A Personal Reflection On the Presentation
The older I become the more the commemoration of the forty days after the birth of the child Jesus mean to me. Around February 2nd the Church tells how the baby was brought to the Temple by his parents. It is the climax of the Epiphany and midway between Christmas and Easter. In my days as an active parish priest we especially looked forward to this time we called Candlemas. When the world around us had long forgotten Christmas, we were turning a page in the great drama of Christ’s birth to his death on the cross.
The medieval Church building was ideally suited to the liturgical drama. On the left side of the nave was a lady chapel over which was a stained glass depiction of the manger of Bethlehem. Here the people gathered in front of a large picture of the Michael Angelo Mother and young boy to hear St. Luke’s gospel. On the right side was our large stone font with a picture of the Pieta, the mother now cradling the body of her dead son. It was here to reaffirm our own baptism that the congregation gathered holding candles singing Simeon’s words “a light to lighten the gentiles.” These Candles of the Mass were brought back again at the end of Holy week for the singing of the Exultet – the light of Christ. With singing, and prayers the Eucharist brought Epiphany to a crescendo as we turned towards Lent and Holy week.
I shall never forget these great and moving services that are part of the Christmas cycle, but it was at a later time and without the sequence of the parish liturgy, that I read a sermon by the Orthodox priest and teacher Father Alexander Schmemann. It was to be his last reflection a little more than a week before his death on the same feast that Orthodoxy calls “The Meeting”.
It is one of the most simply moving descriptions of the joy of the old man Simeon holding in his trembling elderly arms the infant child, and recognising that he had at last seen the light of the saviour, that which his entire life he had waited for. “Lord now I can depart this life in peace, I have seen the saviour. The importance of this meeting between the young mother and her baby and the partnership and wisdom of the old prophet and the woman prophetess, both waiting in expectation of the fulfilling of the Hebrew prophets is a sign of the turning from Old to New Testament where each complements the other.
Even more this is a meeting of joy of birth and the overshadowing of death, “behold a sword will pierce your heart also. These elements are revealed in the two Michael Angelo sculptures where the mother embraces the bitter and sweet, the joy and pain, and the total submission to the laws that govern human life. Both the mother Mary and the Son Jesus submitted to the limits of the human world. Neither mother nor child needed to go to the temple for purification, for she was the living temple through whom God had become man, and Jesus was true God and true man. The same truth is at work here and in the birth, the baptism by John at the river Jordan and as Jesus standing before Pilate willingly accepting the cross. It was necessary that everything that took place was in humility, obedience and love.
This day is extraordinarily special.
Fr. Geoffrey Neal