The Presentation of the Lord in the Temple

Fr. Edlefsen's Sunday Column
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The feast of the Presentation of the Lord in the Temple is celebrated every February 2, forty days after the Nativity.  The feast has also been called the “The Meeting of the Lord” and “The Purification of the Holy Virgin.”  In 5th century Jerusalem, Christians began the custom of holding lighted candles during the Mass of the Presentation, which is why it’s called Candlemas.  The Presentation concludes Christmas observances, though the Christmas Season liturgically ended on the feast of the Baptism of the Lord. 

 

The Presentation of the Christ-child in the Temple is recorded in Luke 2:22-29.  Mary and Joseph faithfully observed the Law of Moses, which prescribed taking a first-born son to the Temple forty days after birth and dedicating him to God.  If the parents were wealthy, they would offer a lamb plus a young pigeon or a turtledove to be sacrificed in the Temple.  If the parents were poor, they would simply offer two pigeons or two turtledoves.

 

When Jesus was forty days old, Mary and Joseph took Him to the Temple in Jerusalem.  They weren’t wealthy, so they brought two turtledoves.  Upon arrival, they were met by the aged Simeon, a holy and devout man.  Simeon apparently read Israel’s ancient prophecies, and he spent years in prayer and preparing for the Messiah’s coming.  It seems that Simeon, while in prayer, had heard the voice of God, who promised him that he would not die until he had seen the Messiah.

 

When Mary and Joseph presented Jesus to Simeon, he took the child in his arms and blessed the Lord, saying:  “Lord, now let Your servant go in peace according to Your promise, because my eyes have seen Your salvation which you have prepared before the face of all peoples, a light to bring revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory to your people Israel” (Luke 2:29-32).  The Prophetess, Anna, was also in the Temple when Mary and Joseph arrived with the child Jesus.  She was an eighty-four year old widow.  She had spent long hours in the Temple, worshiping, fasting and praying. When she saw Christ, she praised God and spoke of him to all who were awaiting the Messiah’s coming.   Afterward, the Holy Family returned to Nazareth in Galilee.  St. Luke says that Jesus grew and became strong, and he was filled with wisdom.

 

Eastern icons depicting the Presentation often show the meeting taking place in the Temple, in front of the Altar.  The Altar has a book or a scroll on it, covered by a canopy.   Mary stands to the left, holding out her hands in a gesture of offering.  One of Mary’s hands is covered by her gown, indicating that she has just handed her Son to Simeon.  Christ is shown as a child, not in swaddling clothes, but wearing a short gown.  He appears to be blessing Simeon, who is holding Jesus with both hands, which are covered.  This shows Simeon’s reverence for the Christ.  Simeon is bare headed, and there is nothing to show that he is a priest.  However, is has been speculated that he was a priest or perhaps a scholar of the Law of Moses.  Joseph is behind Mary, carrying two turtledoves for sacrifice.  Anna, the Prophetess, stands behind Mary pointing to the Christ child. 

 

(Thanks to the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, from which this narrative has been adapted).

 

A Word on the Presentation of the Lord

by St. Sophronius, 6th century Patriarch of Jerusalem

 

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.

 

The Mother of God, the most pure Virgin, carried the true light in her arms and brought him to those who lay in darkness. We too should carry a light for all to see and reflect the radiance of the true light as we hasten to meet him.

 

The light has come and has shone upon a world enveloped in shadows; the Dayspring from on high has visited us and given light to those who lived in darkness. This, then, is our feast, and we join in procession with lighted candles to reveal the light that has shone upon us and the glory that is yet to come to us through him. So let us hasten all together to meet our God.

 

The true light has come, the light that enlightens every man who is born into this world. Let all of us, my brethren, be enlightened and made radiant by this light. Let all of us share in its splendor, and be so filled with it that no one remains in the darkness. Let us be shining ourselves as we go together to meet and to receive with the aged Simeon the light whose brilliance is eternal. Rejoicing with Simeon, let us sing a hymn of thanksgiving to God, the Father of the light, who sent the true light to dispel the darkness and to give us all a share in his splendor.

 

Through Simeon’s eyes we too have seen the salvation of God which he prepared for all the nations and revealed as the glory of the new Israel, which is ourselves. As Simeon was released from the bonds of this life when he had seen Christ, so we too were at once freed from our old state of sinfulness.

 

By faith we, too, embraced Christ, the salvation of God the Father, as he came to us from Bethlehem. Gentiles before, we have now become the people of God. Our eyes have seen God incarnate, and because we have seen him present among us and have mentally received him into our arms, we are called the new Israel. Never shall we forget this presence; every year we keep a feast in his honor.

 

Why is Candlemas also called Groundhog Day?

 

Perhaps Candlemas is linked to winter weather predictions because of an old English poem:

 

If Candlemas be fair and bright,
Come winter, have another flight.
If Candlemas bring clouds and rain,
Go winter, and come not again
.

 

February 2 – Candlemas – is the exact midpoint between the winter solstice and the vernal (spring) equinox.   The poem’s “fair and bright” indicates sunshine, which means the groundhog will see a shadow when he emerges from his hole.  He’ll go back to his lair because winter will “have another flight.”   The poem’s “clouds and rain” indicate no sun and thereby no shadow.  So the groundhog comes out, as winter will “come not again.” 

 

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