The day of the Lord’s Nativity is known as “Christmas.” Forty days later, the day of the Lord’s Presentation in the Temple is known as “Candlemas.” The Light which was born into a dark world and manifested to the kings through a star, now fills the Temple as a “light to the nations, and the glory of His people Israel.” On this day, it is the Church’s tradition to bless the candles used throughout the year during the Mass. Every time we celebrate the Mass, we echo the Presentation, as the altar servers with the priest and ministers process into the sanctuary, carrying the candles which represent the presence of our Lord and the light of faith.
Today, in a culture that fails to honor life as a sacred gift from God – where people do as they please – Catholics imitate Mary and Joseph, whose lives are governed by the holy Laws of God. Five times, the Gospel today stresses how Mary and Joseph were acting “according to the law of Moses.” Mary and Joseph teach us the correct way to live, which is not according to our own law and whatever we please, but we must live in obedience to the laws of God, with the single purpose of glorifying him.
In the Law of Moses, God commanded the people to offer a sacrifice of redemption for their firstborn sons. The oldest son had special duties and obligations within the family. He was the bearer of the family name, and would inherit the family estate, continuing the sacred heritage of particular family, clan, or tribe. The firstborn son also belonged to God. God commanded Abraham to offer his firstborn son Isaac to him. Later, when the Pharaoh dared to persecute the Israelites in Egypt, whom God regarded as his firstborn son among the nations, He slew the firstborn sons of Egypt.
The Israelites always understood that one of their children, the firstborn, the most important, had to be given to God. Thus the Law commanded that he be Presented in the Temple on the 40th day and a sacrifice of redemption be offered. In the case of Mary and Joseph who were poor, the price of redemption was “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.” It may have been a simple offering, but it was deeply important and symbolic.
When I was young, sodas still came in glass bottles, and when you were done you could get 5 cents back on the empty bottle. It was called “redemption.” You take the bottle back to the store to be “redeemed:” Coca-cola would redeem or “buy back” the bottle from you so it could be used again.
Catholics are no longer bound by the law of Moses, because Christ has fulfilled the law. But in the sacrament of baptism, we still proclaim the same truth: every child belongs first to God, and secondly to the parents. Catholics still try keep the custom of baptizing infants within a few weeks of birth. In my own case, I was born on November 7th. Within 40 days, November 25th, my parents brought me to the Church for baptism, for Redemption.
When the infant Jesus is brought to the Temple, the old man Simeon and Anna speak prophetic words about him. Simeon proclaims him the “light of the nations, and the glory of Israel.” Simeon also prophecies that he will be a sign of contradiction that will lay bare the thoughts of many hearts, and that Mary’s own heart will be pierced by a sword. Jesus’ life will fulfill God’s plan.
Because they lived that way, following Joseph and Mary who were obedient to the law, all their children were raised to live holy vocations, whether through priesthood, marriage and family, or the single life. And each of my siblings has been in some way a surprise, a “sign of contradiction” to the world. I think of my younger brother with his seven beautiful children: there would not be seven beautiful children, six girls and a boy, if they had followed the ways of the world, instead of seeing every child as a sign and gift of God. I think of my older brother, who raised two beautiful children in difficult circumstances, who now are starting families of their own. I think of my other brother, not called to marriage, who was the first in our family to consider the priestly vocation, and now lives single, in service to the poor and mentally ill. I think of my younger sister, who chose her house near the church where their children could attend school and be raised in the tradition of the Catholic faith. “Sign of contradiction.”