Today is one of the rare days when we can celebrate the Presentation of our Lord on the exact day is has always been observed in the church, February 2nd. It is a time when we remember the day Jesus was presented at the Temple in Jerusalem by Mary and Joseph in order to officially induct him into Judaism.
Under Mosaic law as found in the Torah, a mother who had given birth to a boy was considered unclean for seven days; moreover, she was to avoid the temple for another 33 days after. Therefore, today corresponds to the day on which Mary, according to Jewish law found in the book of Leviticus, should have attended a ceremony of ritual purification. Our Gospel of Luke tells us that Mary was purified according to the religious law, followed by Jesus’ presentation in the Jerusalem temple, and this explains the formal names given to the festival, The feast of the presentation of our Lord.
This holy day has other names in Christianity as well. ( A hint- I talked about it at our Children’s sermon today). A common name for this day been referred to as Candlemas. In church circles, it is widely regarded as the end of the Christmas Season, 40 days after the Nativity to be exact. On Candlemas, many Christians also bring their candles to church, where they are blessed and then used for the rest of the year. For Christians, these blessed candles serve as a symbol of Jesus Christ, who referred to Himself as the Light of the World.
In Poland the feast is called (Feast of Our Lady of Thunder ). This name refers to the candles that are blessed on this day, since these blessed candles are lit during (thunder) storms and placed in windows to ward off additional storms.
This day also has also combined sacred and secular traditions for many Christians. In Scotland, and in much of northern England until the 18th century, Candlemas was one of the traditional days when quarterly rents were due for payment, as well as a time for various other business transactions, including the hiring of servants.
Folklore plays a part in Candlemas. In the United Kingdom, good weather at Candlemas is taken to indicate severe winter weather later: The saying goes like this:
“If Candlemas Day is clear and bright, / winter will have another bite. / If Candlemas Day brings cloud and rain, / winter is gone and will not come again.”
I am sure an American Folklore tradition came to mind. In the United States, Candlemas coincides with Groundhog Day (which is today). You can find reference to this PA German custom in the library at our own Franklin and Marshall College. The reference implies that Groundhog Day may have come from a German-American Candlemas tradition:
Last Tuesday, the 2nd, was Candlemas day, the day on which, according to the Germans, the Groundhog peeps out of his winter quarters and if he sees his shadow he pops back for another six weeks nap, but if the day be cloudy he remains out, as the weather is to be moderate.
Who would have thought Groundhog’s Day has ties to the Feast of the presentation of our Lord!
It is hard to believe that we even have a pseudo-holiday called Groundhog’s Day – it doesn’t quite fit in with President’s Day, Independence Day, let along our high holy days of Christmas and Easter!
But then again, I think the reference of Groundhog’s Day to our Feast day of the presentation of Jesus fits perfectly today. Our Gospel reading focuses on ordinary 2 people, an elderly man named Simeon and a widow named Anna. Two pious people who were praying at the Temple; two pious people who would have been considered in the lower class of society. Two people who weren’t seen as high holy rollers, only ordinary Jews who prayed outside the temple; unlike the religious elite who were able to worship in the Holy of Holies – the most sacred part of the temple.
Groundhog’s day doesn’t seem to have the same importance as our day in which we celebrate Independence from Britain or even our day of giving thanks the fourth Thursday in November. No, Groundhog’s day is just another ordinary day- not a day off of work, banks are open and the only thing different is that we have men dressed up in top hats putting a poor woodchuck out of his slumber in order to gain a weather report.
Simeon and Anna were not main players as far as Biblical history goes; this is their one shining moment. Simeon did not seem to have family, and the widow Anna lived alone. Simeon and Anna had no apparent income. While Simeon appeared to live day-to-day, Anna was more than likely, nearly homeless as a widow, relying on others for daily means of support.
However, these are the first two people in our Gospel of Luke who immediately recognized the infant Jesus as the Messiah without an angel announcement. It wasn’t the religious leaders that were part of the Temple landscape, it was two people without social standing, two people who would not have had a voice in society. But what truly mattered was their faithfulness to God. These two faithful people prayed and were guided by the Holy Spirit. Simeon prayed to see the Messiah. The Spirit assured him that his prayer would be answered. As he held the infant Jesus in his arms, Simeon could feel God’s peace; a peace that passed all understanding. Anna recognized this child as the savior of the nations, one who would redeem Israel, be the great liberator.
Our Gospel doesn’t tell us how they recognized Jesus. The writer of Luke tells us that Simeon was righteous and the Holy Spirit rested up on him. Anna is described as a prophet, or a spokesperson for God. Two common, ordinary, lower class people were chosen by God to announce to those at the Temple that Jesus was the Messiah!
This story of the presentation of Jesus is so much more than a story of Mary and Joseph following Jewish law. It is about God using ordinary people to go great things. God didn’t choose the chief priest of the Temple or other religious leaders, God chose Simeon and Anna, two people who loved God and were open to the voice of the Holy Spirit. And these two people took a risk in declaring Jesus as the Messiah- especially at the Temple. If the religious leaders didn’t recognize the Messiah, I wonder how many at the temple that day probably thought these two people were just religious nuts! This baby, born to working class parents, the Messiah – really? Certainly, God wouldn’t have chosen this young woman and a carpenter to bear the Son of God. Did they even know God?
And the answer is Yes – they knew God, they obeyed God and they worshiped God and gave thanks for the ability to see this Messiah in person.
And we too know how God works as well. We are fortunate enough to know the Biblical story about how God came down in the flesh as a human infant, who grew into a man who was a wandering preacher, teacher and healer who had no place to really call home. A man who chose the B team as his disciples, a man who ate and hung out with sinners and the dregs of society. A man who acquired no earthly riches or treasures, a man who was pacifist, a man who gave us his life in the most gruesome way so that we could have eternal life.
This is the good news for us! God doesn’t choose the most knowledgeable theologians, the ones with the most wealth or status in society, God doesn’t care how much scripture you can quote or even how often you come to church, or how many church committees you serve on, it’s about your heart. It’s about being open to God and the Holy spirit, it’s about loving God and loving your neighbor. Its about being faithful to the best of your ability, knowing that at times we will fail – and we will fail – and God knows that and chooses us anyway.
One theology that I have always struggled with is the Prosperity Gospel, sometimes referred to the health and wealth gospel, the gospel of success. The doctrine emphasizes the importance of personal empowerment, proposing that it is God’s will for God’s people to be blessed financially and physically. Poverty and illness are viewed as curses that can be broken by your faith in God. But it’s not about faith in the spiritual sense, but achieved through donations of money, visualization, and positive confession. Prayer was understood to be a binding, legal act. Rather than asking, believers are to demand healing since they were already legally entitled to receive it.
I am alwasys reminded me of a man who I sat with at Hershey Medical center during my clinical pastoral education internship. His wife came in with a fatal brain bleed. The doctors asked me to sit with him as his pastor was with him, praying – God we command you to have our Sister Esther get up and walk out of this hospital – then proceeded to tell her husband that if he had enough faith she would be cured. Well, Esther died later that night. I guess her husband didn’t have enough faith.
This type of theology is dangerous and counter to what the Gospel tells us – we are all sinners in need of saving through Jesus. There is nothing we can do to make God bless us more or love us more – we don’t have that kind of power.
We can’t manipulate God in doing our bidding, we can pray for healing and strength and God will answer on God’s on terms and God’s own time. We may not get exactly what we are praying for. Or maybe we aren’t really looking or listening to the Holy Spirit. While the writer of Luke doesn’t tell us, I assume that Simeon and Anna prayed daily, were open to the spirit which enabled them to see the Messiah. They didn’t see Jesus healing the sick or raising the dead, they saw Jesus as a tiny baby and still recognized him as the Son of God.
Being open to the spirit means being open to experiencing God in the mundane and in the ordinary. We can even see God in the Groundhog –yes those pesky large rodents known for their burrowing habits and destructive behavior. Every year at this time we pull this less than desirable creature out of hibernation to give us a weather forecast.
The Groundhog reminds us that God continues to bless us the changing of the seasons, the beauty of the snow, the warm sunshine in the spring and summer and the changing of the leaves in the fall. The groundhog sleeps in the winter, burrowed underground only to emerge in the spring- his own annual presentation; a type of resurrection metaphor. Maybe you will look differently at the groundhog now when he is digging a hole under your shed!
God choses us to do great things – and provides each and everyone of us the Holy Spirit, a spirit that guides us to be disciples that further the kingdom of God here one earth – We are chosen not because of what we have, or how much we earn, or how smart we are, but because we are faithful, not perfect, but faithful. We get a glimpse of the kingdom when we see a newborn baby in its mother’s arms, when we provide meals to those in need, when we advocate for just laws; any time we work on behalf of the Gospel. God is already here and blessing us each and every day – just remain open to the spirit and others around you – you might just be surprised! Amen.