Preparation and purification

Feast of the Presentation

Today, you might have realized, is a big day, an important day on the calendar, a long-awaited day of much preparation and moment. That’s right – it’s a feast day of the church. For all of you church calendar junkies out there, this feast day is one of only three feast days in the year that take precedence of the usual Sunday observance – meaning that because the date February 2 falls on a Sunday, we celebrate this feast rather than 4 Epiphany as we would otherwise have done. So you know it’s important! It’s a feast with several names: Candlemas, the Presentation of Our Lord Jesus Christ in the Temple, the Meeting of the Lord, the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary. And it’s Groundhog Day. And – ‘something else’ Sunday too, but I can’t recall what.

Here’s all the things this feast day encompasses: the blessing of candles in church, the churching of women, the gospel story we just heard of Simeon and Anna. Finding out the weather forecast for the next several weeks: ‘If Candlemas Day be fair and bright, Winter will have another flight. If Candlemas Day be shower and rain, Winter is gone and will not come again.’ A rhyme which predates Punxsutawney Phil by centuries, but the same idea. On the pagan calendar, this day was a ‘cross-quarter’ day in the cycle of the year, the day exactly halfway between the Winter Solstice and the spring Equinox. It’s Imbolc, the Feast of St Brigid in the Celtic tradition. It is a day for purification, the day to take out and burn the Yuletide greens (so if you haven’t done anything with your Christmas tree yet, today’s the day); the day to carry torches in procession around the city to purify the air, as in old Rome; the day to carry torches around the fields to purify and invigorate them for the coming growing season in Ireland; and, the day to start plowing, literally purifying and preparing the earth. And so America is honoring this day with a football game to celebrate all this – its own sort of ritual of purification and hope, I suppose. I’m supposed to be non-partisan, but I did grow up in Seattle, you know. (Go Hawks.)

It’s not hard to see how the several threads of tradition intertwine today. Purification even feels right for this time of year – it’s beginning to feel like spring even without much rain, and it makes you want to open the windows, let the fresh air in, do some spring cleaning to clear away winter’s grime. Purification, preparation for what is to come, light and darkness – and all of this is mixed in the story of Jesus, his parents, and two old people in the temple.

Two separate events of Jesus’ early life are brought together in this story: the purification of the mother and the presentation of the child, both required by the Law. The firstborn son was presented in the Temple with a ‘redemption price’ according to Hebrew law. Also according to the Law, a woman had to be purified after childbirth in order to offer worship in the Temple and return to society again. A woman was considered unclean for a certain number of days after childbirth – forty days after a boy child, sixty days after a girl child – until she performed the required ritual sacrifice and was made ‘clean’ or ‘purified’ – all of this part of a system of purity that classed women as often unclean for various reasons, along with other categories of people. There is, of course, a power analysis to be made about all that.

But despite the problems with it, the religious foundation of the purity code around women has powerful symbolism attached to it – a woman was called unclean after childbirth because she had lost blood, and her blood meant her vitality or life force. The Hebrews believed that all life comes from God – in the first creation story in Genesis, God breathes into the newly created human body, and it lives. So to lose one’s blood or life force was to be separated from God, the source of life. A new mother, or anybody unclean through loss of blood, had to go through a ritual purification in order to be restored to God, through a ritual bath and the sacrifice of another creature, its lifeblood given to restore her life’s connection to God. In other words, the process of purification cleared away what separates a person from God, restoring life and bringing new life.

This is spring cleaning of the soul, in other words, which is where this feast becomes something more than just a collection of arcane rituals of agriculture and medieval thought. Because every one of us is in need of that kind of purification. Every one of us is in need of God, the source of our life – and yet even when we recognize that need, which many don’t, we often find we have drifted away, or blocked ourselves from that light, or let the connection fail. We need some way of getting things right, getting our life force renewed – being purified, in other words. It’s not easy, of course. The reading from Malachi speaks of the one who will come to purify and refine the people like a refiner’s fire purifies gold and silver – extreme heat, melting down the metal in order to destroy impurities. Or think of the tradition of plowing the field on this day – the plow uproots what is dead, destroying the unwanted growth and turning everything upside down in order to purify the soil and make way for new growth. Destruction and letting go are a part of the process. And yet the longing for fuller life is still there, even when we know what it might cost.

Which brings us to the two old people in the story. Simeon and Anna are two people who epitomize longing for God. Simeon yearned throughout his life to see the Messiah, having been promised this by the Holy Spirit, by an encounter with God long ago. So on this day he comes into the temple, ‘guided by the Spirit,’ seeking the presence of God. And he finds God there, in the baby Jesus. The song he sings, the ‘Nunc dimittis’ that is a part of the church’s evening prayer now, is a song of completion, of finding the fulfillment he had been seeking: ‘Lord, you now have set your servant free to go in peace as you have promised. For these eyes of mine have seen the Savior, and the glory of your people Israel.’ And then along comes Anna the prophet, who has been living in the temple, fasting and praying night and day for some sixty years. She too sees this child and knows him, and she tells everyone around that this is the one they have been waiting for. Anna’s and Simeon’s years of waiting, years of preparing themselves, listening to the Holy Spirit, clearing away all that could block them from God, brings them at last to the presence of God – and, with all that preparation, they know God when they see God there before them.

Our organizing core team has targeted the season of Lent as the time when we will bring back to you what we heard in our house meetings at the end of the year – what we have energy for, where the lifeblood is, and what might block us in our attempts to grow and care for the community around us. The spring cleaning process begins with noting what we have stored away in all our shelves and cupboards, taking an inventory of what there is so we can make decisions of what to keep and what to let go of – or about what to refine, where to plow up the soil and where to leave it fallow. It is a process that takes time, as Anna and Simeon show. But it leads us to seeing God, and knowing God when we see him. Which is what the purpose of our faith journey really is, as a congregation and each of us as individuals.

We are still some weeks away from Lent. But it is a good time to begin to prepare for it with this kind of inventory, a noticing of your own habits of thought and action. Where do I spend my time? What really matters to me? Does how I spend my time and energy match up with what I value? Or does it clutter up the space and keep me from living the full life Jesus promised each of us? Pause and notice in the midst of your day; spend a little time on this in your prayer; write a thought or two in your journal. May the process lead you, and all of us, to knowing God more deeply – so that like Anna and Simeon we might be at peace, and tell the world who God is. Amen.