Are you ready for the observance on February 2?
Have you made plans for the observance? Will you do the observance in private or with a group? What do you expect to follow from the observance that falls on February 2?
Do you think I’m asking these questions about Groundhogs Day — that Pennsylvania German observance filled with food and speeches and entertainment, and, of course, the morning watch for the emerging groundhog from the wintery soil?
As folklore has it, if the groundhog appears in such cloudy weather that she can’t see her shadow, it’s good news — that is, spring will come early this year. But if it is sunny on February 2, sunny enough that the groundhog can see his shadow, then the disappointing news is that winter will continue for at least six more weeks.
Is that the observance you think I have in mind?
Sorry. Not even close.
I’m referring to the much older observance of Candlemas.
You know, it’s that observance, following an ancient Jewish tradition that goes back to Leviticus 12, which prescribes: “If a woman conceives and bears a male child, she shall be ceremonially unclean seven days; as at the time of her menstruation, she shall be unclean. On the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised. Her time of blood purification shall be thirty-three days; she shall not touch any holy thing, or come into the sanctuary, until the days of her purification are completed.” (12: 2b – 4). (If it is a female child the waiting period is longer.)
That isn’t all. The ancient observance also prescribes the following: “When the days of her purification are completed, whether for a son or for a daughter, she shall bring to the priest at the entrance of the tent of meeting a lamb in its first year for a burnt offering, and a pigeon or a turtledove for a sin offering. He (the priest) shall offer it before the Lord, and make atonement on her behalf; then she shall be clean from her flow of blood. This is the law for her who bears a child, male or female. (6 – 7)
And one more thing: “If she cannot afford a sheep, she shall take two turtledoves or two pigeons, one for a burnt offering and the other for a sin offering; and the priest shall make atonement on her behalf, and she shall be clean.” (8)
That’s what Mary and Joseph were up to when (as recorded in Luke 2: 21 – 40) they first had Jesus circumcised eight days after his birth, and later when — here’s where February 2 comes in — Mary receives her purification from the priest in Jerusalem, and, following the provisions of Exodus 13: 2 & 12, Jesus is presented for blessing as the first born male of the family.
You can tell from the account of all this in Luke that the parents of Jesus were strict followers of the Law of Moses, and that they took advantage of the law’s provisions that applied to families living in poverty.
That is, rather than presenting a sheep and a bird for the purification sacrifice, according to Luke, they offered only two birds. (2: 24)
You may recall this story more from how an old righteous man named Simeon and old prophet named Anna responded to what they were observing. Aged Simeon recognizes this is the anointed one he’s been waiting for, the one who will bring salvation to all people — to Israelites and Gentiles alike — and who Simeon holds in his arms and blesses.
As for old Anna, when she saw the holy family there in the temple, she began to sing and shout for joy, recognizing what she was observing.
And that’s how Christians retained the old Jewish observance, modifying its title to the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the Presentation of Christ in the Temple.
A little later it was named Candlemas, since it was observed with the blessing and distribution and lighting of candles.
Fast-forward from the first century to the twenty-first — in fact to a day earlier this month when, in a speech on the Capital steps, a re-elected president mentioned in his inaugural address “a little girl born into the bleakest poverty.”
The president mentioned her as part of his larger plea that the nation purify itself from deviating from its core principles, especially the principle of equality, and reclaim an allegiance to what should be a self-evident truth: that all people are created equal.
He said that means creating the conditions in which that little girl born into the bleakest poverty “has the same chance to succeed as anybody else, because she is an American, she is free, and she is equal, not just in the eyes of God but also in our own.”
What if, on this year’s observance of Candlemas, we — the followers of that one who was presented and blessed in the Temple — lit our candles as a sign and as a pledge that we would do everything within our power, in our churches and in our country, to give that “little girl born into the bleakest poverty” as equal a chance “to succeed as anybody else.”
To be sure, that would require some purification in our observance on February 2. And it would require the presentation of ourselves for blessing and empowerment for the task to be undertaken.
But I think it’s fair to surmise that such an observance on February 2 would cause Simeon to praise God and Anna to sing and shout.