Feast of the Presentation of the Lord in the Temple
Although the Christmas season formally ended last month, this beautiful feast is the farthest extension of it. In the early centuries, it was originally known as the Presentation of the Lord.
Being observant Jews, the Blessed Mother and Saint Joseph, in humility and obedience, went in accord with Mosaic law to the Temple in Jerusalem to consecrate the first-born son that opens the womb to the Lord (Exodus 13:2), and to purify the mother forty days after childbirth (Leviticus 12:2-8), although the immaculately conceived Mother of God did not need purifying.
Sometime around the middle of the 5th century, the feast became known as the Purification. The blessing of the candles during this feast can be traced back to the 11th century, giving the feast the common English name of “Candlemas” Day because of the candles carried in procession during this Mass. In 1969, the Church returned to Her original title for this liturgical celebration.
Besides the presentation of Jesus and the purification of Mary, this feast is also a celebration of the meeting of old Simeon and Anna with the Messiah and His parents. And, it is known in the Greek church as the Hypapanti, or meeting.
“In this meeting between the Child and the old man, the Church depicts the encounter between the disintegrating heathen world and the new beginning in Christ, between the waning of Old Testament time and the new time of the Church of the Gentiles. What the Church is underscoring here is more than the ceaseless alternation of dying and becoming, more than the consoling fact that a new generation with new ideas and new hopes always succeeds the old one. Were that all that was being commemorated here, then the Child would have offered no hope for Simeon, but only for himself. But it is more than that; it is hope for everyone, because it is a hope that extends beyond death.”*
In this Gospel depiction, holy Simeon confesses the Lord to be a “Light of Revelation to the Gentiles”, the “Glory of His people Israel” (prayed as the Nunc Dimittis by the Church during Night Prayer of the Liturgy of the Hours) and holy Anna points to Him as the “redemption of Jerusalem” (cf Luke 2:22-38). But, Christ goes unrecognized among the priests and people of the temple because their faith was not strong. And, it is in faith that we see and know the Lord. He does not hide himself from those who seek him with fervor, humility, and ardent love. Thus, we must inculcate these dispositions in ourselves, and those whom God has given to us.
“Light is pure; it penetrates darkness; it moves with incredible velocity; it nourishes life; it illumines all that comes under its influence. Therefore it is a fitting symbol of God, the All-Pure, the Omnipresent, the Vivifier of all things, the Source of all grace and enlightenment. It represents also our Blessed Saviour and His mission. He was ‘the Light of the world,’ to enlighten ‘them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death.’
“Even the use of wax has its symbolic meaning. The earlier Fathers of the Church endeavored always to seek out the mystical significance of Christian practices, and one of them thus explains the reason for the Church’s law requiring candles to be of wax: ‘The wax, being spotless, represents Christ’s most spotless Body; the wick enclosed in it is an image of His Soul, while the glowing flame typifies the Divine Nature united with the human in one Divine Person.'”**
“The procession with lighted tapers on this day is mentioned by Pope Gelasius I, also by St. Ildefonsus, St. Eligius, St. Sophronius, patriarch of Jerusalem, St. Cyril of Alexandria… in their sermons on this festival. St. Bernard says: “This holy procession was first made by the virgin mother, St. Joseph, holy Simeon, and Anne, to be afterwards performed in all places and by every nation, with the exultation of the whole earth, to honor this mystery.” In his second sermon on this feast he describes it thus: “They walk two and two, holding in their hands candles lighted, not from common fire, but from that which had been first blessed in the church by the priests, and singing in the ways of the Lord, because great is his glory.” He shows that the concurrence of many in the procession and prayer is a symbol of our union and charity, and renders our praises the more honorable and acceptable to God. We walk while we sing to God, to denote that to stand still in the paths of virtue is to go back. The lights we bear in our hands represent the divine fire of love with which our hearts ought to be inflamed, and which we are to offer to God without any mixture of strange fire, the fire of concupiscence, envy, ambition, or the love of creatures. We also hold these lights in our hands to honor Christ, and to acknowledge him as the true light, whom they represent under this character, and who is called by holy Simeon in this mystery, a light for the enlightening of the Gentiles; for he came to dispel our spiritual darkness. The candles likewise express that by faith his light shines in our souls: as also that we are to prepare his way by good works, by which we are to be a light to men.”***
Let us pattern ourselves, then, on Our Blessed Mother’s obedience, humility, adoration and thanksgiving in following the example of her Son, whose food was to do the Father’s will. As Jesus said to Saint Teresa of Calcutta, “Come, be my Light.” In imitation of Christ, then, we are charged to be a light to the nations. Let us pray that it will be so for us this year as never before.
*Ratzinger, J. (1992). From Bavarian radio broadcast, February 2, 1980 in Co-Workers of the Truth: Meditations for Every Day of the Year. (I. Grassl, Ed., M. F. McCarthy & L. Krauth, Trans.) (p. 46). San Francisco: Ignatius Press.
**Sullivan, J. F. (1917). The Externals of the Catholic Church: Her Government, Ceremonies, Festivals, Sacramentals, and Devotions (pp. 182–186). New York: P. J. Kenedy & Sons.
***See Butler, A. (1903). The Lives of the Fathers, Martyrs and Other Principal Saints (Vol. 1, pp. 337–342). New York: P. J. Kenedy.
Art for this post on the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord in the Temple: Presentazione al Tempio e Santi (Presentation at the Temple and Saints), Ambrogio Bergognone, circa 1494, meets public domain criteria, Restored Traditions, used with permission. Simeon and Anna Recognize the Lord in Jesus, Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn, 1627, PD-US author’s life plus 100 years or less; Candlemas Day, Marianne Stokes, 1901, PD-US author’s life plus 80 years or less; both Wikimedia Commons.