The Feast of the Presentation of the Lord

Another Thursday, another feast! Last week it was Australia Day, this week the Presentation of the Lord. To be liturgically correct, Australia Day is a Day of Prayer, not a feast day (that terminology being used only with reference to commemorations of Christ and the saints), but celebrated with lots of feasting nevertheless!

We know from the travel diary of a Spanish woman called Egeria that the Presentation of the Lord has been part of the Church’s calendar since earliest times. Egeria, probably a nun, made a long pilgrimage to the Holy Land between 381 and 384. Included in her writings is 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 retained until the current Roman calendar was promulgated in 1969.

At the end of the seventh century, Pope Sergius I instituted a procession of people carrying lighted candles on the feast day. 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 the English-speaking world. 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.

In this alternative blessing formula, 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.

Elizabeth Harrington