Rorate Caeli

Guest Op-Ed: Reflections on obedience for the Feast of Candlemas

 By Veronica A. Arntz

The feast of Candlemas is a rich tradition in the Church; it is a day that we celebrate many events, including the purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Presentation of our Lord in the Temple, and the Nunc Dimittis of Simeon. In reflecting on this beautiful feast day, one common theme that we find present is obedience. Obedience is the proper response of an individual to God’s invitation and call; it is the fitting response to God’s commandments and law. We too should strive in obedience to follow the commandments of God, just as we find in the Holy Family and the aged Simeon.

The first example of obedience is Mary who, even though she was conceived without original sin, went to be purified in the Temple in accordance with the Mosaic Law. As we read, “And when the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, ‘Every male that opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord’)” (Luke 2:22-23, RSV-CE).

I shall return to the Presentation of Christ later. For now, the reference to purification comes from Leviticus 12:2-8, which gives the laws for purification after a woman has given birth to a child. As St. Paul explains to the Galatians, we know that these laws were given to Israel because of the nation’s sinfulness: “Why then the law? It was added because of transgressions” (Galatians 3:19). In other words, God gave to the Israelites the laws about food, purification, and sacrifice because of their sinful behavior; in an attempt to bring them back into His covenant, He gave them more ritual laws to follow, to separate them from the other nations.

What is remarkable is the Blessed Mother’s obedience: in a certain way, she was not bound by these laws because of her lack of sin. Nevertheless, because she, like the individual in Psalm 1, who “meditates upon the law day and night” (Psalm 1:2), is faithful to God’s laws, submits herself to them out of obedience, and comes to the Temple for her purification. What a sublime example for those of us who live in the age of grace: we, who are fettered by the chains of sin, should strive to be obedient to God’s commands and to repent for our sins as we attempt, through His grace, to remain ever more faithful to His laws.

Furthermore, we find obedience in the Holy Family in bringing Christ to be presented in the Temple. This presentation is also rooted in the Old Covenant; as cited above, Luke quotes from Exodus 13:2, which states, “Consecrate to me all the first-born; whatever is the first to open the womb among the sons of Israel, both of man and of beast, is mine.” Further, we read, “You shall set apart to the Lord all that first opens the womb” (Exodus 13:12). Thus, we see that the Holy Family is following the prescriptions of the Old Law: Jesus Christ, as Mary’s first-born Son (Luke 2:7), is brought to the Temple to be consecrated to the Lord.

This should strike us as somewhat odd and ironic. Jesus is the Lord; He is God. Should that not exempt Him from the laws, which He Himself established? How can the Lord be presented to the Lord? First, we should note the Holy Family’s obedience to the Torah: Mary and Joseph are righteous Jews (Matthew 1:19), and so they desire to obey all the precepts of the Law. Even though one might think that they, above all people, should be exempt from bringing Jesus to be presented (since he is the Son of God), they still follow the precepts of the Law and bring him to the Temple. Moreover, this presentation is a further sign of Jesus’s divinity. As we read in Psalm 110:2, “The Lord says to my lord: ‘Sit at my right hand, till I make your enemies your footstool.’” This verse is often interpreted to reveal the divinity of Christ: Christ the Lord is the only one who can speak to His Lord.

Similarly, only the Lord can be offered to His Lord in the Temple. Christ’s whole life was an act of obedience to the Father. As He prays in His high priestly prayer, “‘Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him power over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him….I glorified you on earth, having accomplished the work which you gave me to do; and now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory which I had with you before the world was made” (John 17:1-2, 4-5). Christ accomplished the will of the Father on earth; he glorified the Father through His work, and now He asks to be glorified through His death, which is also an act of obedience.

Finally, on this feast day, we celebrate the obedience of the aged Simeon, who is described as a “righteous and devout” man, “looking for the consolation of Israel” (Luke 2:25). Furthermore, “it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he should not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ” (Luke 2:26). Simeon comes to the Temple by the prompting of the Holy Spirit when Mary and Joseph bring Christ to be presented, and upon seeing them, he proclaims his beautiful and profound Nunc Dimittis prayer: “Lord, now let your servant depart in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, for glory to your people Israel” (Luke 2:29-32). Simeon is finally rewarded for his obedience to God, in remaining devout and faithful, trusting in his promises. He has seen his salvation, and he can now pass into the next life peacefully. The Nunc Dimittis has traditionally become the Church’s prayer during Compline: we too are called to be like Simeon, obediently waiting for our Lord and anticipating our salvation.

Holy Mother Church gives us the opportunity to reflect on these holy individuals as examples of obedience to God. Indeed, even Jesus Christ, our Lord, is revealed as an example of obedience to His Father in Heaven. We too, who are living in the New Covenant, are called to give our obedience to God through obeying His commands, following the teachings of the Church, and frequenting His sacraments. These are the means given to us to receive His grace; just as Mary and Joseph were righteous before God through following the Old Covenant, which Christ had come to fulfill, so too are we justified before God through His grace by being obedient to the means of salvation He has given to us in His Church. Let us then pause on this beautiful feast day, especially as we approach the season of Lent, and ask for the grace to increase our obedience to the Father, through the “obedience of faith” (Romans 16:26).