The 40 days of Mary's Purification are now completed, and She must go up to the Temple, there to offer to God Her Child Jesus. Before following the Son and His Mother in this Their mysterious journey, let us spend our last few moments at Bethlehem, in lovingly pondering over the mysteries at which we are going to assist.
The Law commanded that a woman who had given birth to a son should not approach the Tabernacle for the term of 40 days; after which time she was to offer a sacrifice for her purification. By another ordinance, every first-born son was to be considered as belonging to God (since the first-born sons of Israel had been spared in Egypt), and was to be redeemed by a small sum of money.
But could the Virgin Mother of God and Her Divine Son be included in the laws just quoted? Was it becoming that Mary should observe them? If She considered the spirit of these legal enactments, and why God required the ceremony of Purification, it was evident that She was not bound to them. She was the chaste Spouse of the Holy Ghost, and Her Son was the Creator and Sovereign Lord of all things—how could She suppose that He was to be submitted to the humiliation of being ransomed as a slave, whose life and person are not his own? And yet the Holy Ghost revealed to Mary that She must comply with both these laws. Mary adores the Will of God, and embraces it with Her whole Heart.
The Son of God was only to be made known to the world by gradual revelations. For 30 years He led a hidden life in the insignificant village of Nazareth; and during all that time men took Him to be the Son of Joseph (Luke 3: 23). The earth possessed its God and its Savior, and men, with a few exceptions, knew it not. The Shepherds of Bethlehem knew it; but they were not told, as were afterwards the Fishermen of Genesareth, to go and preach the Word to the furthermost parts of the world. The Magi, too, knew it; they came to Jerusalem and spoke of it, and the City was in a commotion; but all was soon forgotten, and the Three Kings went back quietly to the East. These two events, which would, at a future day, be celebrated by the Church as events of most important interest to mankind, were lost upon the world, and the only ones that appreciated them were a few true Israelites, who had been living in expectation of a Messias Who was to be poor and humble, and was to save the world.
The same Divine plan which had required that Mary should be espoused to St. Joseph, in order that Her fruitful Virginity might not seem strange in the eyes of the people, now obliged Her to come, like other Israelite mothers, to offer the sacrifice of Purification. Thus it is that Infinite Wisdom delights in showing that His thoughts are not our thoughts, and in disconcerting our notions; He claims the submissiveness of our confidence, until the time that He has fixed for withdrawing the veil, and showing Himself to our astonished view. The Mother and the Child both humbled Themselves in the Purification, and man's pride received, on that day, one of the greatest lessons ever given it.
What a journey was this of Mary and Joseph, from Bethlehem to Jerusalem! The Divine Babe is in His Mother's arms; She had Him on Her Heart the whole way. St. Joseph is carrying the humble offering, which the Mother is to give to the Priest. At length the Holy Family enters Jerusalem. Whilst Mary, the Living Ark of the Covenant, is ascending the steps which lead up to the Temple, carrying Jesus in Her arms, let us be attentive to the mystery; one of the most celebrated of the prophecies is about to be accomplished in this Infant. We have already seen the other predictions fulfilled: of His being conceived of a Virgin, and born in Bethlehem; today He shows us a further title to our adoration—He enters the Temple.
This edifice is not the magnificent Temple of Solomon, which was destroyed by fire during the Jewish captivity. It is the second Temple, which was built after the return from Babylon, and is not comparable to the first in beauty (although it has been very much amplified by King Herod). Before the century is out, it also is to be destroyed; and Our Savior will soon tell the Jews that not a stone shall remain upon a stone that shall not be thrown down (Luke 21: 6). Now the Prophet Aggeus, in order to console the Jews, who had returned from exile and were grieving that they were unable to raise a House to the Lord equal to that built by Solomon, addressed these words to them, which mark the time of the coming of the Messias: Take courage... for thus saith the Lord of Hosts: Yet one little while, and I will move the heaven, and the earth, and the sea, and the dry land. And I will move all nations; and the Desired of all nations shall come; and I will fill this House with glory. Great shall be the glory of this House, more than the first; and in this place I will give Peace, saith the Lord of Hosts (Agg. 2).
The hour is come for the fulfillment of this prophecy. The Emmanuel is about to take possession of His Temple, and the mere fact of His entering it will at once give it a glory, which is far above that of its predecessor. Amidst the Priests who are there, and amidst the crowd of Israelites, who are moving to and fro in the sacred building, there are a few faithful ones, who are in expectation of the Deliverer, and they know that the time of His manifestation is at hand; but there is not one among them who knows that at this very moment the Messias has entered the House of God. But this great event could not be accomplished without a prodigy being wrought by the Eternal God as a welcome to His Son. The Shepherds had been summoned by the Angel, and the Magi had been called by the Star, when Jesus was born in Bethlehem; this time it is the Holy Ghost Himself Who sends a witness to the Infant.
There was then living in Jerusalem an old man whose life was well-nigh spent. He was a man of Desires (Dan. 10: 11), and his name was Simeon; his heart had longed unceasingly for the Messias, and at last his hope was recompensed. The Holy Ghost revealed to him that he should not see death without first seeing the rising of the Divine Light. As Mary and Joseph were ascending the steps of the Temple, Simeon felt within himself the strong impulse of the Spirit of God: he leaves his house and walks towards the Temple; the ardor of his desire makes him forget the feebleness of his age. He reaches the porch, and there, amidst the many mothers who had come to present their children, his inspired gaze recognizes the Virgin of whom he had so often read in Isaias, and he presses through the crowd to the Child She is holding in Her arms.
Mary, guided by the same Divine Spirit, welcomes the saintly old man, and puts into his trembling arms the dear object of Her love, the Salvation of the world. Simeon cannot keep silence; he must sing a Canticle; he must do as the Shepherds and the Magi had done, he must give testimony: Now, O Lord, Thou dost dismiss Thy servant in Peace, because my eyes have seen Thy Salvation, which Thou hast prepared—a Light to the revelation of the Gentiles, and the glory of Thy people Israel (Luke 2: 29 et seq.)
Immediately there comes, attracted to the spot by the same Holy Ghost, the holy Anna, Phanuel's daughter, noted for her piety and venerated by the people. Simeon and Anna, the representatives of the Old Testament, unite their voices, and celebrate the happy coming of the Child Who is to renew the face of the earth; they give praise to the mercy of God, Who in this place, in this second Temple, gives Peace to the world, as the Prophet Aggeus had foretold.
Simeon gives back to Mary the Child She is going to offer to the Lord. The two doves are presented to the Priest, who sacrifices them on the Altar; the price for the ransom is paid; the whole law is satisfied; and after having paid homage to Her Creator in this sacred place, where She spent Her early years, Mary, with Jesus pressed to Her bosom, and Her faithful Joseph by Her side, leaves the Temple.
Such is the mystery of this 40th day, which closes, by this admirable Feast of the Purification, the holy Season of Christmas. Several learned writers are of the opinion that this Solemnity was instituted by the Apostles themselves. This much is certain, that it was a long-established Feast even in the 5th century.
On this day, Holy Mother Church blesses Candles—one of the three principal Blessings observed by the Church during the year; the other two are those of the Ashes and of the Palms. The signification of this ceremony bears so essential a connection with the mystery of Our Lady's Purification, that if Septuagesima, Sexagesima or Quinquagesima falls on the 2nd of February, the Feast is deferred to tomorrow; but the Blessing of the Candles, and the Procession which follows it, always take place on this precise day.
In order to give uniformity to the three great Blessings of the year, the Church prescribes for that of the Candles the same color for the vestments as is used in the Blessing of Ashes and formerly used in the Blessing of Palms—namely, violet.
The mystery of today's ceremony has frequently been explained by liturgists, dating from the 7th century. According to St. Ivo of Chartres, the wax, which is formed from the nectar of flowers by the virgin bee, always considered as the emblem of virginity, signifies the virginal flesh of the Divine Infant, Who diminished not, either by His Conception or His Birth, the spotless purity of His Blessed Mother. The same holy Bishop would have us see, in the flame of our Candle, a symbol of Jesus, Who came to enlighten our darkness. St. Anselm bids us consider three things in the blessed Candle: the wax, the wick, and the flame. The wax, he says, which is the production of the virgin bee, is the Flesh of Our Lord; the wick, which is within, is His Soul; the flame, which burns on the top, is His Divinity.
Formerly, the faithful looked upon it as an honor to be permitted to have their own wax candles blessed together with those which were to be borne in the Procession by the Priest and ministers. There has been such a systematic effort to destroy, or at least impoverish, the exterior rites and practices of the true religion, that we find, throughout the world, many who have been insensibly made strangers to those admirable sentiments of faith, which the Church alone, in Her Liturgy, can give to the body of the faithful. Thus, we shall be telling many what they have never heard before, when we inform them that the Church blesses the Candles, not only to be carried in the Procession, which forms part of the ceremony today, but also for the use of the faithful, inasmuch as they draw, upon such as use them with respect, whether on sea or on land, as the Church says in the Prayer, special blessings from Heaven. These blessed Candles ought also to be lit near the bed of the dying Christian, as a symbol of the immortality merited for us by Christ, and of the protection of Our Blessed Lady.
During the distribution of the Candles, the Church, filled with emotion at the sight of these sacred symbols, which remind Her of Jesus, shares in the joyous transports of the aged Simeon, who, whilst holding the Child in his arms, confessed Him to be the Light of the Gentiles. She chants his sweet Canticle, separating each verse by an Antiphon, which is formed out of the last words of Simeon: A Light to the revelation of the Gentiles, and the glory of Thy people Israel.
Filled with holy joy, radiant with the mystic light, excited, like the venerable Simeon, by the impulse of the Holy Ghost, the Church goes forth to meet Her Emmanuel. The Church would imitate that wondrous Procession, which was formed in the Temple of Jerusalem on the day of Mary's Purification. Let us listen to St. Bernard: "On this day the Virgin-Mother brings the Lord of the Temple into the Temple of the Lord; Joseph presents to the Lord a Son, Who is not his own, but the Beloved Son of that Lord Himself, and in Whom He is well pleased; Simeon, the just man, acknowledges Him for Whom he had been so long waiting; Anna, too, the widow, acknowledges Him. The Procession of this solemnity was first made by these four, which afterwards was to be made, to the joy of the whole earth, in every place and by every nation. Let us not be surprised at its then being so little; for He they carried was little! Besides, all who were in it were just, and Saints, and perfect—there was not a single sinner." (Sermon 1 on the Purification)
And yet let us join the holy Procession. Let us go to meet Jesus, the Spouse of our souls, as did the Wise Virgins, carrying in our hands lamps burning with the flame of charity. Let us remember the command given us by Our Lord: Let your loins be girt and lamps burning in your hands: and you yourselves like to men who wait for their Lord (Luke 12: 35-6). Guided by faith, and enlightened by charity, we shall meet and know Him, and He will give Himself to us.
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