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Feb. 2: Candlemas – The Feast of the Presentation of Jesus

Thoughts and a song for a somewhat subversive feast. – by Steve Bell

Today the church celebrates the Feast of the Presentation of Jesus (the light of the world) otherwise known as Candlemas (see Luke 2:22-40).

The story recalls when Mary and Joseph took Jesus to be presented for consecration in the temple 40 days after his birth (as required by the law of Moses.) At the temple, they are met by Simeon, an elder priest, who had been longing to see the “consolation of Israel” and who immediately and ecstatically recognized in this child a “light for the revelation to the Gentiles” (a curious reference to the religiously excluded) and “the glory of Israel!”

The text says that for the child’s consecration Mary and Joseph brought a sacrificial offering of two turtle doves (a concession to the five shekels otherwise required) which reveals the poverty of the couple and therefore, something about the child in their care—a long-awaited saviour who, rather than appearing in royal majesty, unexpectantly condescends in humble solidarity to our own plane of vulnerability and need.

Holly Hearnon writes of a striking contrast which, perhaps, has cautioning parallels in our own day:

The saviour of the world is born in a stable, while another ‘saviour’ of the world, i.e. Ceasar, sits on a throne in Roman splendour.

Simeon’s own inner vision perceives divine light in the child Jesus. But the elder sage also appreciates the various qualities of light such as this.

In the first and most obvious sense, light enlightens. It banishes darkness. Simeon knows this child has come as a lamp unto our feet and a light unto our path (Psalm 119:105) and so Jesus is the happy revelation of the good way that has been there all along but which has been hitherto obscured in darkness.

However, there is a dark side to light as well. Light exposes what is hidden in the shadows; not only good and safe pathways but things that are unsightly, perhaps wicked, and dangerous; things that don’t want to be exposed. Light judges because it sees, and therefore, the Seer warns that “this child is destined to cause the “falling and rising of many” as “the hearts of many will be revealed.” Given the unmasking nature of light, it should not surprise anyone that it would arouse push-back. Simeon presages Jesus as “sign that will be spoken against.”

Finally, Simeon warns Mary that “this sword will pierce your own soul too,” as if to say that choosing to love this one will come at a terrible cost. And, of course, he was right, for a cross is how divine love translates into a broken world.

There is a saying that one can get too much of a good thing. The wisdom here is that even excellent things, immoderately indulged in, can cause harm or sorrow. I once imagined this above exchange between Simeon and Mary in the light of that wisdom. I imagined Simeon saying to Mary that love is like a fine wine, which can surely gladden the heart, but taken in excess, can also lead to its breaking. However, in the case of cruciform love, the finest form there is, moderation is simply not recommended.

The song below (click to listen) was my attempt to express that imagined exchange:

Music by Steve Bell / Lyric by Steve Bell and Jamie Howison (2001)
From the album: Waiting for Aidan

Maria I’ll tell you right now
My old heart is finished and full
This child that you bring
That my eyes have seen
He’s the glory of Israel
He’s gonna tear your heart out
Even after you’ve loved so well

Love is like a fine wine that you take by the fire
It rolls on the tongue and it gladdens the heart
But what we’ve learned from the reckless
Who can’t get enough
It’s gonna break your heart
You know there’s such a fine line between comfort and pain
Love criss-crosses over it again and again
But your options are loveless, so don’t be afraid
Just know before you start
Lady, that’s how it works
Love is a sorrow for connoisseurs

You may not believe it right now
I don’t understand it myself
But an old man can make
Mysterious claims
Some things we just know and we tell
He’s gonna tear your heart out
Even after you’ve loved so well

Love is like a fine wine…

Oh don’t you get it
I’m trying to explain
Sorrow is not the saddest thing
Don’t be offended
Let it sink in
Sometimes the best is hidden in
This strange, strange cross
Love is gain and love is loss

Love is like a fine wine…

See also Malcolm Guite’s reflections and sonnet for this day.