The Messiah’s ministry of peace will lead to division

Father John A. Kiley
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Within weeks of my ordination, after the celebration of Mass at St. Charles parish in Woonsocket, a woman approached me at the altar rail and requested the ceremony of “churching.” This was the only time in my 53 years of priesthood that this once traditional ceremony was requested. A half-century ago women did not return to regular daily life after child birth as quickly as they do today. Care of the newborn child, concern for their own health, and perhaps the notion that women were “the weaker sex” demanded a longer recuperation from the birthing event than is practiced today. During this time, of course, the new mother did not go to the church. She may have missed Mass for three or four Sundays. She was separated from the believing community possibly for a month. Hence, in the mind and practice of the Church, new mothers needed “churching;” they needed to be restored to their rightful place in the worshipping community which the birth event had temporarily interrupted.
The pre-Vatican II church was not the only religious community to understand that women might need a restoration to community life after childbirth. There is justification in Leviticus and Exodus for new mothers to approach the Jewish church and request purification after birthing. Perhaps ancient Jewish notions about the uncleanness of blood led to this biblical demand that new mothers be purified by a religious rite. According to St. Luke’s Gospel account, Mary and Joseph took the Infant Jesus to the Temple in Jerusalem forty days after his birth to complete Mary’s ritual purification after childbirth and to perform the redemption of the firstborn son, again in obedience to Jewish Law. Scripture indicates that this event should take place forty days after birth for a male child, hence Mary’s Purification and Jesus’ Presentation took place forty days after the birth at Bethlehem. And of course this dual event is now celebrated forty days after Christmas, February 2, which happily occurs this coming Sunday.
February 2 over the centuries has become a blend of several feasts, observances and customs. As noted, the Purification of Mary has been rightfully recalled and celebrated on this date. But again, this date is often referenced as “Candlemas Day,” the day on which candles to be used at liturgical ceremonies and for home devotions were blessed and distributed. “Candlemas” is a later European name for this festival reflecting Simeon’s proclamation of Christ as “a light for revelation to the Gentiles.” Candlemas or the Purification or the Presentation is the last feast day in the Christian year that is dated by reference to Christmas and is sometimes considered the official end of the Christmas season when all decoration are removed from church and home. And not to be neglected is a tradition in the United Kingdom and in Italy that good weather on Candlemas Day is taken to indicate severe winter weather later, a tradition has been carried over into the American custom of Groundhog Day.
Since the liturgical revisions of the Second Vatican Council and the consequent decrees of Pope Paul VI, February 2 is officially entitled “The Feast of Presentation of the Lord.” This alteration somewhat echoes the practice of the Eastern Church that has labelled this feast, “The Meeting of the Lord.” References to the cleansing of Mary and the importance of candles (or groundhogs) must yield to St. Luke’s original emphasis on Simeon’s reception of Christ as firstborn and his subsequent proclamation of Christ as Messiah both for the Jewish community and for the larger Gentile world. The meeting of Simeon with Christ has overtones of the Epiphany whereby Christ was publically introduced to the Magi, to the Baptist’s converts, and to the wedding guests at Cana. The Messiah’s later public life and broad ministry is thus gently but solemnly introduced. The prophetess Anna’s exuberance also anticipates the Good News that the Messiah is happily entering history.
Simeon is a realistic oracle. He not only rejoices in the final arrival of the Messiah but he also acknowledges the turbulent road that lies ahead for Christ and his followers and for Mary too. Simeon advises Mary, “Behold, this child is destined for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be contradicted and you yourself a sword will pierce…” Christ will indeed prove a sign of contradiction. He has come to announce peace but his ministry will lead to division. He will proclaim good news but his work will prove a stumbling block. Those who see will actually be found to be blind. The rejected cornerstone will become foundational. Eternal wisdom will seem foolishness to the Gentiles. This infant Messiah will keep people guessing for centuries!

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