Traditionally called ‘Candlemas’, the feast of the Presentation has several meanings. The lectionary readings are the same each year, and identify Jesus with ‘the Lord whom you seek’, the one whose unexpected appearance ‘in the temple’ is predicted by the prophet Malachi. The appointed Psalm, appropriately, extols the beauty and wonder of God’s ‘dwelling place’ and the joy of being there. The association with candles, carried in procession, comes from the fact that a central part of the Biblical episode recorded in the Gospel for the day is the aged Simeon's 'Nunc Dimittis' in which he expresses the remarkable insight that the baby he holds in his arms is 'a light to lighten the Gentiles and to be the glory of God's people Israel'.
Candlemas comes forty days after the nativity, and has long been regarded as the very last feast of the Christmas season. This is not just because it records a Jewish birth rite, but because Simeon's words summarize so memorably the truth of the Incarnation, and thus give candles special meaning. The traditional observance of Candlemas emphasizes this by including a prayer of blessing for the candles that will be used throughout the coming year, at home as well as in church.
God our Father,
Source of all light,
this day you revealed to Simeon the light of your revelation to the nations.
+Bless these candles and make them holy.
May we who carry them praise your glory, walk in the path of goodness and come to the light that shines forever.
Grant this through Christ our Lord.
It is with this alternative context in mind that Matthew introduces Andrew and Peter. But there is a further subtle and important difference. In John’s version, Andrew and Peter take the initiative in seeking Jesus out. In Matthew’s version, it is Jesus who encounters them fishing and calls them , as he does James and John. What is more, he calls them to leave not only the work they are engaged in, but everything that they have. Their response is usually held up as exemplary: 'Immediately they left their nets and followed him'. But what are we think about Zebedee who is left sitting in the boat? Has he no claim on the sons he has raised, and on whose labour he will depend in old age?
Matthew’s version of the call to the disciples is echoed in many other Gospel episodes. Following Jesus is repeatedly represented as being all consuming, even to the point of abandoning family responsibilities. Doesn’t this mean that true Christian discipleship is ruled out for ordinary people? How could we answer such a call, given our love for parents and children, our belief in the value of what we do, and our obligations to the wider community to which we belong?
Elsewhere, however, when confronted with questions like these, Jesus acknowledges that for many people wholesale commitment of an exclusive kind is not possible, and promises that God can work with less than this. It is enough to respond to his call with simple penitence, and then seek more and more ways in which we can put Christ first in the course of ordinary life. A key step is relinquishing the hold of rival claimants to our most fundamental allegiance. The Epistle for this Sunday illustrates just how easy it is to fall into alternative loyalties. The loyalties for which St Paul chastises the Corinthian Christians are early examples of sectarian divisions that all claim the name of Christian. But there are other less obvious rivals for Christ’s headship – nation, profession, ethnic group, sports team and so on. If few of us can respond as immediately as the twelve disciples did, we can at least resolve to take more steps in their direction. What matters, is where the heart is. This week's Psalm expresses the ideal towards which all true disciples strive: ‘One thing I asked of the Lord, that I will seek after: to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life’.
In Year A of the Lectionary, which is this year, the readings for the first three Sundays in Epiphany give special attention to the important connection between Isaiah, John the Baptist, and Jesus. In this way, these weeks build a bridge between the Old and New Testaments.
The passage from Isaiah for Epiphany II sets out a much larger divine plan than any that the previous prophets had proclaimed. They had addressed a corrupt and wayward Israel, urging a return to its God-given mission. But God tells Isaiah, “it is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations”. God’s call, in other words, is no longer to be confined to the Children of Israel. Isaiah has a far more significant task – to ensure that the message of God’s salvation “may reach to the end of the earth."
Ultimately, this task is to be accomplished by a messiah. In the Gospel reading, John the Evangelist conveys the spiritual intensity that enables John the Baptist to perceive the messiahship of Jesus long before others manage to do so. “I did not know him”, he tells us, “but I came baptizing with water . . . that he might be revealed to Israel”. Consequently, when John sees Jesus coming towards him, he declares “Here is the Lamb of God”.
The expression 'Lamb of God' is now so well-worn, it is easy to miss the religious implications of this extraordinary metaphor. It forges a connection between past, present and future, and does so by means of two powerful resonances that were deeply engrained in the consciousness of the Jews. The first is the memory of the Passover Lamb, the sprinkling of whose blood on the doorposts played a key part in the Israelites' liberation from slavery. The second is the Suffering Servant of the book of Isaiah, who is led ‘like a Lamb to the slaughter’. Thus, by means of this single image, John connects Jesus with the Israel’s hopes and history.
This Gospel passage, however, takes the bridge building a step further. Among the first to hear John’s metaphor are Andrew and Simon. It is given to the otherwise undistinguished Andrew to grasp the truth, and tell his subsequently much more distinguished brother “We have seen the Messiah” – the “Anointed” for whom, as devout Jews, they have been taught to yearn since infancy. Together they take the first hesitant steps on a new spiritual quest. It is a quest that will bring them initially to the disillusionment of Passiontide. But thereafter, they witness the transformation of Easter that in the end equips them both for martyrdom.
The Gospel for this year is Matthew. The four Gospels record the baptism slightly differently, but they all lay special emphasis on three aspects. First, they affirm a theological link between John the Baptist and the preparatory, prophetic ‘voice’ that Isaiah describes as ‘crying in the wilderness’. Secondly, they all speak of the highly charismatic John as nonetheless secondary to Jesus. Thirdly, they make the baptismal event a “manifestation”, that is to say, one of those very special occasions – like the Transfiguration – when Jesus’ divine nature and commission shone out unmistakably to all who were present.
These three aspects are importantly connected. The prophet is a notable feature of Judaism, and as the reference to Isaiah implies, John stands out in this long and continuing line. Yet, with the appearance of Jesus, there is, so to speak, a change of gear. In the First Coming we move beyond the level of even the most distinguished prophets, and encounter not just another valuable source of spiritual insight and passionate human integrity, but a revelation of the Holy Spirit itself.
Written in retrospect, the Gospels struggle with this question – Just who was Jesus? Eventually they tentatively arrive at an answer which the Church has sought to refine ever since – Jesus is the Christ, the one human being in whom God is made fully manifest. In line with an ancient practice, baptisms are commonly celebrated on this Sunday. This is not just a matter of happily fitting the Gospel of the day. If Jesus is the perfect unity of humanity and holiness, our own lives become holy to the degree that they are lived in him. Baptism is the sacrament by which we are initiated into that life.
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