In the United States, February 2 is known as Groundhog Day, when if a certain groundhog in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania sees its shadow, then 6 more weeks of winter is predicted. This tradition comes from a Pennsylvania Dutch superstition. However, in the Church, there is a tradition which is significantly older than Groundhog Day, when February 2 is known as Candlemas, or the Feast of the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple.
During the first century, a Jewish woman remained in seclusion for 40 days after having a son. Mary emerged from her time of isolation after this time period, and to the Temple she and Joseph went, with the baby Jesus in tow. By Jewish law, a sacrifice to God is to be offered for both the mother and the first-born son. As the family came into the Temple to do so, they are met by two aged people, one after the other.
First up was Simeon, to whom the Holy Spirit had revealed that he would not die until he sees the long-awaited Messiah. The Gospel of Luke has Simeon taking the baby Jesus in his arms and singing a now well-known canticle known as the Nunc Dimittis: “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.” Canticle 17, Book of Common Prayer, p. 93.
He blessed the now amazed parents, and reminded Mary that a sword will pierce her own soul, as Jesus will be a sign that will be opposed in Israel. Then, the prophet Anna, a woman of great age and even greater in the power of prayer and fasting, praised God and spoke about Jesus as the one to redeem Israel. After Mary and Joseph finished offering their sacrifice at the Temple, they went back home to Nazareth, where Jesus flourished in growth and in wisdom.
This year, the Feast of the Presentation falls 12 days before Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. What Simeon and Anna point to is what we will be learning through the scripture readings in Lent, with Jesus experiencing temptation, pain, disappointment, misunderstanding and betrayal. And we will learn how a sword will pierce Mary’s own soul too.
The Rev. Lorna Williams