The Feast of the Presentation of the Lord

The feast of the Presentation of the Lord is celebrated at Masses on Sunday 2nd February.

We know from the travel diary of a Spanish woman called Egeria that this feast has been part of the Church’s calendar since earliest times. Egeria, who was probably a nun, made a long pilgrimage to the Holy Land between 381 and 384.

The journal of Egeria’s travels, written in Latin, was discovered in a convent in Italy in 1884. It is a fascinating and informative document that contains precise descriptions of the places she visited and the liturgies in which she participated, among them an account of the celebration of the Presentation of Christ at the temple in Jerusalem.

The fortieth day after Epiphany is celebrated here with the very highest honour, for on that day there is a procession, in which all take part, and all things are done in their order, with the greatest joy, just as at Easter. All the priests, and after them the bishop, preach, always taking for their subject that part of the gospel where Joseph and Mary brought the Lord into the Temple on the fortieth day. And when everything that is customary has been done, the sacrament is celebrated, and the dismissal takes place.

When the feast of the Presentation spread to the West in the seventh century, it was celebrated forty days after Christmas rather than after Epiphany, that is, on 2nd February. In the middle of the 8th century in Gaul it was given the title “Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary”, a name which was kept until the revised Roman calendar was promulgated in 1969.

At the end of the seventh century, Pope Sergius I instituted a procession before Mass at dawn on the feast day in Rome, with the people carrying lighted candles. From around the 12th century, a blessing of the candles before the procession was added. This led to the feast becoming popularly known as “Candlemas” in English-speaking lands. While this title focuses on a secondary aspect of the celebration, it is nevertheless fitting as the Canticle of Simeon hails Jesus as “a light for revelation to the Gentiles”.

The candles are blessed using this prayer:

O God, source and origin of all light,
who on this day showed to the just man Simeon
the Light for revelation to the Gentiles,
we humbly ask that, in answer to your people's prayers,
you may be pleased to sanctify with your blessing + these candles,
which we are eager to carry in praise of your name,
so that, treading the path of virtue,
we may reach that light which never fails.

or this alternative blessing formula, in which the image of light is particularly strong:

O God, true light, who create light eternal,
spreading it far and wide,
pour, we pray, into the hearts of the faithful
the brilliance of perpetual light,
so that all who are brightened in your holy temple
by the splendour of these candles
may happily reach the light of your glory.

Although weekday Ordinary Time began the day after the Baptism of the Lord, the Presentation is a feast of the Lord that concludes the solemnities of the nativity

Elizabeth Harrington