Icon, Part 7: The Presentation of the Lord


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. 

The Feast

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 Icon

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.

Final Thoughts

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. 






A mosaic of Mary and Joseph presenting the child Jesus to Simeon decorates the chapel of the Jesuit infirmary in Rome June 8. The Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments is establishing an office to promote the development and use of appropriate liturgical art, architecture and music. (CNS photo/Paul Haring) (Nov. 14, 2012) See CONGREGATION-ART Nov. 14, 2012.


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  1. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey

    As gorgeous as it is inspiring. Thanks, SkipSul!

    • #1
  2. TheRightNurse Member

    Gary McVey (View Comment):

    As gorgeous as it is inspiring. Thanks, SkipSul!

    Absolutely.  Isn’t it gorgeous?

    • #2
  3. Front Seat Cat Member
    Front Seat Cat

    The icons are so beautiful and so in the lesson, one that the world is missing.

    • #3
  4. Scott Wilmot Member
    Scott Wilmot

    These posts of yours are delightful – I have learned a lot from them – thank you.

    Today’s Second Reading from the Office of Readings in the Liturgy of the Hours is beautiful and I think, compliments the icons.

    From a sermon by Saint Sophronius, bishop
    Let us receive the light whose brilliance is eternal

    In honor of the divine mystery that we celebrate today, let us all hasten to meet Christ. Everyone should be eager to join the procession and to carry a light.

    Our lighted candles are a sign of the divine splendor of the one who comes to expel the dark shadows of evil and to make the whole universe radiant with the brilliance of his eternal light. Our candles also show how bright our souls should be when we go to meet Christ.

    The Mother of God, the most pure Virgin, carried the true light in her arms and brought him to those who lay in darkness. We too should carry a light for all to see and reflect the radiance of the true light as we hasten to meet him.

    The light has come and has shone upon a world enveloped in shadows; the Dayspring from on high has visited us and given light to those who lived in darkness. This, then, is our feast, and we join in procession with lighted candles to reveal the light that has shone upon us and the glory that is yet to come to us through him. So let us hasten all together to meet our God.

    The true light has come, the light that enlightens every man who is born into this world. Let all of us, my brethren, be enlightened and made radiant by this light. Let all of us share in its splendor, and be so filled with it that no one remains in the darkness. Let us be shining ourselves as we go together to meet and to receive with the aged Simeon the light whose brilliance is eternal. Rejoicing with Simeon, let us sing a hymn of thanksgiving to God, the Father of the light, who sent the true light to dispel the darkness and to give us all a share in his splendor.

    Through Simeon’s eyes we too have seen the salvation of God which he prepared for all the nations and revealed as the glory of the new Israel, which is ourselves. As Simeon was released from the bonds of this life when he had seen Christ, so we too were at once freed from our old state of sinfulness.

    By faith we too embraced Christ, the salvation of God the Father, as he came to us from Bethlehem. Gentiles before, we have now become the people of God. Our eyes have seen God incarnate, and because we have seen him present among us and have mentally received him into our arms, we are called the new Israel. Never shall we forget this presence; every year we keep a feast in his honor.

    • #4
  5. Joseph Stanko Coolidge
    Joseph Stanko

    Beautiful icons, but one thing is missing: where’s the groundhog?

    • #5
  6. SkipSul Inactive

    Joseph Stanko (View Comment):

    Beautiful icons, but one thing is missing: where’s the groundhog?

    Groundhog is aprocryphal.  Traditional, but not canonical.

    • #6
  7. SkipSul Inactive

    Spent the weekend at a monastery, so got to observe the entire liturgical spectrum for this Feast, from the vigil Friday night, through vespers yesterday, through the synaxis of Simeon and Anna today.  More photos to come when I have time.  This one is sunset through the window of the main house over the new chapel still under construction.

    • #7
  8. SkipSul Inactive

    While at the monastery, the abbot showed us this icon that someone had once donated.  It’s Russian (you can tell by the style and colors used, as well as some of the features, and that it is slightly curved).  It is of the Presentation in the main section, but there are some interesting and notable things going on in the sub-panels.

    First we have Simeon working on something.  According to a tradition (and this is certainly not Canonical, nor is it told in any of the services or synaxes), Simeon (whose age is not stated in Luke) was not only old, but ancient.  Here he is translating the Septuagint (this would have been over 200 years prior to the birth of Jesus).

    Here an angel is telling him, as he is translating Isaiah, what it foretells, and that Simeon will live to see the birth of the Messiah.


    These figures flanking the icon are very likely patron saints of the family who commissioned the panel.  I cannot read Cyrillic, and do not recall who these are.

    But the bottom center panel appears to be showing two figures being cast down.  They’re not named.  The nimbuses around the 6 figures on the right indicates that these are saints of the church, but they’re not named.  Judging by the crowns, I’m guessing that two are going to be either OT kings, but they could be czars.  The abbot did not know, and others I’ve asked are not sure either.

    However the figure in the top-center is especially of note.  This is a common figure in Russian iconography from the 1600s onwards.  It is supposed to be “The Lord Sabaoth” or “The ancient of Days” seen in the vision of Isaiah – in other words “God the Father”, who is never to be depicted in iconography.  In fact, several Russian councils over the 17th and 18th century repeatedly condemned this depiction as dangerously heretical, especially after one czar had such an icon written in a palace chapel.  Nevertheless, the depiction remained quite popular, and I still see it used in some Russian icons today.  Its use, however, has never been condoned.

    There’s an entire essay that could be written about the misuses and abuses of iconography, both within and without the Orthodox world.  There is a church in California, for instance, which calls itself the “African Orthodox Church”, and treats Jazz music as the true music of heaven, and so uses it liturgically.  They treat John Coltrane as a saint:

    • #8
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