This week, we celebrate the feast of the Presentation of the Lord (Feb. 2). Under the Law of Moses, a firstborn son belonged to God. On his 40th day of life, his parents would bring him to a priest to offer him to the Lord. This had been the practice for centuries by the time Jesus was born.
At the same time, the child’s mother would also be purified after the birth process. Before that, she could not enter the Temple. Of course, Mary didn’t need to be purified, but by submitting to this law she is traditionally seen as rededicating herself to God’s will. That’s why the feast is also known as the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary. At the time, a sacrifice was offered for the woman — this was usually a lamb as a burnt offering and a turtledove or pigeon as a sin offering. If a family could not afford these, two birds were offered — as Mary and Joseph did.
Meeting the Lord
In Greek and Eastern Orthodox churches, the feast of the Presentation is called the Hypapante tou Kyriou — “the Meeting of the Lord.” This feast was first celebrated in Jerusalem.
Many of the Eastern fathers of the church wrote about this feast, dating as far back as the fourth century. Some people might remember that Feb. 2 was once considered the end of the Christmas season — since it is 40 days after Dec. 25. In some of the Eastern churches, the feast of the Presentation of the Lord was held on Feb. 14, since it was 40 days after Jan. 6. Epiphany is the earliest feast — even earlier than Dec. 25 — to honor the Incarnation.
In the Western Church, the date of Dec. 25 as the feast of Christmas was set in place by the middle of the fourth century. This date tied in with the time when the days began to grow longer and people were celebrating the return of light. Feb. 2 also happens to fall exactly between the winter solstice and spring equinox. So its 40-day place after Dec. 25 made it a logical date on which to end the Christmas season.
Lent must follow
Lent never takes place until the Presentation feast has been celebrated. Based on the date of Easter, the earliest that Lent can start in any year is Feb. 4. So while it might be close some years — unlike 2018 when nearly two weeks separate Feb. 2 from Ash Wednesday — any vestige of Christmas is gone before Lent begins.
In the West, the emphasis of the Feb. 2 feast day came to be focused more on the Blessed Virgin Mary over the centuries. There also arose special emphasis on the prophecy of Simeon that her heart would be pierced. From this, the feast of the Sorrowful Mother later arose.
While candles have long been part of the feast of the Presentation, the “Catholic Encyclopedia” notes that it was not until early in the second millennium that what we now know as “Candlemas” officially became part of the Feb. 2 celebration.
On Candlemas, the priest would bless the candles that would be used in church during the coming year, as well as candles that were taken home by the faithful. The blessed candles that went to homes were used for many events, including to be lit during thunderstorms. Candlemas also included candle processions that wound through the church and, sometimes, outside into the church cemetery. All of this enhances the theme that Mary and Joseph are bringing the Light of the World to God’s Temple.
Besides the Holy Family, the other key figures in the feast of the Presentation are Simeon and Anna. In the churches of the East — both Catholic and Orthodox — their feast day is celebrated on Feb. 3.
The earliest art representing the Presentation focused on the Holy Family meeting Simeon and Anna outside the Temple. This is still the case in most Eastern-rite icons. After a few centuries had passed, however, artistic images in the West began to move the meeting inside the Temple, adding the altar and priestly vestments for Simeon.
In many images of the feast, both in the East and the West, Anna holds a candle. This emphasizes Christ as the “light to the Gentiles.” (And this is why candles became part of the celebration.) In other images, Anna is shown holding a scroll — or a scroll and a candle — indicating her role as a prophet.
In Eastern-rite churches, Simeon is called “the God-Receiver.” Tradition says that he was very old, as old as 360 years, when he met the Holy Family. Several Greek and Eastern Orthodox sources even cite Simeon as one of the 70 Jewish elders who translated the Jewish Bible (the Old Testament) from Hebrew to Greek. Since this happened in Alexandria, Egypt, in the third century B.C., it would indeed mean Simeon was very old. In these traditions, he is credited with translating the prophecy of Isaiah about the virgin who would conceive and bear a son (7:14).
The widow Anna is called “Anna the Prophetess” in the Eastern Orthodox and Byzantine churches. While most sources list her age as 84, there are others that say it is possible to translate Luke’s Gospel to mean that Anna had lived in the Temple for 84 years after being widowed. This would place her age as over 100 at the time of the Presentation.
From an infant, just 40 days old, to an elderly couple full of age and wisdom, the feast of Presentation of the Lord today reminds us that Christ’s light has come into the world for all people.
Sources: The Catholic Encyclopedia; catholicculture.org; Encyclopedia Britannica; the Orthodox Church in America at oca.org; johnsanidopoulos.com at Mystagogy Resource Center; and newtheologicalmovement.blogspot.com