Malachi 3:1-4; Hebrews 2:14-18; Luke 2:22-40
Today, 40 days after Christmas, is by tradition the day the Church sets aside to bless the candles she will use throughout the year. Their flame reminds us of God the Father, who said, Let there be light (Genesis 1:3), God the Son, who said, I am the Light of the World (John 8:12), and God the Holy Spirit, who appeared as tongues of fire (Acts 2:3). It’s no coincidence that the two key components of fire – heat and light – are mentioned in our readings.
First, heat. We heard Malachi prophesy: But who will endure the day of his coming? And who can stand when he appears? For he is like the refiner’s fire (3:2). Hearing this took me back many years to when I was a printer and worked on a machine that used molten metal to set the type. After printing, we would drop the type into a pot of hot, liquefied metal. As it melted and the ink burned off, we would collect and discard the “dross,” or impurities floating in it, then skim off the film covering its surface. Only when we could look into that pot and see our own reflection did we know that the metal was ready.
The prophet used fire in a similar way to remind us that, although we are made in the image and likeness of God, sin works like those impurities; it keeps God from seeing his reflection in us. We may well dread the pain of that divine burn but we need it, for his is the fire that heals; we need that purification to become what we most want: a mirror of God to the world. This is why St. Peter says, In this you rejoice, although now for a little while you may have to suffer through various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith, more precious than gold that is perishable even though tested by fire, may prove to be for praise, glory, and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ (1 Peter 1:6-7).
This brings us to the second aspect of fire: Light; specifically, Christ, who Simeon calls a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and glory for your people Israel (Luke 2:32). It’s no coincidence that during these darkest days of the year, mother Church has established a Feast to worship Christ the light of nations, who came to open the eyes of the blind, to bring out prisoners from confinement, and from the dungeon, those who live in darkness (Isaiah 42:6-7).
This is the blindness, the prison, the darkness of sin. From your own experience, think how easy it is for us to get used to the dark; after awhile, our vision adjusts and we learn to make our way around. The longer we remain there, the more comfortable we become with it and the more jarring, painful even, it is to find ourselves thrust suddenly into the light. Yet that is exactly how the prophet Malachi said that Christ would come to the temple: suddenly (Malachi 3:1).
No wonder Simeon calls Jesus a sign that will be contradicted, or “spoken against.” It happens to this day, for each one of us is a walking contradiction. We ask God to come and free us from our sins, then hesitate when he does. Why? Hebrews provided us a clue when it said that Christ came to free those who through fear of death had been subject to slavery all their life (2:15). We are afraid to admit it but we’ve grown comfortable in our sins. Asking God for freedom is one thing; actually having to die to ourselves to get it is another. Yet, that is the price. Embracing Christ means embracing the cross; there is no life in him without dying to ourselves. The thought of leaving the darkness to live in the light that tests us and shows us who we really are, can be frightening.
But the author of Hebrews doesn’t leave it there; he assures us that we have a merciful and faithful high priest… tested through what he suffered… who is able to help those who are being tested (Hebrews 2:17-18). This is the infinite love and mercy of Christ, who invites us to see him not as an avenging angel breathing a fire that consumes and destroys but as the God-man who bears the fire that heals and recreates. Yes, there is pain in the heat and the light for they melt the chains of sin and show us who we are but also great joy, for they liberate and show us who we are created to be. And, we do not walk alone; Christ is the light that walks right beside us.
This is the heart of what we celebrate today; that the light of Christ carries something the darkness never can: The hope of new life to come – our own presentation – when our Lord brings us with him to the heavenly temple and presents us to his Father and ours. Forever.