Christmas customs vary from country to country, even region to region. Nativity scenes with figures depicting village life, santons, are a feature of Provence, for instance.
The time we keep creches in church varies considerably. In some places they were packed away at Twelfth Night but many churches retain them until Candlemas, as do St Hugh’s and Holy Trinity. The reason for this is that forty days elapse between the Nativity and the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple, also known as Candlemas,
Next Sunday marks the definitive end of celebrating the very earliest part of Jesus’ life; afterwards we begin to travel towards Holy Week and Easter.
The feast of Candlemas is based on the description in Luke’s Gospel of how Joseph and Mary took Jesus to the Temple forty days after his birth in fulfillment of the requirements of the Jewish Law.
What is really striking to us, rather than the now obscure legal requirements, is what the two old and holy people, Simeon and Anna, say about Jesus. They shift our attention from his miraculous birth, which is the theme of the Christmas stories, to the significance of his future life. They also touch on the nature and meaning of his death. So, Candlemas is a pivot between Christmas and Easter.
When we look more closely at the story, we notice that Mary and Joseph make the modest sacrifice of the poor – two birds, not a lamb.
Simeon takes the child in his arms to give him a blessing, as was traditional, but his words are remarkable. In a poem, which we know from its opening words in Latin translation as the Nunc Dimittis, he addresses Jesus as “Lord” (the Greek word is despota, the word for a “Master” entitled to order those within his household). This signifies Jesus’ special status, just as the presence of angels does in Luke’s story of Jesus’ birth.
Simeon then declares that he himself can now “depart in peace”, be dismissed, since he has seen his master. This does not mean just that Simeon can simply leave Jesus’ presence but that Simeon can now die.
This may be meant to echo the way in which Moses saw the Promised Land before he died (Simeon has seen the promised Messiah) but it is also probably an allusion to the belief that no one could look on the face of God and live. In his perception of who Jesus is and the role he will perform, Simeon has “looked upon the face of God”.
Simeon also recognizes that Jesus will bring “salvation”, both to his own people, the Jews, and also to all other people, “the Gentiles”. Jesus will bring ‘a light to the Gentiles’, which is why candles feature in Candlemas services.
But this light will not dawn without suffering and it will provoke opposition. Simeon predicts that Jesus “is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel.”
The Greek word for “rising” here is the same one, anastasis, which is only used elsewhere in the Gospel to refer to Jesus’ resurrection. So, we are probably meant to think that Simeon is referring to Jesus’ resurrection.
However, resurrection entails death and Simeon also appears to predict this when he warns Jesus’ mother, Mary, that “a sword will pierce [her] …soul …”
So, Simeon points us towards the peace and salvation that Jesus will bring but he also points us to the cost of bringing them about: the message of Holy Week and Easter.