This homily was given at Old Saint John, Silver Spring, Maryland:
The thirteenth century text of ‘The Golden Legend’ tells a beautiful story about today. A noblewoman was distraught, being unable to celebrate the feast by attending Holy Mass. As she went into her chapel, simply to pray before the altar, she fell asleep and witnessed a vision of “a Priest, a Deacon and a Subdeacon, all revested, going to the altar as for to say Mass”. As the angels, also present, began to sing the Introit of the Mass, she realized that the Deacon and Subdeacon were in fact Saint Laurence and Saint Vincent, and the Priest was Christ himself. As she was given her candle – as you were this morning but, in her case, by an angel – she awoke to find herself still holding it as a memento of the Mass offered, in order that she need not go without. The Legend recounts that, “all the days of her life after she kept that piece of that candle much preciously, like an holy relic, and all they that were touched therewith were guerished and healed of their maladies and sicknesses”.
Our candles – blessed, borne, and burned in celebration of today’s feast – also hold great significance, even if they were not given into our hands by an angel. They are consecrated, set apart for the Lord, in order that a particular purpose be fulfilled. We may leave them here before an image of the saints, or take them to our homes to burn near the bedside of the sick as a sign of the eternal life won for us. The Church, on the feast of Saint Blaise tomorrow, will use them to bless the faithful’s throats that, by the intercession of that holy bishop, we might be given good health.
As with the two other great blessings in the Church year – the palms and the ashes – there is a penitential character to the blessing of candles, and in former times the Church clothed herself in violet for the ceremonies, changing into white only for the Mass. This penitence is echoed in the antiphon, Exsurge Domine adjuva nos, et libera nos propter nomen tuum (Arise, O Lord, help us, and, for thy name’s sake, deliver us). And yet, as on Palm Sunday, our hearts yearn for what is to come. Our procession proceeds into the temple of the Lord. In the words of the Introit, Suscepimus, Deus, misericordiam tuam in medio Templi tui (We have received thy mercy, O God, in the midst of thy temple).
And whom do we find in that temple? First, Our Lady, handmaid of the Lord, fulfilling the law by offering her son through the priest to God the Father, together with the sacrifice of two doves. In fact, the customary sacrifice for purification was a single dove and a lamb, but the material poverty of the Holy Family meant they were able only to offer these two birds.
Secondly, we find the aged and frail Simeon. His lifelong desire to see the Christ – the anointed of the Lord – is fulfilled in this encounter, and so he resigns himself to death. Simeon recognizes what the sacred liturgy recounts to us: Senex Puerum portabat, Puer autem senem regebat (The old man carried the Child, but the Child guided the old man). For this venerable priest the sacrifices of the old dispensation – of bulls and goats; of doves and lambs – find their culmination in the Messiah whom he embraces. Announced by Saint John the Baptist, the sacrificial Lamb of God whose blood takes away the sins of the world is in Simeon’s own hands, and his fidelity to God’s providence leads him to recognize in the flesh the Christ foretold by the prophets. He sees in the Christ child the sacrificial lamb which Our Lady and Saint Joseph were unable to offer themselves. And so it is filled with joy that Simeon proclaims, “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”.
Thirdly, we see the Christ child himself. Forty days after his birth in a Bethlehem stable he is brought to his father’s house to inaugurate his earthly ministry. Now begin thirty years hidden from the world as the son of Joseph before he completes his saving work, revealed as the Son of Man lifted high on the cross in fulfillment of the sacrifice prefigured by these very rites.
Finally we see ourselves, standing in this temple of the Lord. Saint Anselm of Canterbury tells us that the wax of the candles we hold – the fruit of the virginal bee – represents the Lord’s flesh; the wick, which is within the wax itself, his soul; the flame, which burns atop, his divinity. So we too participate in this ritual. With Our Lady we present Christ to the Father in the admirable Eucharistic sacrifice. With Simeon we recognize Christ as the culmination of our desire. With Christ we turn to the world in order to offer the salvation he brings, and so fulfill the vocation given us in baptism – our own presentation in the temple. May the rich ceremonies of this feast stir our hearts to fulfill this high calling, and may Christ the light of the nations shine forth from our lives, that as he was presented this day on earth, so we may be presented one day in heaven, and so see for ourselves the salvation he has prepared before the face of all people.