What a spectacular day this is! What a day to pay attention to! And what exactly are we celebrating today?
Well, according to much of the United States, today is Super Bowl Sunday. Of course! What else? Even those of us without a favorite team have noticed the drama. And even those of us who don't care for football might care for the annual outpouring of new television commercials. As for those of us who care for neither football nor commercials, well, we still know something spectacular is occurring.
But, wait, there may be another reason we are paying attention to this day. Those of us in the Christian Church know this day, February 2, as a special feast day. Today is the Feast of the Presentation, the Presentation of Christ in the Temple. Jesus is revealed as a light to the nations, the Light of the World!
I, for one, am thrilled at this confluence and coincidence of celebrations. I am glad that the Super Bowl occurs on the Feast of the Presentation this year.
The folks in Las Vegas are wagering today. Tell the folks in Law Vegas this: I wager that fewer than ten professional football players have ever used the words "Super Bowl" and "Feast of the Presentation" in the same sentence. Hey! While we're at it, let's throw in Groundhog Day. Not many people realize that Groundhog Day actually falls upon one of the major feast days of the Church: this Feast of the Presentation. Our Church has also called this day "Candlemas."
I actually believe that all these events have something in common. They are ways that our community, our civilization, hopes for life and yearns for light in the midst of winter.
Let's start with the Super Bowl. That is where most of our North American culture will be focused today. Consider the gatherings, the parties, the festivities around Sunday night. This is ritual at its most primordial. People plan schedules and change behavior and spend their resources for this event; in my book, this behavior is exactly the definition of a religion. The entities that change your schedules and order your lives and to which you offer your money are usually what we call "gods."
It's a religion. I will not dwell on its low points today. But at its best, "Super Bowl Religion" shows us the fruit of discipline and respect and--yes--even advertising creativity.
The Super Bowl usually falls right in the middle of winter in North America. For centuries, though, so does February 2, which is the Feast of the Presentation. This day falls almost exactly midway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. Though winter "begins," officially, on December 21, it is rarely as cold then as it is now in the middle of winter--about February 2. Thus, our ancestors realized and devised all sorts of mid-winter feasts and festivals to remind them that Spring was coming.
Christians began to observe this mid-winter day as "Candlemas" or now "the Feast of the Presentation." According to tradition, the young child Jesus was to be presented in the Temple 40 days after his birth; other traditions have called this same day the "Purification of the Virgin" following the Book of Leviticus.
The original story is a beautiful one. An aged man, Simeon, had heard from the Lord that he would not die until he had seen the Lord's messiah. He was known as righteous and devout, but he was also known to be waiting and searching. He rejoices at seeing the boy Jesus presented in the temple, and he then delivers one of the great canticles of the New Testament: "Lord, let now your servant depart in peace, for these eyes of mine have seen! They have seen the savior who is a light to the Gentiles!"
And the same story features an aged woman, a prophet named Anna, who was in the temple daily; she, too, praises God when the child Jesus enters the temple. Thus, the Presentation of Christ in the temple introduces the Light of the world.
However, the tradition of "Candlemas" came closest to recognizing what is going on in our natural world. Whether they called it "Presentation" or "Purification," Christians lit candles on February 2. Today at Christian churches across the world, people light candles and walk in procession; they walk toward the light, even in the deep mid-winter.
Something in our human condition will always long and lean for light. We yearn for its energy, especially when we miss it the most--in the bleak midwinter. Somehow or another, strangely enough, our secular Groundhog Day is also associated with the longing for this light. We are wondering just how long it will be before Spring comes. Will the groundhog see his shadow or not? Is there sunshine on Groundhog Day--too early--or not?
I have no idea whether all the bellwether groundhogs across the United States will see their shadows on this February 2 or not. And no matter who actually wins the Super Bowl tonight, all of our country is strangely warmed on Super Bowl Sunday, gathering in parties and watching the festivities.
But in the Christian Church, we are celebrating the light of the world. And, today, just as people are making one last run to the grocery store, stocking up for the Super Bowl game, many Christian churches will observe Candlemas and the Presentation. Some churches will form a grand Candlemas procession. They will light every candle they can find, a ritual that symbolizes the Light of Christ in the world.
It is still wintertime; but today our world has turned toward Spring. Yes, there will be more cold snaps. There may even be an ice storm. But the earth has now turned around the sun toward Spring. The Church hopes the same thing about life today. Perhaps our health is bad right now. Perhaps our economy still seems bleak right now. But God has turned us toward light, toward health.
I encourage us, then, to present ourselves to this God of Light. Like the Virgin Mary and her husband, Joseph, present yourselves and your offspring to God in the holy temple today. Go to that place which has preserved and proclaimed light even during the darkest times. Light your candles today, either literally or figuratively.
One of great ways that Jesus described himself was as the Light, the Light of the world. But Jesus also told us that we, we ourselves, are the light of the world. It's not Groundhog Day or Super Bowl Sunday that brings true light to the world. It's not even the great traditions and customs of the church, though each of those events plays its part. The true light is us--you and me--and how we behave during all these events.
You are the light of the world; let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.
Let us pray. Almighty and ever living God, we humbly pray that as your only begotten Son was this day presented in the temple so we may be presented to you with pure and clean hearts by Jesus Christ our Lord who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God now and forever. Amen.