The Presentation of Our Lord Jesus Christ in the Temple,
also called the Purification of St Mary the Virgin

Much of the church’s year follows the life of Christ – as the Great Litany has it, ‘thy holy Nativity and submission to the Law;... thy Baptism, Fasting, and Temptation;... thine Agony and Bloody Sweat;... thy Cross and Passion;... thy precious Death and Burial;... thy glorious Resurrection and Ascension...’.

One of the older feasts of the Church’s year is that of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, celebrated on 2 February, forty days after Christmas. The observance was well established in East and West by the fourth century. In Roman custom it is thought by some to have been instituted to counter pagan penitential processions that took place on this cross-quarter-day (that is, a day falling between solstice and equinox); until the reforms of the 1960s, the Roman Mass was celebrated in purple vestments, the color of penitence. In the East, there are sermons for this feast from a number of fourth-century Fathers including St John Chrysostom and St Gregory of Nyssa; and Egeria, the Gaulish nun who left so valuable an account of her pilgrimage to Jerusalem in the 380s, gives evidence of the observance of this feast there.

In the Episcopal Church it is a Feast of Our Lord that falls somewhat outside the Christmas–Epiphany cycle, but in the Church of England, recalling earlier tradition, it is a Principal Feast marking the end of the Epiphany Season and of the whole Incarnation cycle. Traditionally greenery hung on Christmas is taken down at Candlemas, as Robert Herrick’s poem ‘Ceremony on Candlemas Eve’ shows, and the somewhat overlooked hymn ‘Angels, from the realms of glory’ [93] – after stanzas about the Angels, the Shepherds, and the Sages – ends with a stanza that is as much about this feast as about the Second Coming:

Saints before the altar bending,
watching long in hope and fear:
suddenly the Lord, descending,
in his temple shall appear...

In the Eastern tradition Candlemas is one of the twelve Great Feasts and is known as the ‘Meeting of Christ’. The Greek term translated as ‘meeting’ was used in classical times for the solemn reception of an emperor or his representative with flowers and a procession with lamps; it is supposed that in later times, such a procession went out to meet a bishop – representing Christ – and to escort him into the city and church.

Candlemas celebrates the event recounted in Lk 2.22–40, in which, in accordance with the Mosaic Law, Mary and Joseph take the infant Jesus to the Temple in Jerusalem for the completion of Mary’s ritual purification after childbirth on the fortieth day [Lv 12] and the redemption of the firstborn son [Ex 13.12–23]. The former is part of a system of ritual purity in not only traditional Judaism but also in traditional Christianity.* The latter refers to the Israelite tradition that, originally, all firstborn sons were to be dedicated to God as priests (itself very likely a replacement for sacrifice of firstborn sons in archaic Near Eastern religion), and that subsequently the sons of the tribe of Levi were substituted for the firstborn of all houses, who instead, for five pieces of silver, could be ‘redeemed’, or bought back, from the dedication that would previously have been required of them. (The First Lessons at First Evensong and Mattins of the feast in bcp1979, from 1S 1–2, set forth the dedication of Samuel as the prototype of the Presentation of Christ.) The Presentation, along with the Circumcision recorded immediately before it (in Lk 2.21) and celebrated on 1 January (that is, eight days after Christmas), is part of what is meant by Our Lord’s ‘submission to the Law’; it is interpreted chiastically in the tradition: the Son of God had no need of redemption, but rather was to be our Redeemer, our great High Priest (as the Epistle [from Hb 2] reminds us) who was to offer himself – the Firstborn – in sacrifice.

The account does not end there, however. As Luke tells it, the aged Simeon and Anna – the ‘Saints before the altar bending’ – both looking for the future glory of Israel (a theme set forth in the Lessons from Ml 1 at Mass, and from Hg 2 at Second Evensong) were on hand to see this revelation of God in the infant Jesus. The prophet Anna, who worshiped in the temple with fasting and prayer night and day, spoke about the child, and Simeon, a righteous and devout man, took the child in his arms and praised God:

Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace,
according to thy word,
for mine eyes have seen thy salvation,
which thou hast prepared before the face of all people:
a light to enlighten the nations,
and the glory of thy people Israel.

This, one of several songs found in the infancy narrative in Luke, is known as the Nunc dimittis after its Latin incipit and is very fittingly sung every night at Compline – the Office sung before retiring to bed [bcp 127] – as well as being a traditional part of Evensong, which is a combination of Vespers and Compline.

The Feast of the Presentation is popularly known as Candlemas because it is traditionally celebrated with a procession including the blessing of candles: a continuation of the ancient Roman and Eastern processions mentioned above. Such a liturgy is provided in the Book of Occasional Services; these candles are traditionally kept and used at home for private and family devotions and as a reminder of Baptism. In this act of blessing, lighting, and holding candles, worshippers seeking the Savior take the Light into their own hands just as the aged and expectant Simeon took the child in his arms. As St Augustine’s commentary, read at Roman Matins of this feast, says:

See how this just man, still enclosed in his body as by a prison, see how he longs to be freed and be with Christ. For, to be freed and be with Christ is surely preferable [cf. 2Co 5.6–9]. If you, too, seek to be delivered from the body, then come to the temple, come to Jerusalem, and there wait expectantly for the Lord’s Anointed [cf. Ml 3.1, the Lesson at Mass]. Receive in your arms the Word of God; embrace It with your works, the arms, as it were, of your faith. Then you will be released, and you will not taste death because you have seen Life.

As we said above, Candlemas in a way brings the Incarnation cycle, with its eschatological focus, to a close: as the antiphon traditionally sung during the Procession points out (‘Adorn your bridal chamber, O Zion, and receive Christ, the King’; cf. the Parable of the Wise Virgins [Mt 25], who had their lamps ready to meet the Bridegroom, as well as other passages that cast the Church as the Bride of Christ), it is the occasion of the consummation of the nuptials of the Church which were celebrated at the Baptism of Our Lord. It also provides a bridge to the Paschal cycle, for Simeon not only sings his song of praise and thanksgiving, but prophesies to Christ’s Mother that ‘this child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed – and a sword will pierce your own soul too.’

The major themes of the day – the Light of Christ; his revelation and self-offering; our status as children of God (cf. the Lessons from Rm 8 and 1J 3, at First and Second Evensong of the feast) and our union in his self-offering; purification; etc. – are summed up in the three Collects used at Mass and at the Procession:

Collect at the Blessing of Candles
God our Father, source of all light, today you revealed to the aged Simeon your light which enlightens the nations. Fill our hearts with the light of faith, that we who bear these candles may walk in the path of goodness, and come to the Light that shines for ever, your Son Jesus Christ our Lord.

Station Collect at the Procession
O God, you have made this day holy by the presentation of your Son in the Temple, and by the purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary: Mercifully grant that we, who delight in her humble readiness to be the birth-giver of the Only begotten, may rejoice for ever in our adoption as his sisters and brothers; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Collect of the Day
Almighty and everliving God, we humbly beseech thee that, as thine only-begotten Son was this day presented in the temple, so we may be presented unto thee with pure and clean hearts by the same thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord...

*  Ritual purity is a complicated subject, and one that seems remote from modern Christian experience – though in fact it is part of our tradition as well. It has to do not only, or originally, with physical or spiritual ‘uncleanness’ (i.e., sickness or sin, though these are part of the picture, and often related to one another in the tradition), so much as with recognizing the uncontrollable power and perhaps danger of certain forces and the breaking of both physical and spiritual boundaries: life (procreation), disease, and death, and encounters with the divine in worship or ritual act, all of which can be occasions of separation from the community and its ordinary life and thus of the need for cleansing, or reëstablishing boundaries, before resuming that ordinary life. The High Priest of the ancient Hebrew religion, after coming out of the Holy of Holies on the Day of Atonement, was to pull off his clothes and wash from head to toe; similarly, Christian priests wash their hands after the distribution of Communion. The particular form of purification at the heart of Candlemas is also still with us: for the ‘Churching of Women’ is a custom still practiced within living memory, if not so often in the modern West, where both ritual purity and the perils of childbirth are often far from our minds; its successor rite in the Episcopal Church is the Thanksgiving for the Birth or Adoption of a Child [bcp 439].