It is a wonderfully complex and complicated biblical scene, and one which perhaps speaks to some of the complexities of our contemporary world. The story read in Chapel this week belongs to the great mid-winter feast sometimes known as Candlemas. Long before we defaulted to the inscrutable prognostications of rodents (Groundhog Day), there was this remarkable feast which signals the transition from the dead of winter to the hopes of spring and life. And it is a double-barrelled feast: the Presentation of Christ in the Temple commonly called the Purification of Saint Mary the Virgin; in short, a feast of Christ and Mary.
All of the Marian festivals are tagged to the feast of Christ; Mary cannot be understood apart from Christ. As Luther beautifully puts it, “Mary does not want us to come to her but to Christ through her.” Paradoxically, it was the motto, too, for the Counter-Reformation Jesuits, Ad Jesum per Mariam. It states a basic principle of Christian orthodoxy. Here the feasts and festivals of Mary and Christ meet and are one.
Candlemas marks the fortieth day after Christmas and signals the transition from the light of Christmas to the life of Easter but only through the Passion of Christ which is also anticipated in this story. Candlemas is really all about the meeting of cultures, of ages, of peoples, of religions and hopes. For the Eastern Christian world it is known as “hypapante”, meaning ‘meeting.’ Here in the Temple in Jerusalem, aged Simeon watches and waits for the Lord’s Christ whom he beholds in the infant Christ carried in the arms of Mary and Joseph. He breaks forth into the Nunc Dimittis, the evening canticle of the Church’s liturgy. “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 peoples; / to be a light to lighten the Gentiles/ and to be the glory of thy people Israel.”
Such is the meeting of the Old Covenant and what will become the New Covenant. Here is the meeting of old and young, of man and woman, of God and man. His words speak about Christ but he also points to Christ’s passion and to the role of Mary in human redemption. “This child is set for the fall and rising again of many in Israel; and for a sign which shall be spoken against; (yea, a sword shall pierce through thine own soul also) that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.” A profound meeting, indeed.
Lately in Chapel, we have been thinking about the meeting of cultures rather than the clash of cultures, about learning how to engage one another face to face respectfully and about learning from one another, about learning how to live together. Our upcoming culture fair is not simply about showcasing various cultures so much as it is about the sharing of one another’s culture. Candlemas, too, was traditionally celebrated with the sharing of the light, light being passed from candle to candle. Without the sharing of the light, there is only darkness.
Mary belongs, too, to the meeting of cultures. She is mentioned more times in the Qur’an, for instance, than in New Testament. Jesus is constantly called Jesus the son of Mary in the Qur’an. Mary in the New Testament and the Christian traditions encapsulates a great range of outstanding women figures from the Jewish Scriptures. She is, theologically speaking, the Theotokos, the God-bearer, but she is far more than simply some sort of role model for women. Christians are all called to be Marian, to be like Mary. She embodies the radical truth and good of human nature considered in itself. Central to that is the idea of being defined by the word of God. Her “be it unto me according to thy word” is here echoed wonderfully by the aged Simeon’s “according to thy word.” Such is an active acquiescence to the will of God in whom we find our end and our good.
Rather than the clash and collision of cultures, Candlemas suggests the meeting of cultures and peoples in which things are learned about God and about ourselves. It may move us to tears in the awareness of our faults and failings or in deep compassion for the suffering and pain of others. In our meetings with one another something of the thoughts of our hearts are revealed and made known. Mary will feel the pain of Christ’s crucifixion, as it were, because it can only happen in the flesh that he has from her. Such is her participation in his Passion. But Candlemas also signals the idea of taking delight in one another, of finding good in one another, and in seeking the good of one another.
Complementing the Candlemas reading in Chapel this week is the story about the double healing of the leper and the servant of the Centurion, the one from within Israel, the other from without. There, too, the power of God’s Word to reach out and touch and heal both those who are near and those from afar is emphasized and shown. “Speak the word only and my servant shall be healed.” It is all “according to thy word,” according to the divine purpose for our humanity signaled in the meetings of the Epiphany.
Such meetings are those in which there is the sharing of things which belong to the radical truth and dignity of our humanity. In such meetings we become more fully who we truly are. Such things are light and life.
(Rev’d) David Curry
Chaplain, English & ToK teacher
Chair of the Department of Religion and Philosophy
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