The Feast of the Presentation of the Lord

The Feast of the Presentation of the Lord

In previous columns I have quoted from the travel diary of Egeria. Egeria (sometimes called Etheria) was a Spanish woman, probably a nun, who made a long pilgrimage to the Holy Land between 381 and 384. Pilgrimages to the Holy Land had become popular after the peace of Constantine in 313, and even more so after the journey there of Constantine's mother, Empress Helena, in 326.

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 in order, the sacrament is celebrated, and the dismissal takes place.

When the feast 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.

In Rome, Pope Sergius I (687-701) instituted a procession before Mass at dawn on the feast day, 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 return of the feast to its original title "Presentation of the Lord" emphasises that it is a celebration of the Lord that concludes the solemnities of the nativity, although Ordinary Time began the day after the Baptism of the Lord.

The candles are blessed using this prayer:

God our Father, source of all light,
today you revealed to Simeon your light of revelation to the nations.
Bless these candles and make them holy.
May we who carry them to praise your glory
walk in the path of goodness
and come to the light that shines for ever.

The image of light is particularly strong in the alternative blessing formula:

God our Father, source of eternal light,
fill the hearts of all believers with the light of faith.
May we who carry these candles in your church
come with joy to the light of glory.


Elizabeth Harrington