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Behold, there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon. This man was righteous and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s annointed. He came in the Spirit into the temple. The parents brought in the child Jesus in order to do according to the custom of the law concerning him. (Luke 2: 25-27, EOB)
On February 2, the Orthodox Church commemorates the presentation of the infant Jesus at the Temple, in Jerusalem. We are at the halfway point of the 12 Great Feasts of the Orthodox church, and already nearly halfway through the liturgical year that began on September 1. We have passed from the nativity of Mary, through her own presentation at the Temple, the Nativity of Christ, and now have reached the time when as an infant he was brought to the Temple (the Exaltation of the Cross and Theophany being of different arcs). The account for this is found solely in the book of Luke, and occupies the entire last half of chapter 2.
Today let the gate of heaven be opened; for the Word of the Father Who is without beginning, having taken a beginning in time, not separating from His Godhead, is offered by His own will, by a Virgin Mother as a child forty days old in the Mosaic Temple; and the priest, His servant, receiveth Him in his arms, crying with joy: Now lettest thou me depart, for mine eyes have beheld Thy salvation. Wherefore, O Thou Who didst come into the world to save mankind, O Lord, glory to Thee. (Doxasticon for the Presentation, from Great Vespers)
The feast of the Presentation of the Lord is one that is celebrated in both the Orthodox and Catholic churches, and is often referred to as Candlemas, or the the Purification of the Virgin. According to Jewish law and custom, after giving birth a mother had to wait for forty days, and then offer a sacrifice at the Temple in order to be ritually clean. The firstborn child was also to be brought to the temple at this time. Thus this feast is 40 days after Nativity of Jesus, and for some also is considered the true close of a Christmas season that actually began way back in November (so it’s OK if you still have your tree and other decorations up).
According to Luke, Mary and Joseph fulfilled their duty under the law, but while there were greeted by two elderly people who had been waiting for them: Simeon and Anna. Simeon (of whom we know nothing beyond how he has already been described), utters a blessing:
Now you let your servant depart in peace, Master,
According to your word,
For my eyes have seen your salvation
Which you have prepared before the face of all peoples;
A light to enlighten the Gentiles
And the glory of your people Israel. (Luke 2: 28-32)
Simeon also blesses Mary and Joseph, saying:
Behold, this child is set for the falling and the rising of many in Israel,
and as a sign which is spoken against.
Yes, a sword will pierce through your own soul, so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed. (Luke 2: 34-35)
Simeon is prophesying how the ministry of Jesus will be divisive among His own people, and will bring sorrow to many (including his own mother), yet will also “enlighten” the Gentiles.
Anna is described as “a prophetess, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher”, who was widowed decades before, at a very young age, and has been praying and sacrificing at the Temple ever since. Though she is not quoted, she too has been awaiting the arrival of the young messiah.
A consistent theme of the Gospels, and later of the epistles, is that Jesus’s ministry both fulfilled the centuries of prophecies as the capstone of the promises made to Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, and David, and brought the Word of the Lord to the world at large for all people. In this sense, Simeon and Anna represent Israel greeting their messiah, and granting blessings to that ministry. The Great Vespers service of the evening before emphasizes this with a series of readings from Exodus and Isiah.
The feast is often called Candlemas because from very early days of its commemoration, the congregation would hold lit candles throughout the liturgical service (there are records of this being done in Jerusalem as early as 450).
Verily, the Ancient of Days becometh a babe for my sake; and the all-pure God shareth in the impure to save me in the flesh which He took from the Virgin. And Simeon, having been made the confidant to these mysteries, knew Him as God appearing in the flesh. Wherefore, he kissed Him, for He is Life. And the elder cried with joy, saying: Lettest thou me depart, for I have beheld Thee, O Life of all. (From the Kathisma of the festal Orthros)
The icons for this feast are usually quite easy to understand. Mary, holding the infant Jesus, is backed by Joseph, who is usually carrying the sacrificial doves for the offering. The Christ Child is pointing to Mary, giving her honor. They are greeted by the elderly Simeon, who is standing on a platform under a canopy, which symbolizes the Temple in Jerusalem. Simeon may or may not be accompanied by Anna (who, if present, is often with Mary and Joseph, but sometimes with Simeon instead), who, like Simeon, has long awaited the promised Messiah. The Christ Child Himself is never depicted as merely an infant, for the spiritual reality of God incarnate must show Him as aware and conscious in way normal infants would not be.
The scene is within the Temple in Jerusalem, as represented by the canopy over Simeon, and often also by a wall in the background. The canopy over the altar was a feature common to many early churches and is an echo of a similar one over the altar of the Temple. However, like all icons, the scene is otherwise depicted outside under a golden sky, and without shadow, all to represent the eternal and timeless nature of the scene which though now long passed in our own time, is eternal in the sense of always present and in which we can participate in our observance and liturgical life.
Some icons will have additional features or variation. In some there is a pedestal present, representing the altar of the Temple, and on that pedestal will be a book or scroll which represents the Gospel, or sometimes a chalice. If Simeon is holding Jesus, Jesus will still be gesturing to his mother, but she will be gesturing to Him. Anna will (if present and standing with Mary and Joseph) likewise be gesturing to Mary, but Anna will also often be holding either a furled scroll, or an unfurled scroll with a blessing, as is she is a prophet and prophets are nearly always depicted carrying the Word of the Lord. If Anna is with Simeon, she will still usually have the scroll, but may not be gesturing.
This is the final of the Winter feasts of the church. It is appropriate that this feast is associated at least in name with candles as the cold and dark days press on, though the days are noticeably growing longer even now. For the Orthodox, the Nativity season began nearly 3 months prior with the start of the Nativity fast on November 15, and now it has concluded near the onset of Spring. We are also near to the beginning of the other great season of the liturgical year, Great Lent and Pascha (Easter). As Pascha is a movable feast, some years occurring later, and some quite a bit earlier, often this feast occurs during the preparations for Lent, and can be lost in the midst of a series of commemorations that fall like clockwork as Lent approaches.
Of course for all Christians, Christmas and Easter are the “big ones”, regardless of denomination, and it is easy to lose the Presentation / Candlemas, particularly for those whose churches no longer hold to the ancient cycles of the calendar. At one time, before we all had watches and calendars aplenty, before we had to manage our time in minutes and seconds, our forebears marked time by the passing of seasons and religious festivals like this one. Today most note February 2nd only as Groundhog Day, a silly and whimsical commemoration for a fat somnolent rodent, and miss the connection back to Christmas, 40 days gone already. We’re far too busy, most of us, to pause and note that this feast is tied directly to Christmas.
Yet the main messages of the Christmas season really are tied up in this commemoration, for Candlemas, in celebrating the meeting with Simeon and Anna in the Temple, celebrates the first public revelation and display of Jesus. The Nativity itself was largely in secret, in stable (or cave used as a stable) in an obscure small town well outside of Jerusalem. Simeon and Anna are the first to publicly recognize Jesus for who He is, and what He will come to mean. And Simeon warns of both the joy and strife that Jesus’s ministry will bring to the world. The coming Lenten season will bring those out in full, proceeding all the way to the Crucifixion on the Cross, and beyond – a time of repentance, mourning, and ultimate joy after deep sorrow. But the Nativity season we now bring to a close is a time of expectation and more innocent joy. Mary could not have known what would come for Jesus when she and Joseph brought Him to the Temple, and their presentation there was one of joy of young motherhood, even if it should close with the shadow of prophecy.