Coming forty days after Christmas Day, the feast of the Presentation of Our Lord in the Temple reminds us of the Law (Exodus 13:2, 22:29) that required Jewish parents to redeem the lives of their firstborn sons by an offering, because every firstborn son was to be dedicated to God in memory of the Israelites’ deliverance from Egypt, when the firstborn sons of the Egyptians were slain and those of faithful Israel were spared. While a feast of our Lord, called in the East the “Meeting of Christ with Simeon” or by the Armenians the “Coming of the Son of God into the Temple”, this is also the occasion of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary, because on the fortieth day after the birth of a child the Law considered a mother to be released from the impurity of childbirth. The feast was observed in Jerusalem by the end of the fourth century and was introduced in Constantinople by the emperor Justinian in 542. The day first appears in the West as the Purification of Mary in the Gelasian Sacramentary (seventh century). The practice of a procession with lighted candles in celebration of the Presentation is early. Sophronius, the Patriarch of Jerusalem (+638), exhorted his hearers in a sermon for the Presentation:
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 coming year on this feast day, leading to the designation “Candlemas” (Candle-Mass) in England. The Presentation of Our Lord brings to a conclusion the celebration of Christmas. In recognition of this, some leave a few Christmas decorations (for example, the wreath on the front door) up until the Presentation.
In his New Book of Festivals and Commemorations (pp. 70-71), Philip Pfatteicher writes:
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, mus go by the path of suffering, and his people must go with him along that same path.
As the aged prophet Simeon takes Jesus into his arms, we witness God’s covenant with his people moving towards its climax. The one faithful Israelite, God’s Messiah and Israel’s King, has come to fulfill the vocation that Israel had failed to fulfill, time and time again: to undo the effects of the Fall, to restore humanity to right relationship with God, to bring the nations into the kingdom. “For these eyes of mine have seen the Savior, whom you have prepared for all the world to see: a Light to enlighten the nations, and the glory of your people Israel.” This encounter in the Temple is not itself the climax of the covenant, but a significant moment along the way, an announcement that the Lord has come into his Temple. God’s covenant with his people will reach its climax in the death and resurrection of this child who rests in Simeon’s arms – Jesus, God’s Son and Messiah. Anticipating this, Simeon’s words to Mary form a bridge between the Nativity and infancy of the Messiah and his Passion: “and a sword will pierce through you own soul also”.
*Oratio de Hypapante 6, 7. From the English translation of the Office of Readings © 1974 by ICEL, as quoted by Philip Pfatteicher in The New Book of Festivals and Commemorations, ©2008.
Almighty and everliving God, we humbly pray that, as your only-begotten Son was this day presented in the temple, so we may 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 for ever. Amen.
“Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me. And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; and the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap. He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, and they will bring offerings in righteousness to the Lord. Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former years.”
How dear to me is your dwelling, O LORD of hosts! *
My soul has a desire and longing for the courts of the LORD;
my heart and my flesh rejoice in the living God.
The sparrow has found her a house
and the swallow a nest where she may lay her young; *
by the side of your altars, O LORD of hosts,
my King and my God.
Happy are they who dwell in your house! *
they will always be praising you.
Happy are the people whose strength is in you! *
whose hearts are set on the pilgrims’ way.
Those who go through the desolate valley will find it a place of springs, *
for the early rains have covered it with pools of water.
They will climb from height to height, *
and the God of gods will reveal himself in Zion.
LORD God of hosts, hear my prayer; *
hearken, O God of Jacob.
Behold our defender, O God; *
and look upon the face of your Anointed.
For one day in your courts is better than a thousand in my own room, *
and to stand at the threshold of the house of my God
than to dwell in the tents of the wicked.
For the LORD God is both sun and shield; *
he will give grace and glory;
No good thing will the LORD withhold *
from those who walk with integrity.
O LORD of hosts, *
happy are they who put their trust in you!
Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery. For surely it is not angels that he helps, but he helps the offspring of Abraham. Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.
And when the time came for their purification according to the Law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, “Every male who first opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord”) and to offer a sacrifice according to what is said in the Law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons.” Now there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon, and this man was righteous and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. And he came in the Spirit into the temple, and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him according to the custom of the Law, he took him up in his arms and blessed God and said,
“Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace,
according to your word;
for my eyes have seen your salvation
that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and for glory to your people Israel.”
And his father and his mother marveled at what was said about him. And Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, “Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.”
And there was a prophetess, Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was advanced in years, having lived with her husband seven years from when she was a virgin, and then as a widow until she was eighty-four. She did not depart from the temple, worshiping with fasting and prayer night and day. And coming up at that very hour she began to give thanks to God and to speak of him to all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem.
And when they had performed everything according to the Law of the Lord, they returned into Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. And the child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom. And the favor of God was upon him.
The scripture texts for the Lesson, the Epistle, and Gospel are taken from the English Standard Version Bible. The Collect and Psalm are taken from the Book of Common Prayer (1979).