February 2, 2011
+In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The burning question for today, for some of us, is whether or not the groundhog saw his shadow. Tradition has it that if the day is sunny and the groundhog sees his shadow, there will be six more weeks of winter. If it’s a cloudy day and the groundhog doesn’t see his shadow, spring is just around the corner. As a child growing up in the New York City suburbs, I found Groundhog Day kind of annoying. No matter what the groundhog saw, you could be pretty sure there would be six more weeks of winter and then some.
It may or may not surprise you to know that there is a similar tradition around Candlemas, which is another name for the holy day that we are observing here now. The name Candlemas comes from an ancient rite for the blessing of candles to be used in the church in the coming year. There’s an old English song that says, If Candlemas be fair and bright,/ Come winter, have another flight; / If Candlemas bring clouds and rain, / Go winter, and come not again.
For the moment let’s leave aside the connection between groundhogs, church candles, and predictions for future weather. Let’s turn instead to our Gospel reading for today. This reading from Luke provides an account of the baby Jesus being brought to the temple for the traditional Jewish dedication. Because we know who Jesus is, it’s hard for us to imagine this event without a great deal of pageantry and fanfare. If we’ve seen the medieval paintings of the presentation, complete with the halo over the head of the baby Jesus, it’s doubly hard to imagine this scene as ordinary. But ordinary it was.
Mary and Joseph almost certainly weren’t the only couple bringing a baby son to the temple that day. Jewish law required that firstborn sons be brought to the temple and dedicated to the Lord. The mothers of sons were required to present themselves thirty-three days after the birth of a son that they might undergo ritual purification. So likely there would have been many sets of observant Jewish parents at the temple on that same day.
What’s striking about our Gospel reading is the things it doesn’t say. There is nothing in Luke’s account that mentions that many people in the temple took note of Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus, who we know was a very special baby indeed. There is nothing in Luke’s account that mentions that the chief priests or anyone in the temple hierarchy took any notice at all. What most people there saw was a very ordinary couple with a baby fulfilling their obligation under Jewish law. If anyone remarked about anything even slightly out of the ordinary, it might have been to remark that the mother was very young but the father much older, and that they didn’t look like prosperous people.
Apparently hardly anyone noticed the baby Jesus, with two notable exceptions. One of them was an old woman named Anna. Anna was a widow of unusual devotion. According to Luke, “she did not depart from the temple, worshiping with fasting and prayer night and day.” Anna knew that when she saw the baby Jesus she had seen something close to God.
The second person, Simeon, was a “righteous and devout man,” Luke tells us. Simeon was led by the Holy Spirit to come into the temple on that particular day. He had been also told by the Holy Spirit that “he should not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ.” When Simeon saw the baby Jesus come into the temple with his parents, he took Jesus in his arms and said the words that we have come to know as the Nunc Dimittis: “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word; for mine eyes have seen thy salvation which thou hast prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to thy people Israel.”
It wasn’t the rich or powerful who recognized the light of Christ when they saw it; it was those whose piety made their eyes and hearts and minds open to revelation. Many of us spend considerable time looking for signs. We read our horoscopes in the newspaper, we study stock market trends to look for the next hot investment, and we look at the sports pages to try to figure out if UNC will beat Duke, or vice versa. We tend to look out for the extra-ordinary things, the things that for some reason or another stand out.
But all the looking we might do is to no avail unless our eyes are open to see what is right before our eyes in the ordinary things of life. Anna and Simeon didn’t recognize Jesus for who he was because they were brilliant or because they had any kind of psychic gifts. Anna and Simeon knew Jesus as the Lord’s Christ, the Lord’s Messiah, because they were both in the holy habit of keeping their hearts and minds turned to God. I pray that you and I might learn to do the same, that our own hearts might be open to the light of Christ when it is in our midst. Amen.