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An end to the shadows

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Gospel Commentary Feb. 2, lk 2:22-40

This Sunday happens to coincide with one of the more vibrant celebrations of the liturgical year, the feast of the Presentation, also known as Candlemas. While the feast itself celebrates the moment when Mary and Joseph bring Jesus into the Temple to offer sacrifice, as required for each firstborn son, the imagination of the ancient Christians focused more on the words of Simeon, the righteous man whose meeting with Jesus that day was the fulfillment of the Holy Spirit’s promise.  

When Simeon holds the child Jesus in his arms, he calls out to God in a prayer of thanksgiving, calling this newborn king a “light for revelation to the Gentiles.” From that prayer, the Christian tradition elaborated a feast of light on this day. On the second of February, Christians across the world would begin with a pre-dawn procession of lit candles, then celebrate a Mass at which they would bless all the new candles for the coming year. Through the whole course of the seasons, then, when a Christian would light a candle, whether to illuminate the books for holy Mass, or to burn in witness of some private prayer or vow, it would be with Christ the light, revealed to Israel in the Temple on Candlemas, in mind.

But what does it mean for us to call Christ “light?” Christ is light for us in that by him we come to see and know the Father and the otherwise obscured inner life of God; we see the world around us for what it really is; and that he is sheer goodness in the face of evil.  

Simeon himself in his prayer bears witness to this first understanding when he says that Christ is a “light for revelation to the Gentiles.” It is Christ alone who could end the darkness of paganism that lay over all the peoples of the earth, showing by his words and deeds, and in fact, by his very being, the face of the one God. While the various nations had reached out for God through myth, philosophy and ritual, they could not, under their own power, successfully grasp God, who is infinitely beyond human comprehension. Only when the “Word was made flesh and dwelt among us,” could we reach the kingdom of heaven. God had to come down to our level, as one like us in everything but sin, so that through a human face and human words, we could understand heavenly things. 

Once he did convey to us that heavenly illumination, he gave to us the power to see the world the way he does, valuing what he values. This is the definition of enlightenment, to see the world as God sees it. Having received this capacity in baptism, and nourishing it by continuing to grow closer to Jesus through a life of holiness, the Christian strengthens this second sight, and exchanges worldly values like power, wealth, honor, achievement, relaxation and reputation, for heavenly ones — above all, love of God and each other for God’s sake.

Above all, as God in the flesh, the irruption of the divine presence in our world, Christ is the definitive light of goodness and might in the face of all evil. At the end of time, we know that he will “like lightning … light up the sky from one end to another,” putting an end to the shadows of evil and showing all things for what they truly are in a great judgment of illumination. Today, though he appears as a child in the arms of old Simeon, already “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

Fr. Rampino is chaplain at Marymount University in Arlington.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2020