The Presentation of the Lord: “ante faciem omnium populorum” (2 February)

Exactly 40 days after Christmas, Joseph and Mary return to the Temple for her ritual purification and for the child’s consecration to God, as stipulated in the Law of Moses. Today, the Feast of the Presentation (known also as Candlemas and the Purification of Mary), we see a brief flash of Christmas glory. In the traditional Calendar, the Presentation completes the entire cycle known as “Christmastide”, which begins on the first Sunday of Advent and lasts until now. Today we also change our seasonal Marian antiphon, transitioning from Christmastide’s Alma Redemptoris Mater to Ave Regina Caelorum, which will accompany us until Easter.  As if to remind us of the joy of Bethlehem, our new Marian antiphon has us singing these wonderful words to the Blessed Mother:

Salve, radix! Salve, porta
Ex qua mundo Lux est orta!

Indeed, Mary is this radix, the root of Jesse, from which will spring the Christ (cf. Isaiah 11:1); truly she is, as the Litany of Loreto calls her, the Gate of Heaven through which the Light of the world arises. The Son whom she bore is truly the consummation of the Law and prophets, the “great light” which shines in the darkness. As during Christmas and the Epiphany, we recall the motif of “light” as we return to St. Luke’s infancy narratives. As the Gospel recounts for us, Simeon was a devout, righteous Jew, filled with the Holy Spirit, who was promised that he would not die until he had seen the Christ.  In Jesus, the Lord’s promise to Simeon is fulfulled, and so today, we hear the Canticle of Simeon, known famously by its Latin incipit Nunc dimittis according to Jerome’s masterful translation of the Bible.

Dismiss now thy servant, O Lord, according to thy Word in peace,
For mine eyes have seen thy salvation
Which thou hast shown in the face of all peoples–
A light of revelation to the Gentiles
And the glory of thy people Israel. (Luke 2:29-32)

Again, as during the Epiphany, we rediscover the idea that the salvation of God is for all peoples, for he has shown it to their faces. Yet not everybody knows this salvation, and even less follow this path. How can Simeon say that salvation has been shown to all peoples?

The story of the Magi teaches us that a discernible wisdom based in divine reason (Logos) points in veiled ways to God. The cosmos boasts of an inherent sacramentality, and all human wisdom, even that of the pagans who knew not the faith of Israel, contains within it some kernel of truth waiting to find fulfillment. By the time of Christ, even Graeco-Roman philosophy had advanced to a stage where it recognized the existence of some all-powerful unity–which even they called Deus, God– that governed the actions of the various deities, although the consummation of this insight in Christian theology would come centuries later. An affinity between pagan Greek philosophy of logos and the Jewish wisdom literature took form years earlier, an effect of increased contact between the two cultures which culminated in the production of the Septuagint. God is in the world, and he can be found; Greece and Rome acknowledged him in an imperfect way without the direct revelation enjoyed by the Jews, as did the Zoroastrians (of which the Magi probably were). Of course, both in the “eastern lands” of the Magi and in Graeco-Roman culture, this acknowledgement of a One God was by no means universal, and it was discerned only by a few. What separates the Magi and the wise philosophers from the majority of people in those times was this: these few prudent souls actively sought the Truth.

Yes, Christ is the Light of Nations and he has shone in the darkness, but even when he appeared, only a few people knew about his arrival. Innkeepers shut their doors to the Holy Family. Mary gave birth while the world lay asleep in “heavenly peace”; later, she would return to that town from where no good thing was thought to arise (John 1:46). The Magi beat Herod’s best Jewish scholars to the realization that the Messiah was born. On today’s feast, in the heart of Jerusalem itself, only two elderly people– Simeon the Just and Anna the Prophetess– recognized the Lord’s true presence in his holy Temple. Simeon “was righteous and devout, awaiting the consolation of Israel,” while Anna, a widower, devoted herself as a spouse of the Lord, “worshipping day and night with fasting and prayer” (Luke 2:25,37). While the rest of the population was swept up in the worldly hustle and bustle associated with Caesar’s census (Luke 2:1-3), Simeon and Anna kept their eyes on the Lord, waiting with eager expectation the appearance of God’s Anointed. They too sought the Truth, and they found him in the Temple as an meek and humble offering to God.

Simeon, filled with the Holy Spirit and holding in his arms the Truth incarnate, makes a prophetic utterance: “Behold, this child is destined for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be contradicted (and you yourself [Mary] a sword will pierce) so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.” A sign of contradiction indeed he became– through his death came eternal life; an execution for criminals became the path to freedom; “he saved others, yet he cannot save himself”. We cannot imagine with what sadness these words returned to the Virgin’s mind as she knelt at the foot of the Cross. Yet she did not protest nor cry against God, but, as Luke was fond of saying, “Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart” (2:19,57). She too, like her son, was like a lamb led to slaughter and a sheep before shearers– silent, opening not her mouth (Isaiah 53:7).

As we should always remember, the Incarnation inherently points to the Paschal Mystery. Even in the happy occasion of the ritual cleansing and consecration to the Lord, Simeon is ever mindful that Mary, her child, and indeed all of Israel will be pierced by many swords along the rocky path to redemption. Even she who was conceived without the sin of Adam is not preserved from the bitter trials of earthly life. On the Feast of the Presentation, we present ourselves to God; like Mary and her son, we remind ourselves of the trials that we will inevitably face on life’s sojurn. Like Simeon and Anna, we actively seek the Truth, discerning him in signs great and small, giving thanks and praise to the Father who has bestowed on us a life of freedom, that our love for him might be sincere and true. May we never waver from our pursuit of the Truth, so that when the last of life’s swords has pierced our hearts, may we close our eyes, confident in the consolation which comes from God; and in union with our predecessors in the faith, at the hour of death, may we solemnly declare with humble devotion:

Nunc dimittis servum tuum, Domine, secundum Verbum tuum in pace:
Quia viderunt oculi mei salutare tuum,
Quod parasti ante faciem omnium populorum–
Lumen ad revelationem Gentium
Et gloriam plebis tuae Israel. Amen.

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