The Light Shines

A Reflection by Fr. Peter for the Presentation of the Lord, Year A.
Malachi 3:1-4 – Hebrews 2:14-18 – Luke 2:22-40.

We have finally made it to Candlemas. With today’s feast, the Christmas festival of light officially comes to an end. As we process solemnly into church, we bear blessed and lighted candles. But what do these candles signify? The lighted candles are to welcome Christ, the Light to the Gentiles, the Glory of His people and our eternal Light. Jesus is to us both Son and Sun. Through the Gospel He is the illumination of the path of our existence and the light to the nations. In our hands today is fire – a mysterious element, an overpowering reality, a force, capable of blinding us with its light. The flame of just one candle has the capacity to ignite a destructive fire like a bush fire; the divine flame, however, ignites a purifying fire that prepares us for redemption.

Malachi, the last book of the Old Testament from which today’s 1st Reading is taken, speaks of the great and terrible Day of the Lord, and compares this Day with the refiner’s fire and the fuller’s alkali. This ‘Day’ should be understood in terms of an overwhelming, awesome manifestation of God that will both refine and purify the world. Each of these substances – refiner’s fire and fuller’s alkali – possesses fearsome power. Fire is powerful enough to refine gold and silver, while alkali is powerful enough to bleach fabrics as white as snow. These are metaphors regarding the sheer power of God to purify us, and to transform us into the very best we can be. Moreover, these combine to describe the action of God upon us to remove comprehensively any power the devil wields over us. The description of refining and purifying is of the action of the Christ Himself! The 2nd Reading reminds us of the extraordinary deliverance, already accomplished once-and-for-all, that was wrought for humanity by the self-offering and death of Jesus, the Lord.

Let’s unpack the 1st Reading so that we can get to grips with it. It helps to realise that there are two messengers foretold in the 1st Reading, not one. The first will be John the Baptist, who prepares the way. The second will be ‘the messenger of the Covenant” who is Jesus. (Not John the Baptist? No, because he is not divine.)

Jesus cleansed the Temple: at the start of His ministry (Jn 2:13-15) / towards the end (according to the synoptic gospels). He said: “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up” (Jn 2:19-21). St. John the Evangelist clarifies this: “but He spoke of the temple of His body”. Zechariah 9:9 prophesies the coming of the King of Peace, who comes riding to Jerusalem not on a warhorse but on a donkey. There is only one such King associated with the Temple, with purification for salvation, and with a Covenant for the people: the Messiah! Jesus is the ‘messenger of the Covenant’. Why? Because only God can be ‘the messenger of the [divine] Covenant’. So, the fulfilment of the prophecy of Malachi is found in Christ. The Lord suddenly enters the Temple in order to offer the solely acceptable sacrifice for the purification and salvation of all mankind.

The ‘messenger of the Covenant’, the Christ, is shown at the Presentation as a 40-day-old infant, as vulnerable as the flickering flame of a candle. The candles we carry remind us of the fragility of the divine Infant. When lit, the wick can be snuffed out easily, as can our own flesh and blood. In accordance with the Law, Mary and Joseph went to the Temple to present the first-born male child to God. Here, God is presented to God: God the Son is presented to God the Father, in His own Temple, in fulfilment of His own Law. In accordance with the Law, Mary and Joseph made an offering of two pigeons. It was called a ‘sin offering’ (cf. Lev 12:8), although Mary was conceived without Original Sin, the fully divine and fully human Child was and is sinless, and Joseph in his purity was called by God to look after them both. In fulfilling the offering, Jesus allowed Himself to be integrally absorbed into our human condition from a tender age.

As tender as he was, Jesus manifested Himself as the Light to the Gentiles and the Glory of the people (cf. Is 49:6). Old Simeon, an upright and devout man who had waited all his life to witness the coming of the Messiah, was inspired by God to announce the great mission of the Child to the world. The elderly prophetess Anna, gifted with abundant wisdom and insight, spoke about the Child to those who looked forward to the deliverance of Jerusalem. Imagine, if you will, how a single candle flame can defy the darkness of a place. In Christ, we see the divine flame defying and defeating every form of darkness, spreading all over the world, purifying, refining and transforming in very personal ways. Now each individual candle, signifying our personal redemption, will be taken into our homes and communities today to enkindle in us the fire of faith and love so that we may be filled with the wisdom and grace of God. Yes, while the purifying flame of God might well be perceived as something to be feared, it is also the flame of hope, love, deliverance, peace and joy. And so, Lord, we open the doors of our hearts to You in faith, that you may enter and enlighten us with your Light. Amen. God bless you.