Fulfilling the Law In Every Sense
by Rev. Joseph M. Rampino
Reprinted with permission of "The Arlington Catholic Herald"
To Sunday Gospel Reflections Index
Luke writes to explain that
Christ came to save everyone.
When the days were completed for their purification according to the law of Moses, they took him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord, just as it is written in the law of the Lord. Every male that opens the womb shall be consecrated to the Lord, and to offer the sacrifice of a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.
Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon. This man was righteous and devout, awaiting the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit the he should not see death before he had seen the Christ of the Lord. He came in the Spirit into the temple, and when the parents brought in the child Jesus to perform the custom of the law in regard to him, he took him into his arms and blessed God, saying: "Now, Master, you may let your servant go in peace, according to your word, for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in sight of all the peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and glory for your people Israel."
The child's father and mother were amazed at what was said about him; and Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, "Behold, this child is destined for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be contradicted - and you yourself a sword will pierce - so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed." There was also a prophetess, Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was advanced in years, having lived seven years with her husband after her marriage, and then as a widow until she was eighty-four. She never left the temple, but worshiped night and day with fasting and prayer. And coming forward at that very time, she gave thanks to God spoke about the child to all who were awaiting the redemption of Jerusalem.
When they had fulfilled all the prescriptions of the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.
This Sunday happens to coincide with one of the more vibrant celebrations of the liturgical year, the feast of the Presentation, also known as Candlemas. While the feast itself celebrates the moment when Mary and Joseph bring Jesus into the Temple to offer sacrifice, as required for each firstborn son, the imagination of the ancient Christians focused more on the words of Simeon, the righteous man whose meeting with Jesus that day was the fulfillment of the Holy Spirit’s promise.
When Simeon holds the child Jesus in his arms, he calls out to God in a prayer of thanksgiving, calling this newborn king a “light for revelation to the Gentiles.” From that prayer, the Christian tradition elaborated a feast of light on this day. On the second of February, Christians across the world would begin with a pre-dawn procession of lit candles, then celebrate a Mass at which they would bless all the new candles for the coming year. Through the whole course of the seasons, then, when a Christian would light a candle, whether to illuminate the books for holy Mass, or to burn in witness of some private prayer or vow, it would be with Christ the light, revealed to Israel in the Temple on Candlemas, in mind.
But what does it mean for us to call Christ “light?” Christ is light for us in that by him we come to see and know the Father and the otherwise obscured inner life of God; we see the world around us for what it really is; and that he is sheer goodness in the face of evil.
Simeon himself in his prayer bears witness to this first understanding when he says that Christ is a “light for revelation to the Gentiles.” It is Christ alone who could end the darkness of paganism that lay over all the peoples of the earth, showing by his words and deeds, and in fact, by his very being, the face of the one God. While the various nations had reached out for God through myth, philosophy and ritual, they could not, under their own power, successfully grasp God, who is infinitely beyond human comprehension. Only when the “Word was made flesh and dwelt among us,” could we reach the kingdom of heaven. God had to come down to our level, as one like us in everything but sin, so that through a human face and human words, we could understand heavenly things.
Once he did convey to us that heavenly illumination, he gave to us the power to see the world the way he does, valuing what he values. This is the definition of enlightenment, to see the world as God sees it. Having received this capacity in baptism, and nourishing it by continuing to grow closer to Jesus through a life of holiness, the Christian strengthens this second sight, and exchanges worldly values like power, wealth, honor, achievement, relaxation and reputation, for heavenly ones — above all, love of God and each other for God’s sake.
Above all, as God in the flesh, the irruption of the divine presence in our world, Christ is the definitive light of goodness and might in the face of all evil. At the end of time, we know that he will “like lightning … light up the sky from one end to another,” putting an end to the shadows of evil and showing all things for what they truly are in a great judgment of illumination. Today, though he appears as a child in the arms of old Simeon, already “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”