The Rev’d. N.J.A. Humphrey
Saint Stephen’s Church, Providence
Hebrews 2:14-18; Luke 2:22-40
On this great feast, one hardly knows where to look. For one thing, it has so many names: the Presentation of Our Lord Jesus Christ in the Temple, a.k.a. the Purification of the Virgin Mary, a.k.a. the Meeting of Christ with Simeon, a.k.a. Candlemas. But in most of the United States, a local commemoration takes precedence, the feast of that venerable hermit, St. Philip of Punxsutawney, Confessor, a.k.a. Groundhog Day.
Surprisingly, there is a connection between Candlemas and Groundhog Day. According to groundhog.org, your source for all things groundhog, “if a groundhog emerges from hibernation to see its own shadow, the groundhog will take this as a sign of six more weeks of winter, and return to its burrow. Early spring arrives if it doesn’t see its shadow, causing the groundhog to remain above ground. The legend of Groundhog Day is based on an old Scottish couplet: ‘If Candlemas Day is bright and clear, there’ll be two winters in the year.’”
February 2nd is a day called by so many names, filled with so many traditions; from candles to groundhogs, this feast is a veritable smorgasbord of meanings. With so many meaningful traditions associated with Candlemas, what shall we look at? Will we pop our heads up and look around, only to see our own shadows? Or will the light of Christ illumine this cold winter’s night? Thankfully, we have the Scriptures to look to for illumination; let us look, then, at where the people of these readings were looking:
The prophet Malachi looks to God’s sudden appearance in the temple, to One who will purify God’s servants “that they may offer an offering in righteousness.” The psalmist proclaims, “Behold, O God our defender, and look upon the face of thine anointed.” The author of the epistle to the Hebrews speaks of Jesus as a merciful and faithful high priest before God who will “free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death.” In Luke, the Evangelist shows us Mary and Joseph, who are merely looking to do for Jesus “according to that which is said in the law of the Lord.”
But then we meet Simeon and Anna, each of whom is looking for something very specific. Simeon is described by the Evangelist as “just and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel.” For her part, when Anna sees Jesus, “she spake of him to all them that looked for redemption in Jerusalem.”
When Simeon beholds the infant Jesus, one simple fact becomes abundantly clear: that he can die in peace, for he has beheld God’s salvation. This infant is at once the sacrifice and the high priest, the God who suddenly comes to his temple and the Lord’s Anointed. He is the radical revelation of something New and the fulfillment of the Old. In Jesus, Simeon sees the fulfillment of the Holy Spirit’s promise, and he is, quite simply, freed from “servitude through fear of death.” From that moment, even with the Romans occupying the Promised Land, Israel is no longer enslaved—indeed, Simeon sings out that all the nations of the earth are freed, by this one child, freed not simply from any oppressive regime, but from that very thing that oppresses everyone upon earth: the fear of death. Therefore, we who look upon this great event of Christ’s Presentation in the Temple may join in Simeon’s song of thanksgiving, and know ourselves to be free from the fear of death, both now and for all eternity.
This is indeed a great mystery, greater even than the mystery of how a groundhog can predict six more weeks of winter. But we can look upon this mystery and take away one thing: that in the very fact of Jesus’ sharing of flesh and blood with us, we, too, can be freed from slavery and the fear of death—a mystery that goes to the very heart of the human condition.
When Simeon beheld Christ, he beheld the Light of the world, a Light that casts no shadow. Beholding that shadowless Light, he was freed from his own shadow, the fear of that endless winter known as Death.
On this great feast of Candlemas, may the light of Christ so shine on you that your shadow is nowhere to be seen, your winter is turned to spring, and your song is Simeon’s.