Another Festal Day with Many Names. Whatever Shall We Do With It?
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,
To be a light to lighten the Gentiles, *
and to be the glory of thy people Israel. (Luke 2:29-32)
February 2 is a busy day, a major feast of the church, although not always celebrated. The Presentation of Jesus at the Temple. The Purification of Mary. Candlemas. Probably the most familiar thing about it is the Canticle Nunc dimittis, which may be sung or recited at every Evening Office. In the busy secular world, festal days seem to be dispensable unless they can be rebranded into a marketing tool. Case in point, the Christmas Culture. But they had a purpose, and they could still. All feast days are pilgrimages. They lead us into a story, especially when they recall Jesus’ life. They lead us to a place called the border, the liminal, the numinous, the Holy. We hear them, imagine, feel emotions. Think about Holy Week bringing us to Easter. We internalize them year after year. We walk with the story, come out changed just as weekly and daily experience of the liturgies of the Church form us, shape us, feed us, make us ready to recognize Christ in our lives.
While many feast days follow the life of Jesus, there are feast days to remind us of the Cloud of Witnesses, those saints of the Church Triumphant that await us. And those of us with Scriptural names can share a special Name Day as their own. If Jesus is truly our Lord and our God, oughtn’t we walk with him on his Name Days? The modern skeptic may say these are fairy tales. But we flock to Frozen and Batman, Star Wars and Wonder Woman, and we eat up their myths.
Most feasts can’t be blithely transferred to the nearest Sunday. And in today’s world, who is going to trot off to church midweek to celebrate the Presentation or Purification of anybody? It just doesn’t seem relevant. Let’s look at this one (three?) and see what we can learn.
Forty days after the birth of a firstborn Jewish boy, Jewish law stated that he was to be taken to be presented at the Temple in Jerusalem and dedicated as holy. Here is Jesus, not quite six weeks old, and he has been counted by the Roman authority, and now registered by the temple priests. A normal Jewish boy fulfilling the Law. Not wearing a halo. Probably wearing a diaper, and wrapped in a blanket. But it is the devout and righteous Simeon who is given to see this child as the promise of salvation and already holy, the one who would overturn everything, and that his mother would suffer for it. For me the other witness is more interesting. The prophet Anna, an old widow, lives in the Temple, praising God without ceasing. We don’t know much about her except that she “began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.” (Luke 2:38) While Simeon recognized Jesus as the promised Messiah, it was Anna who was the first missionary, telling whomsoever would listen that the child had come, and redemption was near.
Psalm 84, appointed for this day, begins, “How dear to me is your dwelling, O Lord of hosts! *
My soul has a desire and longing for the courts of the Lord; my heart and my flesh rejoice in the living God.” Where is our temple? Where may we pray without ceasing? Yes, our parish church focuses our attention on God, but we are the temple, by the grace of God through baptism and the Holy Spirit. Our temple is always with us, and like Simeon, we recognize Christ in a small child. And like Anna, are called turn our lives to ceaseless prayer of praise and thanksgiving, and to spread the word of God by our lives and by our works.
The second name for this day is the Purification of Mary. Women who were bleeding were considered impure. When Jesus healed the woman with the hemorrhage (Mark 5:25-34), he was restoring her to society. That is a wonderful story in many ways, her faith and diffidence, probably born out of years of being shunned, and his awareness of his healing power going from him to her. As late at the 1928 Prayer Book the Churching of Women was one of our rites. It all stems from Leviticus 12: 2-8, that a woman is unclean after childbirth, and may touch no holy thing. In part this may be seen as a good thing if the woman has had a difficult birth in that it allows her to heal undisturbed by the demands of marriage. Nonetheless, she was excluded from society, as she was every month of her fertile life, for the sin of being able to bring new life into the world. Do we shun the unclean? Who is unclean to us? Do they need purification? Or do we? Perhaps we all could use some purification, in prayer, in reconciliation. The collect for this day sums it up: Almighty and everliving God, we humbly pray that, as your only-begotten Son was this day presented in the temple, so we may be presented to you with pure and clean hearts by Jesus Christ our Lord; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
But there is more. Candlemas is halfway between the Winter Solstice and the Vernal Equinox. Days are longer. The sun is really going to come back after the dark of winter, although, for many in the northern hemisphere, the big snow storms and cold are yet to come. It is the actual end of the Christmas/Epiphany season, when the last of the decorations come down. It is a festival of light, a day when the Altar Guild counts and replaces candles, which are then blessed for the coming year. It is a lovely end to the season.
Why did this major church feast day fall out of use for many of us? Perhaps a certain embarrassment about the purification of Mary. We kept the best part, the Nunc dimittis, to remind us nightly that we have lived to see our Savior and reap his gifts of mercy and eternal life. A good thought when going to bed to the world of strange dreams and uncertain awakening.
Presentation isn’t the sexiest feast day, but there are lessons here, too. Not in blind piety, but with thoughtfulness. Next time we pray the Nunc dimittis, say it from the heart with the old man and older woman who waited their whole lives for the promised Messiah, “To be a light to lighten the Gentiles, and to be the glory of thy people Israel.”
Dr. Dana Kramer-Rolls is a parishioner at All Souls Parish, Episcopal, Berkeley, California and earned her master’s degree and PhD from the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California.