Piercing the Darkness
Presentation of the Lord | Fr David Rocks contemplates the virtues of Our Lady and the light of hope that unites her to her Son.
The Tradition tells us of the seven sorrows of Our Blessed Lady, and on this feast day we mark the first of those: the prophesy of Simeon. What a journey it has been for Mary! Having responded to the God Who Speaks with her fiat, her Yes, she has given birth to her Son, she has named him as requested. Now she learns that the Son who she has accepted will be rejected by many. He will be a source of division. And his pain will be the source of her own painfulness. The sword will pierce her heart also.
The feast we celebrate today is the Presentation of the Lord, but it has also been called, in the Tradition, the Purification of Our Blessed Lady. This is a factual nod to the practicalities of the Law, which required both a presentation of the new-born and the purification of the mother. There isn’t space now to enter into the details of this, but it was to fulfil the requirements of the Law of Moses. For our modern ears, perhaps hints of an out-styled prudishness regarding the physicality of our sexuality might make us sensitive to the concept of purification, but maybe we need a rethink. Our reflection on the Lord’s Passion necessitates our recollection on the fulness of his humanity. Of all the feast days connected to Our Blessed Lady, this particular one invites us to contemplate the true extent her humanity, and the cost to her of the obedience, fidelity, passion, and purity that are part of the reality of her mission, and therefore her inspiration to us as disciples.
Firstly her obedience. She has heard the Word of the God Who Speaks and has offered her Yes. She is present in the Temple in obedience to the Law of Moses. Present there, she listens to the prophesy of Simeon and to the prayers of Anna, and she is accepting. In presenting the Lord at this lawful sacrifice, she becomes ever more intimately connected to the reality of the sacrifice that her son will make for all people – one that will cost her dearly. God offers his only Son as the sacrifice, and in accepting the motherhood of his Son, she is brought into the centre of that sacrifice.
Following on from this is her fidelity. The first of seven sorrows, Mary remains faithful and steadfast in the task that is before her. She treasures all these things, and ponders them in her heart, always aware that the consequences of her Yes to God’s plan involve a supreme sacrifice and a total abandonment that opens up a radical freedom. The courage to say Yes is one thing – the ability to remain faithful and steadfast is indeed another.
Mary is being prepared by the traditions of the Law to have her share in her Son’s passion. She’s prepared to follow him all the way to the last moments on the Cross, to cradle his wounded body, to lay him to rest. She will witness the ignominy of the Cross and experience the extent of this supreme sacrifice. Through all this she is a person of hope. Those who cannot see clearly because of the myopia of illness and sinfulness will call her blessed.
And so she is the person of purity. Her contemplation is one of great clarity, and so while her sorrow is real on this occasion, her joy is complete. God’s providence really does mean that the long-suffering servant can depart in peace, according to God’s promise. She can embrace this sorrow, because he – her Son – has. She can endure this sorrow – it isn’t terrifying for her. She can see clearly the purity of God’s intention.
As our winter days start to look like spring, we have the courage to challenge the darkness with our candlelight this Candlemas. It might not overcome it, but it does diminish it. We are people of hope, called to be visionaries of what is beyond the bleakness and darkness of sin and division, of illness and strife. In our own hour of struggle, when the sword is piercing our own hearts too, have we the courage to pray for purity of heart and contemplation?
Photograph by Fr Lawrence Lew OP of a medieval stained glass window in Chartres Cathedral.