Given at a Solemn Mass celebrated according to Divine Worship: The Missal on the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord (Candlemas), in thanksgiving for the successful completion of the Doctorate in Canon Law.
We are gathered here this evening to celebrate the great event of the presentation of the Lord in the temple. Christ, the lumen ad revelationem gentium, has come to fulfil the promise of his Father. The narrative of his nativity comes to a close as we ourselves see the purpose of his condescension; his coming into our midst from the glories of heaven to bring salvation to man. That this takes place in the temple is itself a further sign: God continues to reveal himself to man in divine worship—the worship, ultimately, of the Most Holy and Undivided Trinity, in which we are invited to participate here in earth.
We are also gathered here to give thanks for the happy conclusion of my studies which, for almost four years, have been the reason for my stay in this city. I count it amongst the greatest blessings of my life to have had the opportunity to meet and befriend so many of you. Your presence here this evening is a great gift to me, and as I return to England to begin my new work your witness to love and faith will remain with me as one of those candles that we have just blessed; continuing to enlighten the world I inhabit, and helping me to grow to see, know, and love the person of Christ.
The subject of my studies for these past years has been, as you know, the law of the Church. It is fitting that we celebrate and give thanks for this moment on this particular feast, and most especially in the context of this form of worship given so generously by the Church as a sign of the unity for which all Christians rightly long. The law and divine worship come together in a particular way in this feast of the Presentation of the Lord, revealing to us something very significant about Christ and about our relationship with him.
First, then, Christ comes to the temple in fulfilment of the law. We know the twofold reason for this feast: the purification of our Blessed Lady, and the presentation of her firstborn son. Our Lady’s purification, forty days after the birth of the Lord, is now complete and so she dutifully arrives at the temple to offer a sacrifice in accordance with the Mosaic law. This sacrifice, in the form of the doves or pigeons spoken of in the Gospel, replaces the traditional sacrifice of a lamb because of the Holy Family’s material poverty. Yet the offering she makes, clad as ever in mystic meaning, is so much greater. Instead of a lamb it is in fact Christ himself, the true lamb and culmination of all sacrifice, that is offered.
Still more, we know the seeming futility of these gestures. As Dom Prosper Guéranger so aptly put it: “If she considered the spirit of these legal enactments, and why God required the ceremony of purification, it was evident that she was not bound to them.” Our Blessed Lady, free from every spot and stain of sin, had no need of purification because her spouse, the Holy Ghost himself, preserved her from it. Further, the offering of the firstborn son prescribed by the law of Moses in thanksgiving for the liberty of the Hebrew people did not apply to Christ, who had no need to give thanks for his ransom because he knew no sin. Despite this, Our Lady obeyed the law. As the antiphon proclaimed: “she beareth the King of the glory of the new light: she remained a Virgin, yet beareth in her arms a Son begotten before the morning star.” The Mother of God and God himself bore the humiliation of obedience to the law, precisely to confirm its importance and fulfilment. It is by obedience to God, through law and by love, that we show most fully our desire to be united with him.
Secondly, let us consider the nature of this act of obedience. The humiliation and obedience of Christ and Our Lady reveals to us also the centrality of sacrifice. We have seen that it is in the temple that the Lord reveals himself. So too it is as the sacrifice that takes away the sin of the world that he comes to us even now. Thanksgiving and purification are wrapped up in the offering of sacrifice to God; an act that goes to very heart of our nature. We are made for goodness; made for God and for his worship. So also the offering of our selves, our lives, and our goods, is a demonstration of our desire for God and for heaven.
Sacrifice—divine worship—is our duty as much as it is our joy. It stems not just from the law (though it is rightly enshrined in it), but also from love; from virtue. It is the response of one who is obedient to the law, but it must also be what we desire freely to do even if such laws did not exist. The Introit recalls this: “Like as we have heard, so have we seen in the city of our God: even upon his holy hill.” That “holy hill” is the mountain of myrrh that we ascend in the Holy Mass. Sacrifice, and in particular the supreme sacrifice of thanksgiving that is the offering of the Most Holy Eucharist—is essential to our self-understanding as individuals, and as the Mystical Body of Christ, the Church.
And if this is so, it is because worship orients us toward the kingdom of heaven. Our obedience to the law, and freewill offering of ourselves to God are, together, revealing of the beatitude toward which our lives must journey. The order and perfection of heaven is revealed through our respect and fulfilment of the law; the undimming and immeasurable love of God is revealed through our freedom channelled into his worship and adoration. Obedience and sacrifice are one in the hope for our salvation: as individuals, and the hope of salvation for all mankind. As the legal maxim goes: Salus populi suprema lex—the supreme law is the salvation of the people.
We are often surrounded by those who shirk the responsibilities and obligations of the law; who see them as a barrier to freedom in Christ; a stumbling-block to the love that flows to us from the Lord’s own heart. To fulfil the law, by its very nature, requires sacrifice; it requires an act of the will that demonstrates love. Yet that is why the fulfilment of the law, and the offering of ourselves in obedience of it, is at the heart of the Christian life. Law is nothing without love. Love is nothing without obedience; without the rigours that keep that love pure. Let this be the characteristic of our life; a witness to the perfect obedience and perfect love of Christ for our salvation, and a light to lighten the Gentiles, and to be the glory of God’s people.