This is an interesting week with fascinating texts. The Feast of the Purification of Mary and The Presentation of our Lord (from the alternate Gospel texts appointed for this week) is also called Candlemas (or Candelaria). The latter designation is little known in Protestant enclaves where the church calendar is less used, but it finds annual celebration by Lutheran, Anglican, Roman Catholic, and Greek Orthodox, dating back to the 400’s as a tribute to the light of God’s glory manifested in Christ Jesus, particularly among the gentiles.
The Candlemas celebration occurs forty days after Christmas and continues the religious cycle of observance of the life of Jesus leading up to Easter Sunday. In AD 542, the Emperor Justinian ordained that the Eastern Church celebrate the festival, which he called Hypapante, or “Meeting.” The name was derived from the Gospel of Luke 2:22-40, wherein Simeon the priest and Anna the prophetess ‘met’ the infant Jesus in the Temple at the time of His consecration. Simeon's prophecy declared Jesus to be the Lord’s salvation and, “a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel” (2:32). This passage continues to be the focus of the celebration chanted at the opening of the service, read as the Gospel selection, and sung again by the congregation as the familiar Nunc Dimittis following Communion. During Candelaria, candles are often blessed, lit, and borne in a procession in celebration to Jesus being “the light of the world” (John 8:12).
The timing for Candlemas is also in accordance with the Mosaic Law, which required a woman to purify herself for forty days after giving birth, and, at the end of her purification, should present herself to the priest at the Temple and offer a sacrifice (Leviticus 12:6-7). Hence, Candlemas coincides with the Purification of Mary but also the Presentation of Our Lord in the Temple for His redemption payment which occurred during the same Temple visit. That alone is an astonishing revelation; the Redeemer subject to the price of redemption. For the Church, however, Candlemas remains a day of hope and light. It is a time to honor the Lord as the Light of the World and to remind us how we too—by virtue of Holy Baptism and faith in our Lord—have this light within us (Hebrews 6:4).
The Epistle lesson from Hebrews 2:14-18 expounds on the theme of Christ, the light of the world, to the Jew first but also the gentile. The point of this lesson is that Jesus, the “older brother” of a significantly larger family, could and did come to where his siblings were languishing; the land of sin and death. He identified with us, shared our fate, and through his representation as God’s Messiah rescued us from that awful fate. This passage, above all others, speaks most fully about Jesus as the elder brother, the firstborn, of a large family; the family of God the Father, Creator of humankind. It encourages us to see Jesus as the kind of older brother who comes to find us where we are, out of sheer love and goodness of heart, and to rescue us from our fallen natures, our disastrous willing and doing, and our condemnation under the Law.
This passage, above all others, speaks most fully about Jesus as the elder brother, the firstborn, of a large family; the family of God the Father, Creator of humankind.
In sketching this picture, the author of Hebrews employs a host of images. First, he sees Jesus as the founder or pioneer who leads the way for His people. In this context of rescue, Jesus is called in v.10 the “pioneer” or “champion” of salvation. Some scholars have suggested Paul might be representing Jesus as “the new Hercules.” I recall N.T. Wright, saying the image of pioneer is to be preferred to that of a demigod/hero. Imagine, an epic explorer breaking boundaries into uncharted territory, through impossible terrain, until he reaches the goal. Now others can follow. They will know the way because the pioneer Himself is the Way (John 14:6). This word “pioneer” or “founder” offers a snapshot of Jesus blazing the way for us through judgment, through death and into God’s Kingdom.
Our champion is motivated by love. He forged ahead through suffering, pain, injustice, corruption, sin and death. Nobody had ever overcome these obstacles and won the spoils, until Jesus. When He did it, He opened the way into God’s new world. He broke open the wardrobe from the nightmare of World War II, as it were, into the splendors of Narnia. This makes Him, by definition, the Lord of Life; the One with the powers of Eternal Life. He expunges the world of sin and treason and pollution which otherwise clings to the fallen human race. The biblical way of putting this is stated in v.11: He makes His people “holy,” that is, He separates them from sin and treason and pollution through atonement, propitiation and expiation, rendering them ready to enter the presence of the Holy God – to enter into, as C. S. Lewis would have it, Aslan’s Land. That is where I want to be and where your auditors want to be. Exhort them to trust in the once-crucified, now-resurrected Jesus Christ. This faith, gifted in and through this news, justifies sinners. The Pioneer made it so.
Preachers of this gospel are facilitators, ambassadors, doormen given by Christ to lead His people into the audience of the liberating decrees and royal proclamation of our Pioneering King who justifies through His declaration of pardon. Preachers lead their auditors to the means of His sanctifying grace that makes sinners holy, the places where His own personal holiness washes over sinners—the Proclamation of Jesus’ Gospel and the Sacraments of Holy Baptism, Holy Absolution, and Holy Communion. Jesus makes people holy, set apart, by making them participate in His own most holy reality, sharing in His most holy nature. This happens as you are exposed to and receive by faith the reality of His gospel word and sanctifying sacraments.
Another element within their pericope presents Jesus as having done all this specifically through His death. In v.12, Hebrews quotes from Psalm 22:22: “I will tell of your name to my brothers.” Read the first 21 verses of Psalm 22 and the preacher will find Christ is the forsaken One who cries: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Hanging God, forsaken on the cross, condemned for high treason for feigning to be the King and sentenced for blasphemy for making Himself equal to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The forsaken One then goes on to describe His torments and tortures for the next 20 agonizing verses. Finally, with the verse quoted here, the Psalm turns a corner: Post tenebrae lux! After the darkness, light! As a result of this suffering, salvation is accomplished, God’s Kingdom has broken in, and what looked like His ignominious defeat is actually a spectacular victory. Jesus had to absorb in His body the worst a rebellious world could do, the worst sin and death could do. He absorbs it, renders it ineffectual and, thereby, conquers it. This is the great Christus Victor motif recovered by Luther: The Cross is the place of victory. It is a hill to be commemorated because of the triumph. Golgotha is memorialized because it was there our Champion was crowned: This is Jesus of Nazareth—King!
Jesus had to absorb in His body the worst a rebellious world could do, the worst sin and death could do. He absorbs it, renders it ineffectual and, thereby, conquers it.
Then there is this central biblical theme marshaled forth by the author of Hebrews: Jesus as the liberator of the great, new Exodus. With the imagery and backdrop of the Exodus from Egypt, where Israel had been enslaved to Pharaoh, but God went down and rescued them, verse 15 declares it is Jesus who has truly and fully set the captives free. The Egypt thing was play acting when compared to this reality which liberates not merely the Jew, but the entire Gentile world, because all were enslaved—held captive—under the power of death and if death then sin and if sin then the dDevil: for the wages of sin is death and the power of the accuser is sin. Jesus broke through the gates of death, destroyed the Commandant of Death and liberated those, as vv. 14-15 say, who have been imprisoned in fear.
It is interesting how with all our modern thinking, technology, civilization and expanded life-expectancy we are still no nearer to getting rid of this fear, this dread, then the ancients were. Even the self-proclaimed Village Atheist, Theodore Dalrymple, says death is the one irrepressible fear, weakening even the most stalwart antitheist. The unknown conjures up fear. Nothing is more impenetrable than death and, therefore, nothing is more frightening. And yet, how can Jonathan Edwards’s utter as his last dying words, indeed, words that crept out of his mouth several minutes after all who were present thought he was dead and gone: “Trust in Christ and you have nothing to fear”? How could He say that? Because he knew the only One in history with the credentials to talk knowingly about death. For only Jesus maintained continuity with His very person, in body and spirit, through death and out the other side, smashing its powers and rendering them powerless. He was following in the Way, the One who is the Way. This is now us: we are the baptized, we have a share in the death and resurrection life of Christ. Because we have a share, we participate in the life of the One who already gained victory over death: Jesus the Christ, true Son of God, true Son of Mary (Romans 6:3-11). There is nothing to fear.
So it is that, in the face of our culture of death, God the Father promised Abraham he would have a great, worldwide family (v.16), children of life and light, living stones laying about the killing fields, and it is this family Jesus is concerned with. He rescues them from their slavery, pioneering the way to God’s future world through living waters, waters commingled with His blood, passing through the portals of time and space and manifest in the Sacraments. These gifts are lavishly splashed on you through the baptismal waters of regeneration and the blood and water commingled together in the chalice of Communion which truly takes away the sin of the world, given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.
This leads to our last consideration. In suffering and dying on behalf of His people, King Jesus has become the true high priest who makes atonement for our sins. The assumption Hebrews makes is this: A true high priest, as set out in the Jewish Scriptures, should be, on the one hand, someone who is able to act as God’s representative to His people, embodying God’s mercy and reliability (v.17), and, on the other hand, One who can fully sympathize with those to whom He ministers (v.18). He is no distant or impotent older brother, unable to cross the gulf and rescue His siblings, the likes of you and me. He shared in flesh and blood (not just in incarnation but also Eucharist) and shared even death itself (v.14), yet He crushed our fears with a cosmic-altering victory. There is nothing we face, today or tomorrow or the next day, in which Jesus cannot sympathize, help and rescue us, and through which He cannot forge a way into God’s new world.
Additional Resources for the Festival of the Purification of Mary and Presentation of Our Lord:
Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in preaching Hebrews 2:14-18.
Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach Hebrews 2:10-18.
Additional Resources for Epiphany 4:
Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in preaching I Corinthians 1:18-31.
Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach I Corinthians 1:18-31.