Presentation of the Lord

While this homily is several weeks old, I am posting it now as it has a lovely reflection not only on the Feast Day for February 2nd, but also a recollection by Abbot Matthew on his own beginnings in monastic life at Woodside Priory, oh so many years ago in 1969.

Feast of the Presentation of the Lord – February 2, 2012

This year’s celebration of tonight’s lovely feast brings with it several “first time/last time” features for me.

It is my first time using the new Missal. It is the last time being the celebrant for this feast day. All of which causes me to reflect on the first time I experienced this feast in the monastery forty-three years ago, in 1969 as we were awaiting the text of the then “new” missal texts which are now the “old” missal texts.

In a small chapel at St. Stephen’s monastery in Woodside, California, four liturgical rites were wrapped into one ceremony which took nearly 2 hours.  There were Latin Vespers, followed by the blessing of the candles with its procession, followed by Mass during which the rites of monastic investiture and tonsure were included for myself and two others.

Two of us had the flu so badly that the school pediatrician had to be called in the day before to give us an injection- it was a big needle and was not given in the arm, thus making it awkward to follow the liturgical instruction from the Master of Ceremonies: “ let us kneel, let us stand,” several times over as we prayed for the candles, boxes of which were piled in the small chapel- every candle that was to be used during the coming year. There were five orations, praying for the candles, for the bees who made the candles, blessing God for making the bees and the wax, thanking God that the liquid wax became solid, followed by a procession to the sanctuary.

The only things omitted because of the procession were the prayers at the foot of the altar. After the Gospel came the rite of monastic investiture and tonsure. We three were dressed in borrowed black suitcoats that made us look like funeral directors. These coats were ritually stripped off of us by the Subprior and one of the brothers. Our black clip-on ties were also torn from our shirts and we were clothed then and there with the monastic habit, after it had been blessed with holy water and clouds of incense.

As the scapular was being placed over our heads, the Prior announced our monastic names for the first time: Andrew, Peter and Matthew. We were relieved that they were apostles and not the three Hungarian names that had been teasingly threatened: Botond, Benedgúz and Boldizsár!

The Prior then cut five clumps of hair from our heads in the form of a cross, commemorating the five wounds of Jesus. The Hungarian Congregation’s custom was then to have your head shaved after the ceremony, which, rumor had it, might happen. But one of my classmates threatened to leave the monastery if he had to shave his head. His opinion apparently prevailed. And so, we just looked a little strange until our hair grew back in those five places.

Though I remember all these details with affection and good humor, the most memorable aspect of that whole ceremony was starting off on a new path not really knowing what was ahead for us. The monastic journey, to seek and serve God,  called us to orient ourselves towards God who is Light from light- while holding in our hands the blessed candles- to remind us of our ultimate goal: to worship and imitate Jesus Christ, the light of the world – a light no darkness can extinguish. “Draw near to him and be enlightened” was the Psalm verse chanted during the investiture ceremony.

Forty-three years later, with an even newer Missal , I’m still holding the candle, still striving to seek and serve God on the monastic journey. Back then I was mostly looking ahead, now I am also looking back at the same time, grateful for the light of the Lord through the years and anticipating the greater light yet to come.

Almost nine hundred hears ago, the Cistercian Abbot Gueric  found homiletic inspiration in the sight of his monastic community’s procession: Jesus “is the candle alight in Simeon’s hands: light your own candles by enkindling them at his. Come to him and be enlightened, so that you do not so much carry lamps as become lamps, shining within and without for yourselves and your neighbors. May there be a lamp in your heart, your hand, your mouth. Let the lamp in your heart shine for yourself, the lamp in your hand and mouth for your neighbors. The lamp in your heart is faith-inspired reverence, the lamp in your hand the example of good works, the lamp in your mouth edifying speech.” (A Word in Season IV, Augustinian Press 19-20).

Let us all then, on this beautiful festival of light, “draw near to him and be enlightened”  like Simeon and Anna, Joseph and Mary before us,  for Christ is truly our Light, a Light no darkness can extinguish. Amen.

Abbot Matthew

[Gospel:  Luke 2:22-40]

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