By Christopher L. Webber
Candlemas, Purification, Presentation. This is a day with at least three titles and at least three figures vying for attention. Well, “vying for attention” is an exaggeration; two of the three never say a word. What or who is this day about? Is it Simeon, or Mary, or – just possibly – Jesus?
If you ask the question that way, the answer seems pretty obvious. It’s got to be Jesus. But then you miss the richness of the other central figures. And, after all, Jesus is still a very small baby and not yet preaching or healing or drawing the crowds.
This time there are two others. There’s Mary, of course. You can’t have a baby without a mother. But this mother is always so quiet, so self-effacing. Her role here, as so often, is simply to bring Jesus with her. Motherhood is not just nine months. Ask any mother. The second nine months are probably more demanding than the first. And what does it take to live nine months with a teenager? Motherhood is a life-long role, and it’s always other-centered. A mother who does it for her own fulfillment – and especially today there are those who do – is something less than a mother. Mother is the one who cares about you more than herself, even when you are long grown up and gone away. “Are you taking care of yourself?” “You look too thin.” Motherhood continues. So Mary is there for Jesus. A role model for all of us. Do we bring a concern for Jesus with us daily? Are we centered on him or on ourselves? A good deal of contemporary religiosity is about us, about me, about my feelings, not the needs of Jesus in the world around me. Mary is always a better model.
Then there’s Simeon: This is his one scene, his whole long life leads up to this one big moment: to take Jesus in his arms and make a prophecy. “Things,” he prophecies, “will never be the same.” So Simeon is also a useful role model. Have we really taken hold of Jesus, held him close? And do we really understand how our lives have to be changed when we do hold him close? So many churches today seem to be offering Jesus as a personal pacifier. But that’s not it. It’s about change, “the rise and fall of many,” and a sword that pierces the heart.
It’s also about light: light that reveals. Light always shows up more than we really want to see and when the light of the glory of God appears, fear is a standard reaction. The shepherds were “terrified,” Isaiah said, “Woe is me!” Ezekiel fell on his face. Light reveals who we really are and we’d rather not know. There are high crimes and misdemeanors to be investigated in Wall Street and Washington, but the odds are against any full revelation. We have all played a part in giving permission for what happened. So we avoid the light. St. John tells us that we have “loved darkness rather than light” (3: 19). But Simeon embraces the light. Would we dare to do that?
Through all of this, the baby does what babies do. He lies there, not saying a word, and yet drawing all attention to himself. Simeon is there simply to have that moment with Jesus and to say what needs to be said. Mary is there for Jesus: “to do for him what the law requires.” It’s all about him, but he says nothing, does nothing, let’s others act and speak for him.
And this is still the point, isn’t it? God respects our freedom too much to come charging in with an agenda: Do this, don’t do that. Mary was there to fulfill the law, and someone needs to do that, but Simeon only wanted to hold the baby and praise God. The Eastern Church centers attention on that by calling the day Hypapante – the “meeting” of Jesus and Simeon.
The traditional Western titles of the day center on Mary and Jesus: The Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary or the Presentation of Our Lord Jesus Christ in the Temple. I have no quarrel with either; neither Jesus nor Mary can ever be honored enough. But doesn’t Simeon deserve a day as well? To live out a long life always focused forward, always waiting for the moment when you can hold this baby and be satisfied, when you can come to the light unafraid: that’s a role model we can all hold up for ourselves and for others. It’s about meeting Jesus and standing unafraid in that light.
Maybe, come to think of it, Candlemas is the right name for this day. Simeon would not have wanted his name on the day that was memorable for Jesus’ coming, but Candlemas puts the emphasis in the right place. It was light that Simeon spoke of, and the true light that he saw: “a light to enlighten the nations,” a light the whole world still needs to see.
The Rev. Christopher L. Webber is the author of many books and articles. He lives in Sharon, Connecticut.