason that The Feast of the Presentation and Groundhog Day are both on February 2. As I’m sure you know, pagans across northern Europe celebrated midwinter, and the gradual turn towards spring. These celebrations varied widely in their rites, but many of them had a common feature –weather would be predicted based on whether or not the sun was out.
When these people adopted Christianity, they kept the holiday. Candlemas became a major celebration in northern Europe, particularly in France, Germany, England, Scotland and Switzerland. Poems taught young people the importance of the holiday as a forecasting tool.
“If Candlemas be fair and bright,
Winter has another flight.
If Candlemas brings clouds and rain,
Winter will not come again.”
German immigrants to America invented Ground Hog Day to keep alive an old Candlemas tradition.[i]
OK—I think that’s fascinating, but not really the point of our celebration today. Instead, we bring our Christmas celebration to an end with this last Feast in the Christmas cycle. You may have put your Christmas decorations away along time ago (or maybe not), but the church calendar can justify for you waiting to do so until today.
Luke presents to us the observance of two points of Jewish tradition—the purification of the mother and the dedication of the firstborn male child. Mary and Joseph are faithful to keep the religious rituals of Jewish Law; eight days after his birth, they obey the requirement that every male child be circumcised. And now, 32 days later, the child is brought to the Temple again, this time to be presented. In this ritual, Jesus, the firstborn male child, is bought back from God—who claimed possession of every firstborn in Israel during the Passover. In obedience, Jesus’ parents bring him to the temple to be presented, offering the prescribed sacrifice for his redemption.[ii]
This is not unlike the journey that Mary and Joseph took to Bethlehem to fulfill their civil responsibility to the call of the Emperor for a census. But this time they are following the call of God – fulfilling their responsibilities under the law of Moses. Luke reminds us that Mary and Joseph are devoted Jews who will bring up Jesus in the faith. And this understanding is important to the story that Luke is telling because it establishes a faithful context for the critiques against religious practice that will come later in his account. It reminds us that “the tension Jesus has with the Law is never that of an outsider, but as one who has faithfully [followed God’s ways.]”[iii]
So, although he has no lines, Jesus the child is at the center of this story, as he will be throughout Luke’s story, and ours as his followers. And to affirm again just who this child is, we get the story of their encounters with Simeon and Anna.
Why these two? What are they meant to represent? First, note that they are both old – we told directly that Anna is 84 years old, and legend holds that Simeon was 112! I think they are meant to represent the long-standing and faithful tradition of Judaism, again a reminder that Jesus is within the tradition of Judaism, and not and outside antagonist.
Both Simeon and Anna personify faith. Simeon has waited to see the Messiah. We don’t know how long he has waited, but it feels like a lifetime. And Anna has never left the temple. And in this story each communicates a specific message. Theologian John Carroll says, “Simeon brings into sharp focus the character of Israel’s hopes now rushing to fulfillment, yet cautions that not all will embrace the good news or the one who embodies it. Then Anna, equally devout and sporting the label ‘prophet,’ connects hope for Jerusalem’s liberation to this child in whom God is fulfilling ancient promises.”[iv]
They remind me of the work we began last week at our Annual Meeting: The work of storytelling. If you were able to be at last week’s meeting, you know that I introduced our year of storytelling, which this new pulpit hanging will remind us of all year. And then I asked you to pair up, and tell one another stories, with the only requirement being the inclusion of the phrase, “and that’s when I knew I had to…”
Out of this morning’s story, what do you suppose was the conclusion of that sentence for Simeon and Anna? I am imagining that Simeon might have said something like, “I waited all my life for the Messiah. I was starting to believe that I might never see him. But God had promised me that I would see the Messiah before I die. I just happened into the temple that day. (Some say it was the Holy Spirit that brought me there – maybe that’s true.) And then I saw them. That ragtag family—and the child, who I knew was the Promised One. I could hardly believe the moment had come, but I knew it was him as sure as I know myself. I took that baby in my arms, and I looked into his eyes, and I saw the promise of God! And that’s when I knew I had to sing my song…”
And what story might Anna have told? “I have been so faithful to God promise—so faithful that I lived in the Temple! Mine was a life of prayer and fasting. I was looking for something; I just wasn’t sure what exactly. But when I saw that child, suddenly I knew. That’s when I knew that I was a prophet! From that day on, I went from praying in the corner, to proclaiming the hope embodied in that child to everyone I see. I tell everyone that our salvation—our redemption—has been embodied in this boy.”
So what’s my takeaway? Today we inhabit a world in which peace and justice are as elusive as ever. We are no less in need of salvation and hope than the people of Jerusalem, living under Roman occupation 2,000 years ago. And the good news in today’s story is that God is in our midst too. Jesus is revealed to us in so many ways—in the customs and rituals of the church year, in the gift of God’s word as faithful witness to the past, and even in very real ways in our ordinary lives. God is present, and has a message and a task for each of us.
We are called to be part of the story! To listen and look first; to see Christ; to hear how God is at work in our daily lives. And then to tell our stories, as part of the story of God. We too have seen the salvation of God; who needs to hear about it?
And who knows? Like the groundhog, we might come out of our holes to sing our songs, and be scared by our own shadows, or even by the very real, very scary things that this world holds. But God is still with us. God will come to us. It might be now, or we might have to wait a bit, but the promise is true, and God is faithful.
Let us pray: God, we thank you for the witness of Simeon and Anna, who remind us of the joy of faithfulness and the hope and promise of your salvation. Help us to see you in the world today, and to sing our songs, to tell our stories, to step out in witness to your love. For you are our light and our glory, and to you we give praise, now and always. Amen.
[i] Facebook entry on “Episcopalians of Facebook” page. Accessed 01/31/20.
[ii] Moore, Joy J., http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4361&fbclid=IwAR3kkYItJZnGtdd1omy_EGpezDgPosFcLO8NNy06Vh3aKXvolhTLsch2Spw, accessed 01/31/2020.
[iii] Moore, Joy J., http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4361&fbclid=IwAR3kkYItJZnGtdd1omy_EGpezDgPosFcLO8NNy06Vh3aKXvolhTLsch2Spw, accessed 01/31/2020.
[iv] Carroll, John T. Feasting on the Gospels: Luke Volume I, Cynthia A. Jarvis and E. Elizabeth Johnson, editors. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014, p. 51.