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Today is one of those days that comes by many different names, and the name you associate with February 2nd has a lot to do with where and how you grew up. I grew up a low-church Episcopalian in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, so for me today is Groundhog’s Day. Early this morning, Punxatawny Phil was pulled from the safety of his fake tree stump and asked to make his annual weather prediction. If he had seen his shadow, it would have meant 6 more weeks of winter, and the ire of snow and ice bound folks from Dallas to Memphis to Boston. But he didn’t, so an early spring is on its way. Actually, in Lancaster we had a competing groundhog named Ochtorara Orphy, but he never starred in a Bill Murray movie, so I’d say his chances of usurping weather control from Phil are slim to none.
Maybe you grew up in the Roman Catholic Church in, say New Orleans, where today you didn’t care much about the weather, February 2nd has always been Candlemas. Pre-1967, you probably just went to Mass. Post-Vatican II you probably met in the Parish House where the priest blessed new beeswax candles for the year to come, maybe even handing some out to your family for use at home in daily devlotions. Maybe you came of age in a middle of the road Episcopal Church and know February 2nd as the Feast of the Presentation, which is the name on the official Church calendar for today.
Perhaps you grew up a high Church Episcopalian and have known February 2nd as the Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which, as much as I hate to admit it, is probably the best name for it. The Feast of the Presentation makes it sound like today is about Jesus, and it is, but really it isn’t. After Jesus was born, Mary and Joseph were required by Torah to fulfill several different obligations.
At eight days old, the first time Mary would have been able to receive guests, Jesus was circumcised. Evrybody came to his house for this sacred event. Circumcision was a home ritual. It was also the time of naming the child. That is, during the service of circumcision, the child was given his name, which in this case, was the name Jesus. They asked the question, “How shall this child be named?” His name shall be “Joshua.” In Greek, Yeshua. In Hebrew, Joshua. Circumcision, itself, was a sign of the covenant between God and the person being circumcised dating back to the days of Abraham.
Then at thirty one days old, if it was a normal process, he would have been brought to the temple in Jerusalem for the service of dedication because it was the first born male. When he was thirty-one days old Joespeh was required to go and kill the first born of his cattle, the first born of his sheep, and offer them as a sacrifice. Then he would have taken the first born male child up to the Lord to dedicate him to the Lord. For this child was to be the head of the family, the primary heir of the family inheritance, the future number one authority in the family for all disputes. In a patriarchal society, it was a special position to be the first born male. Jesus was the first born male and he would have gone through that ritual of dedication. To my ears, the Feast of the Presentation is easily confused with the Dedication of the First Born.
Today, then, is the fortieth day after Christmas, and the third ritual of childbirth. This ritual had to do with Mary, and it is called the Rite of Purification. Mary needed to be purified. She gave birth to a boy, so she was unclean for 7 days and was to spend 33 days “in the blood of her purification. Essentially, she was to stay at home for forty days and not come out of the house. If she had given birth to a girl, she would have remained at home for eighty days. According to the Jewish law, after the birth of Jesus, Mary was to come to the synagogue on the fortieth day. The law told her to offer a sacrifice of a lamb or if she could not afford a lamb, she was to offer two turtle doves or two pigeons. Luke tells us that she sacrifices two turtle doves or two pigeons which indicates that Jesus was raised in a poor family.
So the reason they end up at the Temple isn’t really about Jesus, but once they get there the story shifts. Luke tells us of Mary and Joseph running into two of the old guard. Good, long-standing members. Prayer warriors. The folks who showed up whenever the doors were opened. Or, in the case of Anna, those who never left. Simeon and Anna were watching and waiting for the Messiah. They longed for God to restore his chosen people, Israel. They prayed and prayed and prayed, and God heard their cries.
Simeon can’t help himself at the sight of the long awaited child, and sings out with joy. The Morning Prayer service in our BCP holds onto these great words of Simeon as a song for all of us who long for God to continue his work of restoration:
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, *
whom you have prepared for all the world to see:
A Light to enlighten the nations, *
and the glory of your people Israel.
Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit: *
as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be for ever. Amen.
No matter what this day means to you: Groundhog’s Day, Candlemas, Presentation or Purification, my prayer is that you seek the savior, the light of the world, the glory of God’s people. Amen.