About the Festival
This feast brings the celebration of Christmas to an end, and by the Gospel’s prophecy that a sword will pierce the soul of the Mother of Jesus, the day also looks ahead to the crucifixion. It is therefore a bridge between the Nativity and the Passion.
The Gospels do not permit a bland and sentimental interpretation of the arrival of Christ. Simeon, with the infant Messiah in his arms and filled with the prophetic spirit, acknowledges not only the light to the nations but also the shadows that this light must necessarily cast. The long-awaited Messiah will achieve no easy triumph. He will be the center of storm and controversy that will reveal the secret disposition of many hearts and will bring piercing grief to his own mother. The Messiah, who comes to lead Israel to glory, must go by the path of suffering, and his people must go with him along that same path.
A central figure in the lovely drama that is at the heart of this festival is the venerable Simeon, who representing the expectant nation of Israel, at last, after years of patient and faithful waiting, held the infant Savior in his arms. This meeting is the occasion of his song, the consolation of Israel and the nations. The child was being presented to God by his parents, but in this child God was coming to meet his people, so that he who is the light of the world might make his people lamps shining in a dark world that others might see the right path.
In origin, the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple by his parents is a festival of the Lord (called by the Armenians “The Coming of the Son of God into the Temple”), but it is also the occasion of the Purification of the Virgin Mary, the day on which the Old Testament law released the Virgin Mary from what was considered to be the impurity of childbirth and demanded a sacrifice of turtledoves from Joseph in exchange for the life of his firstborn son.
In the Eastern Churches, where the feast originated, the day is called Hypapante, “the Meeting” (of Christ with Simeon, and, by extension, of Israel with the Messiah, of God with his people). The day was observed in Jerusalem at the end of the fourth century and was introduced in Constantinople by the Emperor Justinian in 542. In the West, the day seems first to appear in the sacramentaries of Gelasius (seventh century) and of Gregory (eighth century), where it is called the Purification of Mary. Pope Sergius (d. 701) seems to have introduced the practice of a procession with lighted candles on this date (as well as the other Marian feasts), and the procession, somewhat incongruously, was in its origins a penitential rite; down to modern times violet vestments have been worn for this part of the ceremonies of the day.
In the Gospel, Simeon sings that the infant Christ is “a light to lighten the Gentiles,” and so the procession shows the entrance of the true light into the world and the gradual illumination of the world by him. St. Sophronius (died ca. 638) in a sermon for the Presentation exhorts his congregation:
…Everyone should be eager to join the procession and to carry a light
Our lighted candles are a sign of the divine splendor of the one who comes to expel the dark shadows of evil and to make the whole universe radiant with the brilliance of his eternal light.
Our candles also show how bright our souls should be when we go to meet Christ.
…So let us all hasten together to meet our God.*
Sometime after the introduction of the procession, the custom arose of blessing all the candles to be used during the year on this festival of light, therefore called “Candlemas” in England, to remind participants of Christ “the light for revelation to the Gentiles.” The day is the appropriate time for candlelight services marking the conclusion of the forty days of Christmas.
A seventeenth-century’ English carol for Candlemas Day (1661) laments,
Christmas hath made an end,
Which was my dearest friend,
More is the pity:
For with an heavy heart
Must I from thee depart
To follow plough and cart
All the year after.
Lent is fast coming on…
All our good cheer is gone…
It grieves me to the heart,
From my friend to depart,
More is the pity:
Christmas, I mean ‘tis thee
That thus forsaketh me;
Yet till one hour I see
Will I be merry.
Because the Presentation is the conclusion of the celebration of Christmas, the Preface appointed in the Lutheran Book of Worship and Evangelical Lutheran Worship is the Preface of Christmas, which easily can be related to the Gospel for the day, although the Preface of the Epiphany with its reference to light is also appropriate and is appointed in the Book of Common Prayer.
Even before the coming of Christ to enlighten the nations, February 2 was kept as a holy day by the pagan peoples of northern Europe. Among the Celts, the day was the feast of Imbolg, one the four “cross-quarter” days that fall between the spring and autumn equinoxes and the winter and summer solstices. The day was sacred to the goddess Brigantia, who presided over the birth of the spring lambs, preparations for spring sowing, and the refurbishing of boats in order to begin the fishing season. In Christian times the Celtic saint Brigid was said to give her blessings on this day to flocks and fields and to the harvest of the sea. Sacred fires in fields and in homes celebrated the return of the sun and looked forward to the coming of spring. The ancient Germans preserved the belief that the weather today would either promise an early harvest or warn of hunger in days to come, a belief that came from Germany to America as “Groundhog Day.”
Excerpts from New Book of Festivals & Commemorations: A Proposed Common Calendar of Saints by Philip H. Pfatteicher, copyright, 2008 by Fortress Press, an imprint of Augsburg Fortress.
Oratio de Hypapante 6.7. From the English translation of the Office of Readings © 1974 by the International Commission on English in the Liturgy, Inc. All rights reserved.
From The Light of the World by Jaroslav Pelikan
The cleansing power of the light has penetrated the darkness in the coming of Christ. Those who had received it and had been cleansed by it no longer lived in darkness, but had become “children of light.”… They knew what Christ was because they experienced what Christ did in them and to them. The illumination in which they now lived showed that the radiance had shone in them. And the radiance, in turn, pointed beyond itself to the light with which it was one. As the Church contemplated what the light had brought and as it worshipped the source of its own being, its illumination reflected his light. The Church viewed itself and its world differently because the illumination had come in Christ. It viewed God differently too, because his personal radiance had brought the illumination that transformed and healed every human vision. The gift of this salvation, accomplished by God the light in Christ the radiance, Athanasius found represented in the image of light, as confessed by the psalmist: “In thy light do we see light.”
Over the darkling world the demonic powers had drawn a veil, to keep men from realizing that this was still God’s world. But God had pierced the veil by coming in Christ, who was “light from light” and the very radiance of the Father. By him God had saved and illumined the darkling world, “to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death.”
Jaroslav Pelikan, The Light of the World: A Basic Image in Early Christian Thought (New York: Harper, 1962), 91-92,110.
Almighty and everliving God, we humbly pray that, as your only-begotten Son was this day presented in the temple, so may we be presented to you with pure and clean hearts by Jesus Christ our Lord; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
Gregorian sacramentary, RS, trans. BCP
Readings: Malachi 3:1-4; Psalm 24:7-10 or 84:1-6; Hebrews 2:14-18; Luke 2:22-40
Prayers: For the illumination of the darkness of the world; For the aged; For those who wait patiently for salvation; For those who have become mothers.
Preface: Presentation (RC), Christmas (Lutheran), Epiphany (Anglican)