February 2, 2023 A Reflection from Fr. David Sheetz
The Presentation: Candlemas -- Christ the Light of the World
Light – as astronomical body, as symbol, as metaphor – is the primary theme of the season of Epiphany: we have the star of Bethlehem which guided the Magi, Jesus as the Light of the World, and Jesus as the Light in our lives. On February 2 we celebrate the Presentation of our Lord in the Temple.
According to the Mosaic law, a mother who had given birth to a boy was considered unclean for seven days; moreover, she was to remain three and thirty days “in the blood of her purification”; for a girl the time which excluded the mother from sanctuary was doubled. When the time (forty or eighty days) was over the mother was to “bring to the temple a lamb in its first year for a burnt offering, and a pigeon or a turtle dove for a sin offering” (Leviticus 12.2-8); if she was not able to offer a lamb, she was to take two turtle doves or two pigeons; the priest would then pray for her and so she was cleansed.
Forty days after the birth of Christ, Mary complied with this precept of the law, she redeemed her first-born from the temple, and was purified by the prayer of Simeon the just, in the presence of Anna the prophetess. (Luke 2.22-40) No doubt this event, the first solemn introduction of Christ into the house of God, was in the earliest times celebrated in the Church of Jerusalem. But the feast then had no proper name; it was simply called the fortieth day after “Epiphany.” What this means is that in Jerusalem at this time, Epiphany was celebrated as the feast of Christ’s birth.
From Jerusalem the feast of the fortieth day spread over the entire Church, and later on was kept on the 2nd of February, since within the last twenty-five years of the fourth century the Roman feast of Christ’s nativity was placed on December 25th. The association of candles with this feast did not enter into common use before the eleventh century.
At one time, especially in the Western church, this feast was oriented toward Mary, and this was reflected in its name, “The Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary.” But because this appeared to threaten the doctrine of the sinlessness of Mary, in modern times the Roman church reverted to the more ancient understanding of the Eastern church, which celebrated this day as the “Presentation of the Lord.” This more nearly conformed to its various designations in the East; “Coming of the Son of God into the Temple” (Armenian); “Presentation of the Lord in the Temple” (Egyptian); “The Meeting of the Lord” (Byzantine). The shift in title reflects a shift in emphasis: it is intended to be a feast of the Lord and not a feast honoring Mary. There is also an ancient practice of associating this feast with the blessing of the candles which would be used throughout the rest of the church year.
Since this feast takes place forty days after Jesus’ birth, it has an incarnational cast. Traditionally celebrated on February 2nd, the fortieth day after Christmas, it serves to make the end of the Christmas Season. This feast is also seen as the turning point towards the season of Lent. While Anna is portrayed as having a mystic’s awareness of the presence of God, Simeon is different; he had been promised that he would see the Messiah. Simeon came to the temple, in answer to the prompting of the Holy Spirit, to find the child who was to be the ‘glory of Israel’. He did not expect to see anything special in the material way, but he did expect to recognize the child because he was a man of faith and knew that he would not die until he had seen the promised one.
The child was to be a ‘light to enlighten the gentiles’ — a light which dispelled the darkness of the ignorance and sin. Simeon did not look forward to a military triumph or an earthly kingdom, but to the reconciliation of humanity with God and the coming of the kingdom of heaven. He knew that there were those who would not welcome the light because they preferred the darkness, as it was a better cover for dubious deeds; that is why he said the child was destined for the rise and fall of many.
When Christ spoke of himself as the light of the world he said:
‘I am the light of the world.
Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness
but will have the light of life.’
It is a light given to those who have faith, who recognize Christ and choose his way; when Christ comes in glory the time for choice will be over. For those of us who live in the eschatological pause (between the coming of the kingdom and its final manifestation) there is a kindly light, but no overwhelming brilliance. At times the flame flickers and the light grows faint, but it never goes out unless we deliberately quench it by rejecting Christ.
The feast we celebrate is the last feast of Christmas; the candles which we use are a symbol to remind ourselves that Christ came to give us light and life. The relation between light and life is felt most keenly in the darkness of night, and during the dull days of winter. So, as you read this, the sun may be shining brightly, we may have to use our imaginations to get the full benefit of these light and darkness symbols and metaphors. Even in those parts of the world that are rich enough to turn night into day with the flick of a switch, darkness remains a threat and light a blessing. When we pray for the dead, we pray that ‘light perpetual may shine upon them’, that they will have life eternal in the radiance of heaven.
Simeon’s prayer became the night prayer of the Church through the ages. The Nunc Dimittis (the choir signs a setting every month at Evensong) is among the most beautiful and enduring of all prayers; to have had our way illuminated and to depart in peace at the end of it, is the final fulfillment of a life lived in the service of God.
There is an ancient antiphon associated with Candlemas which sums up the piety of the feast:
The old man carried the child,
but the child was the old man’s King.
A virgin gave birth to that child, yet remained a virgin:
the one she bore she also adored.