Today (February 2nd) is the day we start to turn, ever so lightly, in a different direction. Today the Church celebrates our Lord’s Presentation in the Temple, and we turn the page from the Christmas/Epiphany Season and begin to look towards Lent. The Feast of the Presentation is one of the most ancient feasts on the Church calendar dating to the fourth century in Jerusalem.
According to Moses’s Law, forty days after the birth of a male child, the mother had to present him in the Temple while also making an offering of a lamb or two turtledoves. In his treatment of this event, the Gospel writer Luke recounts that the law would suggest that if one could not afford a lamb, then the doves or even pigeons would also be acceptable. Being of limited means, Mary and Joseph presented Jesus in the Temple with the sacrifice that they could afford. Jesus, the Lamb of God, would be offered as a sacrifice at another time.
There is an interesting connection between this feast and the pandemic that is currently raging in our world. In 541 CE, a plague broke out in Constantinople and killed thousands. In consultation with the Patriarch, Emperor Justinian I ordered a time of fasting and prayer in the Empire. On this feast day, grand processions were held in cities and towns and solemn prayer service for the deliverance from evils. The plague ceased. In thanksgiving for the plague’s deliverance, the feast was elevated and became a major celebration in the Eastern Empire in 542 CE.
Today’s feast has another name, Candlemas, which comes from the actual celebration of the feast itself. Candles and light play an essential role in this feast. The theme of light comes from Simeon’s words when he sees Jesus and calls him “light to enlighten the nations.” Jesus is the true light of the world. In celebrations of this feast, during normal times, each participant would be given a candle as a reminder of the “light of Christ” but also as a reminder to us that we must take that light out into the world.
Candlemas found its way on to the secular calendar in Europe as well. It was the traditional day to remove the cattle from the hayfields and the other fields that were to be plowed and sewn in the Spiring of the year. Shakespeare’s play Twelfth Night was performed for the first time on Candlemas in 1602, and Candlemas remains one of the Scottish Quarter Days when debts are paid and courts of law are in session.
As I mentioned earlier, this is also the day when we turn our gaze away from the crib and towards the cross. It has been forty days since the birth of Jesus, and our Liturgical Calendar begins the preparation for the next season. Some years there is a longer gap or “Ordinary Time” “between the seasons. However, this year that gap is relatively small as Ash Wednesday is only a few weeks away.
Today, as I sit in my study and write this, the day is gloomy and wet. We have just survived a Nor Easter that knocked out our power for a short period last night. We lit a candle to guide our steps around our house and to keep us from stumbling. Candlemas is a reminder that we are to be that light in the darkness that will guide others’ feet and keep them from stumbling. Let us strive this day and every day to be that light.
Almighty and ever living 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.