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advent wreath stjohnscamberwellorgauThe Fourth Sunday of Advent is on December 23.

Readings for Year C in the three-year Lectionary follow.

I am not sure how these are meant to be read, e.g. if Micah goes with the first reading from Luke and if the following three go together, so will just reproduce them as they are on the Vanderbilt Divinity Library. Emphases mine below.

The Old Testament readings prophesy Jesus.

The reading from Hebrews describes Jesus as the one, perfect and sufficient sacrifice for our sins.

The readings from Luke — Mary’s words — are known traditionally as the Magnificat, which used to be sung in the old Anglican (including Episcopal) liturgies. The longer version is at the end. Mary visited her cousin Elizabeth, who was expecting John the Baptist at the time.

Micah 5:2-5a

5:2 But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days.

5:3 Therefore he shall give them up until the time when she who is in labor has brought forth; then the rest of his kindred shall return to the people of Israel.

5:4 And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the LORD, in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God. And they shall live secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth;

5:5 and he shall be the one of peace.

Luke 1:46b-55

1:46b “My soul magnifies the Lord,

1:47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,

1:48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;

1:49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.

1:50 His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.

1:51 He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.

1:52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;

1:53 he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.

1:54 He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy,

1:55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

Psalm 80:1-7

80:1 Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel, you who lead Joseph like a flock! You who are enthroned upon the cherubim, shine forth

80:2 before Ephraim and Benjamin and Manasseh. Stir up your might, and come to save us!

80:3 Restore us, O God; let your face shine, that we may be saved.

80:4 O LORD God of hosts, how long will you be angry with your people’s prayers?

80:5 You have fed them with the bread of tears, and given them tears to drink in full measure.

80:6 You make us the scorn of our neighbors; our enemies laugh among themselves.

80:7 Restore us, O God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved.

Hebrews 10:5-10

10:5 Consequently, when Christ came into the world, he said, “Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired, but a body you have prepared for me;

10:6 in burnt offerings and sin offerings you have taken no pleasure.

10:7 Then I said, ‘See, God, I have come to do your will, O God’ (in the scroll of the book it is written of me).”

10:8 When he said above, “You have neither desired nor taken pleasure in sacrifices and offerings and burnt offerings and sin offerings” (these are offered according to the law),

10:9 then he added, “See, I have come to do your will.” He abolishes the first in order to establish the second.

10:10 And it is by God’s will that we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.

Luke 1:39-45, (46-55)

1:39 In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country,

1:40 where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth.

1:41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit

1:42 and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.

1:43 And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?

1:44 For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy.

1:45 And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”

1:46 And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord,

1:47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,

1:48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;

1:49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.

1:50 His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.

1:51 He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.

1:52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;

1:53 he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.

1:54 He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy,

1:55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

I cannot imagine the jubilation that these two women shared at the fulfilment of the Lord’s promise not only to His chosen — but to the world.

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The feast of the Visitation of Mary to Elizabeth is on May 31 this year.

Lectionary readings for Year B follow. Emphases mine below.

The Old Testament reading is about Hannah, who longed for a child. One day, she went to the temple and prayed tearfully. Eli the High Priest heard her and blessed her. Hannah gave birth to Samuel and promised the Lord that he would serve Him. Mary’s Magnificat — see the Gospel reading below — echoes what is known as Hannah’s song of thanksgiving.

1 Samuel 2:1-10

2:1 Hannah prayed and said, “My heart exults in the LORD; my strength is exalted in my God. My mouth derides my enemies, because I rejoice in my victory.

2:2 “There is no Holy One like the LORD, no one besides you; there is no Rock like our God.

2:3 Talk no more so very proudly, let not arrogance come from your mouth; for the LORD is a God of knowledge, and by him actions are weighed.

2:4 The bows of the mighty are broken, but the feeble gird on strength.

2:5 Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread, but those who were hungry are fat with spoil. The barren has borne seven, but she who has many children is forlorn.

2:6 The LORD kills and brings to life; he brings down to Sheol and raises up.

2:7 The LORD makes poor and makes rich; he brings low, he also exalts.

2:8 He raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor. For the pillars of the earth are the Lord’s, and on them he has set the world.

2:9 “He will guard the feet of his faithful ones, but the wicked shall be cut off in darkness; for not by might does one prevail.

2:10 The LORD! His adversaries shall be shattered; the Most High will thunder in heaven. The LORD will judge the ends of the earth; he will give strength to his king, and exalt the power of his anointed.”

The words and sentiment of the Psalm are similar to Hannah’s song:

Psalm 113

113:1 Praise the LORD! Praise, O servants of the LORD; praise the name of the LORD.

113:2 Blessed be the name of the LORD from this time on and forevermore.

113:3 From the rising of the sun to its setting the name of the LORD is to be praised.

113:4 The LORD is high above all nations, and his glory above the heavens.

113:5 Who is like the LORD our God, who is seated on high,

113:6 who looks far down on the heavens and the earth?

113:7 He raises the poor from the dust, and lifts the needy from the ash heap,

113:8 to make them sit with princes, with the princes of his people.

113:9 He gives the barren woman a home, making her the joyous mother of children. Praise the LORD!

In the Epistle, St Paul exhorts — encourages — the Romans to a truly holy way of life:

Romans 12:9-16b

12:9 Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good;

12:10 Love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor.

12:11 Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord.

12:12 Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer.

12:13 Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.

12:14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.

12:15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.

12:16 Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly;

The Gospel reading from Luke is Mary’s Magnificat, which she said to her cousin Elizabeth, who was expecting John the Baptist at the time. Note the similarities in wording and sentiment to Hannah’s song in the first reading:

Luke 1:39-57

1:39 In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country,

1:40 where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth.

1:41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit

1:42 and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.

1:43 And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?

1:44 For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy.

1:45 And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”

1:46 And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord,

1:47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,

1:48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;

1:49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.

1:50 His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.

1:51 He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.

1:52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;

1:53 he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.

1:54 He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy,

1:55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

1:56 And Mary remained with her about three months and then returned to her home.

1:57 Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son.

I cannot imagine what that moment must have been like for Mary and Elizabeth: two expectant mothers and two holy women.

The Holy Spirit entered Elizabeth, enabling her to understand that Mary would give birth to the Messiah, Christ Jesus.

Then Mary spoke, spontaneously echoing Scripture and those who lived before her so long ago.

In closing, the Sunday Lectionary readings continue with the two Books of Samuel for the First Reading during the first several weeks of the Season after Pentecost.

advent wreath stjohnscamberwellorgauDecember 17, 2017, was Gaudete Sunday, the Third Sunday in Advent.

Gaudete Sunday

Traditionally, the celebrant in Catholic Mass as well as Anglican and Lutheran Communion services wears a pink — rose — vestment, because this is a time of joy and hope in expectation of our Saviour’s birth.

Even in the absence of a rose vestment, the pink candle on the Advent wreath is lit on this particular day.

For these reasons, Gaudete Sunday is also known as Rose Sunday.

Gaudete means ‘rejoice’ in Latin. The name is taken from the original Introit:

Gaudete in Domino semper: iterum dico, gaudete. Modestia vestra nota sit omnibus hominibus: Dominus enim prope est. Nihil solliciti sitis: sed in omni oratione et obsecratione cum gratiarum actione petitiones vestræ innotescant apud Deum. Benedixisti Domine terram tuam: avertisti captivitatem Jacob.

This is the English translation (emphases mine):

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice. Let your forbearance be known to all, for the Lord is near at hand; have no anxiety about anything, but in all things, by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be known to God. Lord, you have blessed your land; you have turned away the captivity of Jacob.

Many centuries ago, Advent began much earlier, after the feast of St Martin on November 11:

The season of Advent originated as a fast of forty days in preparation for Christmas, commencing on the day after the feast of St. Martin (11 November), whence it was often called St. Martin’s Lent“—a name by which it was known as early as the fifth century. In the ninth century, the duration of Advent was reduced to four weeks, and Advent preserved most of the characteristics of a penitential season which made it a kind of counterpart to Lent.

The Lenten counterpart is Laetare Sunday.

One can imagine that after several weeks of fasting, a break must have been welcome, which is what is done on these two Sundays during the two seasons of penitence.

The readings communicate spiritual joy and expectation.

Gaudete Sunday readings — Year B

The Gaudete Sunday readings for Year B are available at the Vanderbilt University Lectionary library.

Not all of them are used in a single service but all have the theme of hope and joy.

We see the theme of expectation in the reading from Isaiah:

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11

61:1 The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners;

61:2 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn;

61:3 to provide for those who mourn in Zion— to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the LORD, to display his glory.

61:4 They shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations.

61:8 For I the LORD love justice, I hate robbery and wrongdoing; I will faithfully give them their recompense, and I will make an everlasting covenant with them.

61:9 Their descendants shall be known among the nations, and their offspring among the peoples; all who see them shall acknowledge that they are a people whom the LORD has blessed.

61:10 I will greatly rejoice in the LORD, my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.

61:11 For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord GOD will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.

Some Christians use that as a defence of social justice, but the greater message is that God made a covenant to send His only begotten Son, Jesus Christ, to Earth to humbly save mankind. Jesus released us from captivity to sin and freed us to be with Him for eternity.

The Psalm’s theme is joy after being released from captivity. I particularly love the expressive second half of the first verse:

Psalm 126

126:1 When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream.

126:2 Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy; then it was said among the nations, “The LORD has done great things for them.”

126:3 The LORD has done great things for us, and we rejoiced.

126:4 Restore our fortunes, O LORD, like the watercourses in the Negeb.

126:5 May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy.

126:6 Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves.

The Magnificat gives glory and thanks to God. These are the words of Mary at the Annunciation, when the Angel Gabriel appeared to tell her she would be the mother of Jesus:

Luke 1:46b-55

1:46b “My soul magnifies the Lord,

1:47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,

1:48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;

1:49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.

1:50 His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.

1:51 He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.

1:52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;

1:53 he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.

1:54 He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy,

1:55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

St Paul’s message is one of rejoicing and praying unceasingly. As we turn from sin — an Advent theme — may God sanctify us entirely as we await the coming of our Saviour:

1 Thessalonians 5:16-24

5:16 Rejoice always,

5:17 pray without ceasing,

5:18 give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.

5:19 Do not quench the Spirit.

5:20 Do not despise the words of prophets,

5:21 but test everything; hold fast to what is good;

5:22 abstain from every form of evil.

5:23 May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.

5:24 The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.

John’s Gospel tells us of John the Baptist, who prophesied, baptised and prepared the people for the coming of the Messiah. Note John’s theme of light, especially timely as we enter into the darkest days of the year, although he was referring to Jesus Christ as the light against worldly darkness:

John 1:6-8, 19-28

1:6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.

1:7 He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him.

1:8 He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.

1:19 This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?”

1:20 He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, “I am not the Messiah.”

1:21 And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the prophet?” He answered, “No.”

1:22 Then they said to him, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?”

1:23 He said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,'” as the prophet Isaiah said.

1:24 Now they had been sent from the Pharisees.

1:25 They asked him, “Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?”

1:26 John answered them, “I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know,

1:27 the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.”

1:28 This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.

The traditional Octave of Christmas also began on December 17. Readings to follow tomorrow for December 17 and 18.

Bible croppedThe three-year Lectionary that many Catholics and Protestants hear in public worship gives us a great variety of Holy Scripture.

Yet, it doesn’t tell the whole story.

My series Forbidden Bible Verses — ones the Lectionary editors and their clergy omit — examines the passages we do not hear in church. These missing verses are also Essential Bible Verses, ones we should study with care and attention. Often, we find that they carry difficult messages and warnings.

Today’s reading is from the English Standard Version with commentary by Matthew Henry and John MacArthur.

Matthew 12:46-50

Jesus’ Mother and Brothers

46 While he was still speaking to the people, behold, his mother and his brothers stood outside, asking to speak to him.[a] 48 But he replied to the man who told him, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” 49 And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! 50 For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”

—————————————————————————————————-

Parallel passages for this episode in our Lord’s ministry can be found in Mark 3:31-35 and Luke 8:19-21.

The verses in Mark 3 have been included in the three-year Lectionary.

I wrote about Luke’s verses in 2013, and you can find an extensive explanation of the situation at the link above.

Mark 3 tells us that Mary and her other sons were worried about Jesus’s health as He was surrounded by so many people every day (Mark 3:20-21). Emphases mine below:

20Then he went home, and the crowd gathered again, so that they could not even eat. 21 And when his family heard it, they went out to seize him, for they were saying, “He is out of his mind.”

They intended to take Him back to Nazareth.

Yet, Luke 4:16-30 tells what happened earlier when Jesus preached in His hometown synagogue. The townspeople were resentful that Joseph the carpenter’s son claimed that He is the fulfilment of Scripture. You can read more at the beginning of this post.

His fellow Nazarenes were so angry that they tried to do away with Him:

29And they rose up and drove him out of the town and brought him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they could throw him down the cliff. 30But passing through their midst, he went away. 

That is how Jesus came to be based in Capernaum:

31 And he went down to Capernaum, a city of Galilee. And he was teaching them on the Sabbath, 32and they were astonished at his teaching, for his word possessed authority.

Matthew’s context concerns the verbal attacks by the Jewish hierarchy, about which I wrote in 2015:

Matthew 12:1-8 – Jesus, Pharisees, working on the Sabbath, grain;

Matthew 12:9-14 – Jesus, miracles, healing miracles, withered hand;

Matthew 12:15-21 – Jesus, Isaiah, prophecy of the Messiah, Gentiles;

Matthew 12:22-32 – Jesus, Pharisees, blasphemy of the Holy Spirit unforgivable;

Matthew 12:33-37 – Jesus, Pharisees, a tree is known by its fruit;

Matthew 12:38-42 – Jesus, Pharisees, scribes, sign, sign of Jonah;

Matthew 12:43-45 – Jesus, parable, unclean spirit, demons, Pharisees.

When this takes place, Jesus is in a house, by the way. We find this out in Matthew 13:1:

That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea.

Matthew Henry’s commentary has a number of excellent observations about Mary’s and her sons’ request to speak to Jesus.

First, why were they not indoors listening to Jesus’s teaching?

they should have been standing within, desiring to hear him. They had the advantage of his daily converse in private, and therefore were less mindful to attend upon his public preaching. Note, Frequently those who are nearest to the means of knowledge and grace, are most negligent. Familiarity and easiness of access breed some degree of contempt. We are apt to neglect that this day, which we think we may have any day, for getting that it is only the present time we can be sure of tomorrow is none of ours. There is too much truth in that common proverb, “The nearer the church, the further from God ” it is pity it should be so.

Secondly, why were they interrupting Him when He was teaching and preaching?

They not only would not hear him themselves, but they interrupted others that heard him gladly The mother of our Lord desired to speak with him[;] it seemed she had not then learned to command her Son, as the iniquity and idolatry of the church of Rome has since pretended to teach her: nor was she so free from fault and folly as they would make her.

Thirdly, wouldn’t Mary have been reminded of Jesus’s teaching in the temple as a boy?

if she had remembered it now, she would not have given him this interruption when he was about his Father’s business. Note, There is many a good truth that we thought was well laid up when we heard it, which yet is out of the way when we have occasion to use it.

This episode shows Mary in her humanity: loving but flawed. Each of the three Gospel passages recounts the story in nearly identical wording.

John MacArthur tells us that, even though a man was telling Jesus His mum wanted Him, Jesus knew how to respond:

He is trying to say, at this point, that earthly, physical relationships are not an issue with Him. “Who is my mother? Who are My brothers?” In other words, “Who is really related to Me? Who is really in My family? Who really has any intimacy with Me? Who can really put demands on Me regarding responsibility and fellowship?” In verse 49, He answers His own question. “And He stretched out His hand toward His disciples and said, ‘Here are My mother and My brothers!'” He’s saying, “Do you want to know who is related to Me? Here they are. They are related to Me; they are My spiritual family.” That’s the only real family that matters.

He loved Mary and His brothers but He was, as in the temple in his youth, about His Father’s work.

As such, He considered His disciples to be His family, too (verse 49).

The answer He gave (verse 50) about those obeying God being His family members extended to His immediate family as well:

Mary had to be redeemed just like everyone else; that’s why then the angel gave her the message, she thanked God her Savior. Remember that statement? Sure, she had to be redeemed, and so did His brothers. I think there may have been, latent in that, an invitation to them. Certainly, they would have been encompassed in the wide invitation to all who were there. He was saying, “Relationship, to Me, is a spiritual issue. These who believe in Me are related to Me.”

For us, a reflection for the week ahead would be to consider Jesus’s love for us in this regard. Henry puts it this way:

All obedient believers are near akin to Jesus Christ. They wear his name, bear his image, have his nature, are of his family. He loves them, converses freely with them as his relations. He bids them welcome to his table, takes care of them, provides for them, sees that they want nothing that is fit for them: when he died he left them rich legacies, now he is in heaven he keeps up a correspondence with them, and will have them all with him at last

MacArthur says:

It is the will of the Father that you hear the Son. It is the will of the Father that you believe in the Son. It is the will of the Father that you be saved, and it is not the will of the Father that you perish. Doing the will of the Father in Heaven, then, is simply coming to salvation in Christ.

May we always be so blessed.

Next time: Matthew 13:10-17

advent wreath stjohnscamberwellorgauThe season of Advent is upon us as we await the celebration of our Saviour’s birth.

Advent resources for Catholics and Protestants has a good list of websites by denomination. Included are short films and activities for children to better understand the season. Please be sure to check for ‘2012 updates’ for the most recent pages.

The following posts explain the themes of Advent, as John the Baptist preached them two millennia ago. These include anticipation, repentance and charity:

Advent reflections: John the Baptist and the Apocalypse

Advent: Make straight a highway

Advent: John the Baptist’s message of Good News — and repentance

John the Baptist, charity and Advent

Some people call Christians hypocrites because they only give at Christmas. This is not true. However, we make a special effort at this time of year recalling John the Baptist’s answer to his followers regarding charity (Luke 3:10-11):

10 And the crowds asked him, “What then shall we do?” 11 And he answered them, “Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise.”

Speaking of John the Baptist, the following post tells the story of his father, the elderly Zechariah, who was temporarily struck dumb for not believing the angel who told him his post-menopausal wife Elizabeth would soon bear a son:

Advent: Mary’s Magnificat and Zechariah’s prophecy in Luke 1

It also discusses the Archangel Gabriel’s appearance to Mary, who conceived by the Holy Spirit, whilst her cousin Elizabeth was in her final trimester.advent_annunciation botticelli

Truly, it was a dramatic and intense time for all involved. Joseph, too, wondered whether he should quietly dissolve his relationship with Mary (Matthew 1:19). More personal upheaval is hard to imagine. They must have had questions from people. One cannot help but wonder what was asked and how, through the wisdom of the Holy Spirit, they responded.

And poor Zechariah must have been busy writing on slates for nine months!

Royal Mail 2013 Christmas stamps ASchristmasThe 2013 religious set of Christmas stamps from Britain’s Royal Mail were exceptional.

I enjoy all their religious Christmas stamps, but happened to research this set for its particular beauty and commentary. The ‘large’ stamps at the top, incidentally, are for use on full-size manila envelopes. (Image credit: Royal Mail)

The colours of Mary’s mantle and attire have changed through the centuries, depending on religious tradition and paint dyes.

This series of stamps can help us to better interpret representations of the Madonna and Child in religious art. Most art museums in major cities around the world have paintings permanently on display of Mary and Jesus. It is likely that you and your families or friends have seen or will see them, therefore, it helps to know a bit about how to ‘read’ them.

Earlier Church colours for Mary were blue and red or red and green. Blue depicts her holy nature approaching the divine — the colour of the sky or heaven — and red symbolises the earth, her humanity. Some Renaissance paintings and Eastern Orthodox depictions use green and red.

Notice that the Infant Jesus wears gold or white or has a bright appearance; this is to indicate His divinity.

Another aspect to consider is the cost of the dye when early Renaissance painting began. If you’ve studied Mediaeval religious art, you’ll notice that the dyes are less pronounced in colour. Partly this is because those paintings were frescoes, where colour was applied to moist plaster surfaces. However, certain colours were highly expensive.

An Answers.com post explains (emphases mine):

“The older, classic and more representative color is dark blue,” according to the Rev. Johann Roten, S.M, director of the Marian Library-International Marian Research Institute at the University of Dayton. “Mary’s dark blue mantle, from about 500 A.D., is of Byzantine origin and is the color of an empress”

On a more practical note, the color blue used in medieval painting was derived from lapis lazuli, a stone imported from Afghanistan of greater value than gold. Beyond a painter’s retainer, patrons were expected to purchase any gold or lapis lazuli to be used in the painting. Hence, it was an expression of devotion and glorification to swath the Virgin in wide flowing gowns of blue (as well as a not-too-subtle expression of the patron’s wealth).

However, it should be noted that Mary does not have an official color, and red has also been widely employed in her representation, particularly amongst German painters. Further, light blue is very popular, and is often (though perhaps as reflection, rather than motivation) associated with the color of the pure sky.

Another Answers.com entry cautions us against thinking that the Virgin Mary wore these colours in real life. It is highly unlikely that she did, as only emperors and the wealthy could afford them. These colours are for our edification, particularly that of the illiterate masses centuries ago who absorbed what they knew of Christianity through imagery in churches:

In art, therefore, Mary had to stand out from the crowd, ordinary people that wore normal colours of brown, yellow or red, as she was seen as someone special by the church because she was the mother of Jesus himself. In the middle ages, paint pigments were obtained from either different coloured clays (like yellow and brown) or ground up minerals (like cinnabar for red or lead oxide for white). However, the only blue pigment possible in those days was a ground up precious stone called ultramarine, which can still be found in expensive jewellery today. Nowadays the pigment ultramarine is synthetically made and is cheap, but then it was extremely expensive. In fact it was several times more expensive than gold. Therefore it was THIS pigment that was reserved for Mary’s robe alone and nothing else in medieval religious art. Jesus was often depicted in gold leaf but Mary in blue ultramarine to show her importance.

In the West, Catholic painters and sculptors have increasingly portrayed Mary in blue and white, sometimes adding gold, but omitting the red.

Earlier, however, the beneficial ladybird (ladybug, for my American readers) derived its common name from Mary’s distinctive red. Furthermore:

the spots of the seven-spot ladybird (the most common in Europe) were said to symbolise her seven joys and seven sorrows.[9] … Common names in other European languages have the same association, for example, the German name Marienkäfer translates to Marybeetle.[11]

The ladybird, unless threatened by parasitoid wasps, quietly goes about its business eating garden pests which can otherwise plague plants. In a day before pesticides — and even now — these unusual flying beetles have long been prized as a gardener’s friend.

Now, back to Christmas stamps.

What follows is what Royal Mail had to say about the colours and the paintings, starting with the middle row of stamps running from left to right:

Second Class and Second Class Large Stamp
In Antoniazzo Romano’s Virgin and Child with the young St John the Baptist (c.1460–80), in the Early Renaissance style, Mary holds Jesus on her left arm and points towards him with her right, indicating that he is the way to salvation.

First Class and First Class Large Stamp
In Madonna and Child (c.1520), painted in the High Renaissance style, Francesco Granacci depicts the Virgin in her traditional garments of red and blue, earthly and divine, while the bird in Christ’s hand alludes to the coming Passion.

88p Stamp
Jacques-Louis David’s St Roch Praying to the Virgin for an End to the Plague (1780), which is painted in the Neoclassical style, is a deeply Catholic painting, depicting the Virgin Mary in her role as protector and intercessor.

£1.28 Stamp
In La Vierge au Lys (1899), painted in the French Academic style by William-Adolphe Bouguereau, the Virgin and Child are enthroned, with Jesus held close by his mother, his outstretched arms suggestive of the crucifixion to come.

£1.88 Stamp
In Theotokos, Mother of God [a new work specially commissioned for this collection] by Fadi Mikhail, which is painted in the Neo-Coptic style, Christ’s white tunic indicates his divinity, while the Virgin Mary’s blue mantle likens her to the sky, as in the icon of The Flight into Egypt.

This is the one time of the year when nearly every Christian pauses to think about Mary and the miraculous circumstances of her becoming the greatest mother in history.

Royal Mail’s selection of religious art helped to bring the Christmas story to life. The colours and the symbolism selected are common to paintings of their respective periods which add to our appreciation of them.

Bible readingContinuing a study of the passages from Luke’s Gospel which have been omitted from the three-year Lectionary for public worship, today’s post is part of my ongoing series Forbidden Bible Verses, also essential to understanding Scripture.

Today’s reading is from the English Standard Version with commentary by Matthew Henry and John MacArthur.

Luke 8:19-21

Jesus’ Mother and Brothers

 19 Then his mother and his brothers came to him, but they could not reach him because of the crowd. 20And he was told, “Your mother and your brothers are standing outside, desiring to see you.” 21But he answered them, “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it.”

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Thus far, the two principal messages of Luke 8 have been the Parables of the Sower (parable, explanation) and the Lamp under a Jar.

In both, Jesus teaches essential lessons about the Christian life. Listening and understanding the Word of God enables the believer to bear fruits of faith. We must not hide these grace-filled gifts from our neighbour.

By contrast, those who do not bear these fruits are like the seed which was either eaten by birds or withering on stony ground. Those who go through the motions, declaring themselves to be believers when they are not, will find that their hearts are eventually revealed. They face divine condemnation.

As Jesus said in Luke 8:17-18:

17 For nothing is hidden that will not be made manifest, nor is anything secret that will not be known and come to light. 18 Take care then how you hear, for to the one who has, more will be given, and from the one who has not, even what he thinks that he has will be taken away.”

Today’s passage ties in with these two parables, as our Lord explains He came to preach to His family of believers. Again, we have evidence of a real and personal relationship between Jesus and those who believe on Him.

In verse 19, we read that Mary and her sons — Jesus’s stepbrothers — came to see Him but there were too many people around Him.

This same episode is recounted in Mark 3:31-35. St Mark also gives us a bit of background as to their visit (Mark 3:20-21). Mary and her sons were concerned about Jesus’s wellbeing after being surrounded by crowds every day (emphases mine below):

20Then he went home, and the crowd gathered again, so that they could not even eat. 21 And when his family heard it, they went out to seize him, for they were saying, “He is out of his mind.”

They show up, although in a different place in the narrative of Jesus’s ministry than in Luke. In Mark, they show up after Jesus clearly condemns the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit, especially as His enemies had criticised Him for having a disordered mind (Mark 3:22-30):

28 “Truly, I say to you, all sins will be forgiven the children of man, and whatever blasphemies they utter, 29but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”30for they were saying, “He has an unclean spirit.”

Mark then describes His family’s arrival on the scene (Mark 3:31-35):

Jesus’ Mother and Brothers

31 And his mother and his brothers came, and standing outside they sent to him and called him. 32And a crowd was sitting around him, and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers are outside, seeking you.” 33And he answered them, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” 34And looking about at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! 35 For whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother.”

Back now to Luke’s Gospel. Before looking more closely at today’s passage, it is useful to recall why — even if He had wanted to — Jesus would not have returned to Nazareth.

Luke 4:16-30 tells what happened when Jesus preached in His hometown synagogue. The townspeople were resentful that Joseph the carpenter’s son claimed that He is the fulfilment of Scripture. You can read more at the beginning of this post. His fellow Nazarenes were so angry that they tried to do away with Him:

29And they rose up and drove him out of the town and brought him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they could throw him down the cliff. 30But passing through their midst, he went away. 

That is how Jesus came to be based in Capernaum:

31 And he went down to Capernaum, a city of Galilee. And he was teaching them on the Sabbath, 32and they were astonished at his teaching, for his word possessed authority.

Now to today’s passage. Someone told Jesus that His family were waiting for him (verse 20). Jesus says that His family are those who hear God’s word and obey it (verse 21), which ties in with the aforementioned Parables of the Sower and the Lamp under the Jar.

Matthew Henry explains:

3. Jesus Christ would rather be busy at his work than conversing with his friends. He would not leave his preaching, to speak with his mother and his brethren, for it was his meat and drink to be so employed. 4. Christ is pleased to own those as his nearest and dearest relations that hear the word of God and do it they are to him more than his mother and brethren.

Believers are as true family to our Lord. Christ is not one of the distant, arbitrary deities encountered in other world religions. He alone wants a close relationship with us through prayer, Word and Sacrament.  He died the most horrible and humiliating death — for our sins. He is a generous, loving, merciful Lord. He promises eternal life with Him, despite our sinfulness.

What other world religion can say the same? Not one.

John MacArthur summarises the lessons thus far in Luke 8:

… the picture is clear. The Lord says the people who have a relationship to Me hear the Word of God evangelistically. They hear it authentically. They hear it fruitfully. And they hear it obediently. It’s important to preach the Word, that’s my responsibility. It’s important to do that. It’s critically important to hear. You can do an inventory on your own heart, what kind of hearer are you? Be careful how you listen.

Next time: Luke 8:22-25

Bible spine dwtx.orgToday’s post continues an examination of the passages from St Luke’s Gospel which have been excluded from the three-year Lectionary used in public worship.

It becomes part of my ongoing series Forbidden Bible Verses, also essential to understanding Scripture.

Today’s reading is from the English Standard Version with commentary by Matthew Henry and John MacArthur.

Luke 3:23-38

The Genealogy of Jesus Christ

 23Jesus, when he began his ministry, was about thirty years of age, being the son (as was supposed) of Joseph, the son of Heli, 24the son of Matthat, the son of Levi, the son of Melchi, the son of Jannai, the son of Joseph, 25the son of Mattathias, the son of Amos, the son of Nahum, the son of Esli, the son of Naggai, 26the son of Maath, the son of Mattathias, the son of Semein, the son of Josech, the son of Joda, 27the son of Joanan, the son of Rhesa, the son of Zerubbabel, the son of Shealtiel, the son of Neri, 28the son of Melchi, the son of Addi, the son of Cosam, the son of Elmadam, the son of Er, 29the son of Joshua, the son of Eliezer, the son of Jorim, the son of Matthat, the son of Levi, 30the son of Simeon, the son of Judah, the son of Joseph, the son of Jonam, the son of Eliakim, 31the son of Melea, the son of Menna, the son of Mattatha, the son of Nathan, the son of David, 32 the son of Jesse, the son of Obed, the son of Boaz, the son of Sala, the son of Nahshon, 33the son of Amminadab, the son of Admin, the son of Arni, the son of Hezron, the son of Perez, the son of Judah, 34 the son of Jacob, the son of Isaac, the son of Abraham, the son of Terah, the son of Nahor, 35the son of Serug, the son of Reu, the son of Peleg, the son of Eber, the son of Shelah, 36the son of Cainan, the son of Arphaxad, the son of Shem, the son of Noah, the son of Lamech, 37the son of Methuselah, the son of Enoch, the son of Jared, the son of Mahalaleel, the son of Cainan, 38the son of Enos, the son of Seth, the son of Adam, the son of God.

———————————————————————————–

Luke 3 begins with a summary of John the Baptist’s ministry and ends with the genealogy of Jesus Christ.

Just before giving us His genealogy, Luke tells us that John baptised Jesus. Emphases mine below:

21Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heavens were opened, 22and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form, like a dove; and a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”

Some Christians say that it really isn’t necessary to get baptised in order to be saved. In certain circumstances, that is probably true. However, if a supposed believer has spent his entire life with churches nearby, not joining a church and seeking baptism is questionable. If Jesus actively sought baptism when He didn’t need to, who are we to actively reject this sacrament?

Note how Jesus prayed after His baptism. Luke’s is the only account which gives us this detail. Matthew Henry explains:

Notice is here taken of Christ’s praying when he was baptized, which was not in Matthew: being baptized, and praying. He did not confess sin, as others did, for he had none to confess; but he prayed, as others did, for he would thus keep up communion with his Father. Note, The inward and spiritual grace of which sacraments are the outward and visible signs must be fetched in by prayer; and therefore prayer must always accompany them. We have reason to think that Christ now prayed for this manifestation of God’s favour to him which immediately followed; he prayed for the discovery of his Father’s favour to him, and the descent of the Spirit. What was promised to Christ, he must obtain by prayer: Ask of me and I will give thee, etc. Thus he would put an honour upon prayer, would tie us to it, and encourage us in it.

There are plenty of older Christians around who no longer pray. Years ago, one told me, ‘I don’t pray anymore. I’ve said enough prayers in my lifetime.’ Yet, if Jesus Christ prayed, so should we, if we hope to imitate His example.

Of Christ’s baptism, Henry also notes:

Christ would be baptized last, among the common people, and in the rear of them; thus he humbled himself, and made himself of no reputation, as one of the least, nay, as less than the least. He saw what multitudes were hereby prepared to receive him, and then he appeared.

After the Holy Spirit descended in bodily form and a voice from heaven declared Jesus ‘beloved’, Luke proceeds to give us His lineage. All of this is to prove that He was not self-appointed as some ‘theologians’ and atheists put forth. He is the beloved Son of God and He is descended from the House of David. Both are important to establish that Jesus did not emerge from nowhere.

Whereas Matthew gives us Joseph’s family line, Luke gives us Mary’s family history. He is the only Gospel writer to mention the Annunciation (Luke 1:26-38) and the only one to include the Presentation at the Temple featuring Simeon’s and Anna’s prophecies (Luke 2:22-32). Therefore, Luke is carefully setting forth Jesus’s credentials and legitimacy for us via Mary.

In verse 23, Luke tells us that Jesus was 30 years old when He began His ministry. Thirty years of age was when a man in Jewish society gained credibility and authority. Both of our commentators mention other instances in Scripture where great men of the Old Testament reached 30 and began to fulfil God’s purpose. John MacArthur says:

When Joseph entered into his … rulership of Egypt, according to Genesis 41 … it says that Joseph was 30 years of age. And when David ascended to the throne of Israel, according to 2 Samuel 5:4, it says he was 30 years of age and he ruled for 40 years. And according to Numbers chapter 4, when somebody entered into priestly service, they needed to be 30 years of age. So it was a…it was a common age in the mind of a Jew for a prophet, for a priest, for a ruler and for a king, namely the King David, isn’t that an interesting parallel? David himself was 30 when he entered in to his royal rulership. So Jesus waited until an age when I think there would be an acceptance of his maturity … certainly He would have been capable at the age of 18, or 19 or 20 to engage Himself in the way He did in His ministry, but He waited until an appropriate age which the people would acknowledge as an appropriate age, the age of 30. And He began His ministry.

Verse 23 also contains the qualifying words of Joseph ‘as was supposed’, meaning, as far as everyone else was concerned he was Jesus’s father but we know that in reality he was His earthly, foster father.

The more one reads these accounts of Jesus’s life, the more one realises how God arranged it through His people according to Jewish custom and family norms. Mary could have been a single mother, but she wasn’t. Mary and Joseph could have decided to skip the circumcision, but they did not. The Holy Family could have opted out of Jewish observance but they did not. Jesus could have kept teaching from the time He went missing in the Temple, but He did not. He did not need to be baptised, yet He was. Yet, here we are in the 21st century exempting ourselves from all manner of religious and family responsibilities.

Now on to the rest of the genealogy of Christ Jesus. In verse 23, after the mention of Joseph, we read ‘the son of Heli’ — Eli. This Eli was Mary’s father, according to our commentators. Other Protestant Bible scholars will attest to that.

So, how is it then that Catholics and the Orthodox say that Anne and Joachim were Mary’s parents? The Wikipedia entry on Saint Anne explains:

her name and that of her husband Joachim come only from New Testament apocrypha, of which the Protoevangelium of James, written perhaps around 150, seems to be the earliest that mentions them.

The entry for Joachim says:

the genealogy in Luke is actually the family tree of Mary, and that Heli is her father.[2] To resolve the problem of Joseph having two fathers – one descended from Solomon, one descended from Nathan, son of David, traditions from the 7th century specify that Heli was a first cousin of Joachim.[3]

Furthermore, whereas Matthew’s genealogy traces Jesus’s lineage to Abraham, Luke takes it further — to Adam (verse 38):

the son of Adam, the son of God.

From this we can better understand later theological references to Jesus as ‘the second Adam’.

Henry offers this analysis:

(1.) Some refer it to Adam; he was in a peculiar manner the son of God, being, more immediately than any of his offspring, the offspring of God by creation. (2.) Others refer it to Christ, and so make the last words of this genealogy to denote his divine and human nature. He was both the Son of Adam and the Son of God that he might be a proper Mediator between God and the sons of Adam, and might bring the sons of Adam to be, through him, the sons of God.

As for the intervening names, Henry says:

Matthew draws the pedigree from Solomon, whose natural line ending in Jechonias, the legal right was transferred to Salathiel, who was of the house of Nathan, another son of David, which line Luke here pursues, and so leaves out all the kings of Judah. It is well for us that our salvation doth not depend upon our being able to solve all these difficulties, nor is the divine authority of the gospels at all weakened by them; for the evangelists are not supposed to write these genealogies either of their own knowledge or by divine inspiration, but to have copied them out of the authentic records of the genealogies among the Jews, the heralds’ books, which therefore they were obliged to follow; and in them they found the pedigree of Jacob, the father of Joseph, to be as it is set down in Matthew; and the pedigree of Heli, the father of Mary, to be as it is set down here in Luke. And this is the meaning of hoµs enomizeto (v. 23), not, as it was supposed, referring only to Joseph, but uti sancitum est legeas it is entered into the books, as we find it upon record; by which is appeared that Jesus was both by father and mother’s side the Son of David

John MacArthur further explains Luke’s wording in Greek:

Why would the writer if he’s going to give an accurate genealogy and he’s going to be consistent with his terms all the way down use tou, leave out “son” in every one except with Joseph use “the”…use “son” and leave out “the”? Why does he do that? Because he is separating Joseph from the genealogy. And if you want to organize the verse, let me suggest that this is how the verse should be read. And it gives you this latitude in the Greek language. The verse reads like this, “Jesus Himself, supposedly Joseph’s Son, was about 30 years old when He began His ministry being a Son of Heli.” That is the way you would read the verse. “Jesus Himself, supposedly Joseph’s Son,” just take that phrase because it’s a completely different structure than all the rest of the phrases in the genealogy. “Jesus Himself, supposedly Joseph’s Son, was about 30 years old when He began His ministry being a Son of Heli.” You just jump to the grandfather which was very often done in genealogies, particularly in Luke’s case where he wants to leave out the name of the women and keep the classic form. The actual genealogy then has to begin with the first male member and Luke has to decide how to do that under the leading of the Holy Spirit since there’s never been anything like this before. But he jumps to the first male member behind Jesus which was His grandfather, the father of Mary. That’s a very important note. So this is Mary’s genealogy.

Not all of the names mentioned appear in the Old Testament; they came from records in the Temple. Only two of the names are the same in Matthew’s account. MacArthur says:

none of those names, except Shealtiel and Zerubbabel, appear in Matthew’s genealogy. So that’s the only place the lines crossed. They’re two distinct lines. One back to Nathan, one back to Solomon. Once you hit David in verse 31, the names become the same in both genealogies from David all the way back to Abraham. Abraham is indicated in verse 34. So when you go from David to Abraham, it’s the same as Matthew’s genealogy. And, of course, Matthew’s genealogy stops at Abraham and so after Abraham you go back, Terah, Nahor, Serug, Reu, you go all the way back, verse 38, Enosh, Seth, Adam, God. And that’s basically the flow of the genealogy.

From Neri to Nathan are names we don’t know anything about. In fact, from Heli back the only names we know or recognize are Zerubbabel and Shealtiel all the way back. But when we hit David, the names are very familiar because the names from David to Abraham are recorded in the Bible so we know those names. They’re very familiar Old Testament names. And when we get back to Abraham, from Abraham to Adam are names in the genealogies of Genesis. So those two are familiar names.

So, Mary’s line goes back through all the essential components, all the way back to David

This is the point of Luke’s history in these verses. Jesus’s family history can be traced all the way back to the beginning from Mary’s side. Matthew documents Joseph’s side showing the same legitimacy.

Jesus is not an unknown from nowhere.

All the more reason to beware of cult leaders and madmen — unknowns — who claim to be Christ or His messenger (e.g. Charles Manson, Jim Jones — past examples).

Next time: Luke 4:33-37

It hadn’t occurred to me to write about this feast day until this week.

French radio this week has been loaded with adverts for crêpes, Nutella, cidre (mildly alcoholic cider) and rum (this particular brand from Bardinet distillers). What’s the occasion?

Candlemas — or in French, La Chandeleur — falls on February 2. This is a time to meet with friends and eat crêpes — with rum in the batter — and enjoy them with a glass or two of cidre. (Television adverts from France make a point of instructing the British not to say ‘cider’!)

As a youngster, I always confused it with St Blaise Day, which is February 3. Any of us who has done that can be forgiven, as church candles are blessed on Candlemas and priests bless throats of the faithful with two beeswax candles arranged in an X the day after. On the nearest weekend, these feasts are sometimes combined at Mass.

This feast is commemorated by Catholic and some Lutheran, Anglican and Orthodox (celebrated two weeks later) churches. February 2 recalls two events: a) Jesus’s formal Presentation in the Temple and b) Mary’s return to the Temple after childbirth, which carried over into Christianity as a ceremony called the Churching of Women, more about which in another post.

Old Testament Jewish law

Candlemas is always on February 2 because it is 40 days after Christmas and the date when Jewish ceremonies for mother and male child are performed. According to Jewish law (Leviticus 12, Exodus 13:12-15), Mary would have had to complete her ritual purification prior to accompanying Joseph and Jesus to the Temple. The presence of the infant Jesus, although circumcised and formally named (January 1), was required so that the priests could conduct the ceremony of the redemption of the firstborn. In those days, Mary and Joseph would also have brought an animal sacrifice. Better-off families would have brought a lamb. The Holy Family brought two doves, the option for poorer couples.

New Testament account from St Luke’s Gospel

Two older Jews were present when Mary, Joseph and the Christ Child entered the Temple. A good, devout man — Simeon — prayed over Jesus. His prayer became known as the Nunc Dimittis (or Canticle of Simeon). It can be found in Luke 2:29-32:

Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace; according to Thy word: for mine eyes have seen Thy salvation, which Thou hast prepared before the face of all people: to be a light to lighten the gentiles and to be the glory of Thy people Israel.

Luke tells us that the Holy Spirit told Simeon that he would not die until he had seen Jesus.

Anna the Prophetess, a wise and pious widow, was also present in the Temple.

Giotto Wikipedia 220px-Giotto_-_Scrovegni_-_-19-_-_Presentation_at_the_TempleThis is Luke’s account, which includes both Simeon and Anna (Luke 2:25-38). The painting by the early Renaissance painter Giotto (courtesy of Wikipedia) illustrates this solemn ceremony (emphases mine):

25 Now there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon, and this man was righteous and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. 26 And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. 27 And he came in the Spirit into the temple, and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him according to the custom of the Law, 28 he took him up in his arms and blessed God and said,

29 Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace,
    according to your word;
30 for my eyes have seen your salvation
31     that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
    and for glory to your people Israel.”

33 And his father and his mother marveled at what was said about him. 34 And Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, “Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed 35 (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.”

36 And there was a prophetess, Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was advanced in years, having lived with her husband seven years from when she was a virgin, 37 and then as a widow until she was eighty-four. She did not depart from the temple, worshiping with fasting and prayer night and day. 38 And coming up at that very hour she began to give thanks to God and to speak of him to all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem.

The Eastern Orthodox Church remembers both Anna and Simeon on February 3 or 16, depending on the calendar used, because, as Luke’s Gospel says, Jesus met Israel, as personified by these two faithful servants of God.

Candlemas in the early Church

Between 381 and 384, Egeria, a nun from the early days of the Church, attended a Divine Liturgy in Jerusalem and recorded that the sermon was based on Luke 2:22. However, there did not seem to be a name for the feast at that time. She wrote back to the other sisters at her convent:

XXVI. “The fortieth day after the Epiphany [February 14, as Christmas would have been celebrated on January 6 at the time] is undoubtedly celebrated here with the very highest honor, for on that day there is a procession, in which all take part, in the Anastasis, and all things are done in their order with the greatest joy, just as at Easter. All the priests, and after them the bishop, preach, always taking for their subject that part of the Gospel where Joseph and Mary brought the Lord into the Temple on the fortieth day, and Symeon and Anna the prophetess, the daughter of Phanuel, saw him, treating of the words which they spake when they saw the Lord, and of that offering which his parents made. And when everything that is customary has been done in order, the sacrament is celebrated, and the dismissal takes place.”

Nearly two centuries later, in 541, a plague was devastating Constantinople. Emperor Justinian I ordered that the Christian faithful pray on this day for the deliverance from evil and an end to the plague. The following year, by way of thanksgiving, the Emperor declared this feast a solemn one to be observed throughout the Byzantine — Eastern — Empire.

Late in the 4th century, this feast’s date was moved to the current day of February 2. This was because Rome had declared that Christmas would henceforth be celebrated on December 25. However, it some time passed before the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple took root in Western Europe.

These days, Candlemas is the date by which Christmas clingers-on must take down their decorations. Nonetheless, the feast brings imagery of candles, flames and ashes. These traditions will be covered below. In an ecclesiastical context, however, the Benedictional of St Aethelwold — Bishop of Winchester — includes a blessing for candles to be used at church services. Today, the priest still blesses a year’s worth of candles.

European agricultural and pagan customs

Western unbelievers will argue that the Church somehow stole this date from European agrarian and pagan traditions. Quite possibly. However, ‘stole’ might not be quite the correct term. It seems that the Early and Mediaeval Church might have wished to move feasts to days which were already ‘marked’ in the calendar by much of the population of Europe.

This could be because of the ancient Roman feast of Lupercalia. However, opinion is divided. Whatever the case, an atavistic significance seems to have been attached to this particular day across the Continent and the British Isles.

February 2 was the day when farmers removed cattle from the hay meadows which were to be ploughed for springtime planting. In Scotland, it was — and still is — a quarter day for paying off debt and submitting rent which is due. In Armenia, farmers scattered ash over their fields for a better crop yield;  people even kept ashes on their roofs to ward off evil spirits. Young married women were encouraged to purify themselves by jumping over bonfires in order to ensure a sound pregnancy. Young men needed to do the same. Sailors feared setting sail on this day for fear their vessel might sink.

Among the ancient Celts, February 2 was the pagan feast of Imbolc, involving their totemic Brigid. Many of her attributes have since been ascribed to the sainted abbess, Brigid of Kildare.

Scots also have a saying related to the ancient pagan Brigid:

The serpent will come from the hollow on the brown day of Bridget / Though there should be three feet of snow on the flat surface of the ground.

Today’s pagans continue to celebrate this date because it is the astronomical midpoint between winter and the spring thaw.

Groundhog Day, starring Punxatawney Phil (the groundhog from the eponymous Pennsylvania town), goes back to the Pennsylvania Dutch (of German extraction). From the 1841 diary of storekeeper James Morris we learn that:

Last Tuesday, the 2nd, was Candlemas day, the day on which, according to the Germans, the Groundhog peeps out of his winter quarters and if he sees his shadow he pops back for another six weeks nap, but if the day be cloudy he remains out, as the weather is to be moderate.

So, it would seem that God granted everyone — believers and unbelievers — some knowledge of what to remember or to look out for on February 2.

Is it Jesus or Mary who is celebrated?

Some church traditions venerate Jesus on this day, others the Virgin Mary. Pope Innocent XII (1615 – 1700) decided in favour of Mary, in direct opposition to Lupercalian traditions. He wrote:

Why do we in this feast carry candles? Because the Gentiles dedicated the month of February to the infernal gods, and as at the beginning of it Pluto stole Proserpine, and her mother Ceres sought her in the night with lighted candles, so they, at the beginning of the month, walked about the city with lighted candles. Because the holy fathers could not extirpate the custom, they ordained that Christians should carry about candles in honor of the Blessed Virgin; and thus what was done before in the honor of Ceres is now done in honor of the Blessed Virgin.[10]

Protestants commemorating this feast put more weight on it being the feast of our Lord’s first presentation at the Temple.

Other ancient European customs

Various European countries have other traditions and superstitions relating to February 2.

I mentioned the French and their crêpe parties. Apparently, these sweet delights should be eaten only after 8 p.m. Anyone flipping them in the pan whilst holding a gold coin in the other assures their family of good luck that year. Oh my!

Yet, it was at this time that early Christian pilgrims received crêpes on their pilgrimages to Rome. Extra flour from the previous season which would have gone off was used to make them. In that way, no flour went to waste.

The French, like the Germans and Americans, also have sayings concerning February 2 and the weather. Here are two:

On Candlemas, winter ends or strengthens.

Dew on Candlemas, winter at its final hour.

In Italy, La Candelora signals the last cold day of winter.

In the Canary Islands, residents remember Mary, the Virgin of Candelaria — their patron saint.

In parts of Latin America, whoever ‘won’ the coin or token from the Epiphany cake must pay for a meal featuring tamales.

For those countries or regions with festivals leading up to Mardi Gras — Fat Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday — their parade season starts around now.

I realise that people will think it sinful for such syncretic (a mix of the diametrically opposed)  information to appear on a Christian blog. However, like it or not, we are a world of nations made up of various influences dating from our earliest days.

I can appreciate if you think this is wrong, and I can understand your reasoning. I’m not asking you to condone the syncretic; this is merely an explanation of why some Christians do the things they do in the run up to Lent.

Tomorrow: St Blaise Day – February 3

Monday: The Churching of Women

My very best wishes to all my readers for a very happy 2013!

Historically, the Church commemorated Jesus’s circumcision on this day.

Since the Renaissance (specifically, the papacy of Pius V), the Catholic Church has designated this day as the Solemnity of Mary the Mother of God.

It was usual for, if not mandated that, Christians attend church on New Year’s Day as a refusal to descend into the pagan revelry associated with the New Year. Penance and fasting were also part of the commemoration of this day in the early Church.

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