If you were a fly on the wall at the staff luncheon yesterday, you would find yourself laughing out loud as deacons affectionately debated with Father Eric as if it were the Third Vatican Council deliberating if there really are 40 days in Lent, debating whether those 40 days include Sundays and Holy Week, and the most important theological question of all was deliberated: can one truly enjoy donuts on the Fridays of Lent?
Whether there are truly 40 days in Lent or not, one thing is for certain. You can take to the bank that today, without a doubt, is 40 days after Christmas! In the Catholic imagination, this feast on Second of February, is more than just Groundhog Day. Rather, a threefold mystery known as: The Presentation of the Lord, celebrated as Candlemas since the 11th Century, and for many centuries before 1970 was known as The Purification of Mary. Many Jewish historical sources flow together on this day as the Lord enters his temple. How does he enter?
The passage we hear today from Malachi’s prophecy perhaps is best known during the weeks leading to Christmas when concert halls delight in performing the great oratorio work of George Frederick Handel’s Messiah. Handel uses the bass male voice in extensive running passages, so that the listener can feel himself shake on the coming of the Lord in his temple. We also hear how the Lord will be a refiner’s fire purifying silver and gold with all the sons of the priesthood of Levi. This is further emphasized in the royal psalm this morning which speaks of such glory radiating from the Lord that we must raise the ancient portals for he who is mighty in battle approaches the holy city.
The tone of our scriptures begin to change as we approach the great liturgical Letter to the Hebrews. We don’t hear of the valiant warrior who will ride into his temple in armor and glory. We do not hear of a majestic blacksmith who refines gold and silver. Rather, we hear hints of one who is coming to stand in solidarity with us in our suffering, who is like us in every way that he calls us brother and sister.
We meet the one foretold in today’s gospel. Joseph and Mary were devout Jews who honored the Mosaic Law in which the mother of the first-born son was to abstain from ritual practice for forty days after which she was to offer a double sacrifice: a lamb as a burnt offering and a pair of turtledoves as a sin offering. Saint Luke tells us that Mary and Joseph offered the sacrifice of the poor for they were a lowly family who belonged to the poor of Israel.
It was poor and lowly Simeon who represented the steadfast faith of all those who waited patiently for the fulfillment of God’s promise to bring a Redeemer. Here, the Old Testament meets the New Testament, the lowly recognizes God’s nearness to the poor, the light curses the darkness.
So whether there really are 40 days in Lent no matter how you count it, there is with certainty 40 days between Christmas and the second of February. The number 40 in scripture, whether days or months, is a signal that something of great magnitude is coming. Today, he comes in the most gentlest of ways: light from light, true God from true God.
The candles we bring for blessing today reminds us of a particular truth. The wax is our Lord’s flesh, the wick is his soul, and the flame his divinity. Together, they give us light. Christ shows us the way, illumines truth. Today, we celebrate God’s nearness to our messy complicated lives.
Rise and wake my friends, for on this 40th day after Christmas, we are reminded that we do not have to live in darkness. Light from Light, true God from true God has come. He became the irresistible One whom we now partake in the disguise of bread and wine.