The encounter

Today is the 40th day of Christmas, concluding the seasons of Christmas and of the Epiphany; “Candlemas.” It commemorates the presentation of the child Jesus in the Temple at Jerusalem, with the poorest sacrifice (Joseph and Mary could not afford a lamb); and the conclusion of the 40-day cycle for the purification of His Mother, according to ancient custom. A poor Jewish couple with their firstborn, acting according to ancient Mosaic law; greeted by Anne, and by the prophetic Simeon, who utters the Nunc Dimittis:

“Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word. For mine eyes have seen thy salvation, which thou hast prepared before the face of all people; a light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel.”

I was an Anglican too many years to abandon this splendid rendering of the scripture, the third of St Luke’s great canticles (after the Magnificat and the Benedictus). The Latin is good and the Greek is better. The poetry of the words is fully necessary. They are intended to convey the poignancy of the scene, in the face of this old man, who has recognized the Christ child, to the amazement of the child’s own parents.

It was from this canticle that the Greeks named the feast, Hypapante, referring to this Encounter — this moment of recognition between the old world and the new. Tired and waiting for death, the eyes of Simeon see that nothing will be the same; standing himself at the junction of the worlds. The Messiah has come, and the whole course of history that must follow is glimpsed in the old man’s eyes, still bound in the breath of a moment to this blessed earth, and the dimension of Time. It is the canticle I read over my own father’s grave, as we committed him dust to dust.

There is, I am sure, theological significance in each of the events that combine to be celebrated within Candlemas — in the procession and the blessing of the candles. The fulfilment of that ancient law, drawn from the pages of Leviticus, is intrinsic to this. It could not possibly have been overlooked, any more than the later ministrations of John the Baptist.

But consider, just as we must the whole idea of Christ being baptized (as if He needed it), the spotless Virgin being “purified” in this case. Such ideas present a hopeless trap, at least to my dim theological mind. To my thinking they represent the very impossibility of Christ’s gift, or the gift of Christ; an impossibility as profound as the very existence of our universe, which on a human reckoning should not exist. For why should a something be instead of nothing? (Our minds understand: nothing.)

Christ has come to fulfil — the laws of Moses and the laws of the universe — but He has broken all the rules in doing so. It makes no sense that He should be here, that He should arrive — at the Temple of Jerusalem in the arms of this Mary, this Joseph, doing their best to obey ritual law, with the two turtle doves they could afford. The humility of the scene must beggar the ancient imagination — which might have accepted God coming in his glory, but not anything like this; not anything so human.

More fundamentally, the idea of the Messiah, in itself, and from its first announcement in the ancient prophecies, beggars the imagination. “That God so loved the world,” and so on. That the Author of all we know, to the ends of the earth and the end of space and time, has sent such a Gift, so personally addressed. (I almost wrote: so “colloquial.”) A Gift that will unfold through all the ages. I cannot look on it, and find it not astounding. In a sense, the story is too preposterous not to be true.

And here, in Candlemas, we see this living Gift, being presented, properly, at the Temple — as in the fulfilment of a duty; as in the fulfilment of God’s promise to Abraham. For the divine humility is accentuated in this act. God himself is presenting Himself, humbly at the Temple, in fulfilment of a vow. What kind of humility is that?

It is the humility of a Lover.