This Sunday, February 2, is a ray of light amid the bleak winter gripping the northern hemisphere, as Christians throughout the world celebrate a feast called the Presentation of our Lord in the Temple (Día de la Candelaria). My memory of this feast is not distant though it is profound as I recall the first time I celebrated it being my initiative in the parish which was met with enthusiastic collaboration from my then colleague, Roger Petrich, and express joy from my then pastor, Father John Durbin, during what was my first month of ministry as Director of Liturgy eight years ago. During my years in Chapel Hill the Presentation of the Lord never coincided with a Sunday and so remained something of “our little secret” liturgical rite, an intimate gathering at weekday Masses with the daily Mass-goers but replete with a blessing of candles to be used in the parish throughout the year, a procession with lit candles as Egeria described, and thoroughly marked with splendid music and incense—both settings and scents, respectively, reprised from the Christmas season selections. Now for the first time in eleven years, the feast of the Presentation of the Lord coincides with Sunday and therefore will be celebrated by Christians the world over this weekend. Known also as Candlemas in English for its distinctive blessing and lighting of candles or the Meeting of the Lord, one of the twelve great feasts of the Lord, in the Byzantine tradition (see, for example, this great children’s book we use), the Presentation of the Lord is the final resounding echo of the Christmas bells (and not just because of the two turtledoves who show up in the Gospel). “But who is meeting whom in this feast of meetings? Like all the liturgical mysteries it is characterized by a fullness of symbols and an excess of meaning” (Collins, Meeting Christ in His Mysteries).
Liturgical celebrations for the Presentation are indeed full and include the procession with the lit candles which the faithful often bring from home to be blessed accompanied by a beautiful proper Entrance about which Carolyn Pirtle has written a beautiful blog post. The proper Gospel of course also is the source of the ancient Christian Gospel canticle, Nunc Dimittis (Now let your servant go in peace, Luke 2:29-32) which Christians sing daily at Night Prayer (Compline) as we go to bed, putting out the lights and wishing one another a restful night and peaceful death and of which I once wrote a setting to the tune of the Irish drinking song, ‘The Parting Glass’ of Pogues fame. The blessed candles are then used the following day on the memorial of St Blase for the blessing of throats (though such may be transferred to the Sunday nearest for the benefit of the faithful). There is even a tie-in to Groundhog Day which likewise marks this midway-point between the darkest day (winter solstice) into which Christ was born and the forthcoming triumph of light over darkness (spring equinox) thus showing with even the good humored anticipation of whether Punxsutawney Phil will see his shadow or not the conviction that all creation points to and is fulfilled in the revelation of Christ.
The Presentation marks the fortieth day of Christmas and just as the fortieth day of Easter, the Ascension, reveals to us the destiny of the Paschal Resurrection of being taken up and glorified, so also does the Presentation reveal to us the destiny of the Paschal Incarnation—the indwelling of Christ, who is the true temple, becoming manifest in the world—and that for which Jesus would be crucified (John 2:19, Matthew 27:40) as prophesied in Sunday’s feast (Luke 2:34), that is that the Incarnation has its destiny in being crucified. Thus a shadow is cast over the light of this day and, like the myrrh the Magi brought with them, hints at the intrinsic suffering of the human condition, tempering that glorious singing of the angels begun at the Nativity forty days ago. Despite or perhaps precisely especially because of its dark themes amid the great light of Christmastide, the feast of the Presentation of the Lord is particularly great for children. In several Hispanic communities children present La Santa Niña in the church to be blessed before being reposed for another 325 days after which he will be pulled from the attic next Christmas. Precisely because it is sad to “pack up” Christmas—a pain which children experience yet one which we all too often try to shield children from or, worse yet, minimize and tell them (as we tell adults and children in too many circumstances of suffering) is a pain they shouldn’t be feeling—this rite works like all good liturgy by not only allowing but inviting us to bring our personal emotions, however ‘inappropriate’ or dangerous they may seem, in contact with broader communal meaning-making systems which simultaneously validate the felt emotion and recast them in light of the master narrative, the Incarnation and Paschal Mystery.
In the Coptic and Ge’ez traditions, wherein boys are customarily presented for baptism forty days after birth (while girls elapse 80 days, both following Leviticus 12:2-5 as citied in today’s Gospel), we catch a glimpse of why this feast of the Lord is also considered a feast of Our Lady, namely that of her Purification. And in what does her purification consist? Her assenting, as she did at the Annunciation, to cooperate with will of the Father now knowing that it will not leave her unafflicted (Luke 2:35), a prophesy she receives from the lips of one whose Hebrew name is a word play on the Greek ‘sign’ which he offers. All of us as parents are likewise implicated in accepting that our children will suffer simply by entering into the brokenness of this world, a brokenness against which we cannot shield them as much as our hearts burst to do so. Yet we too will only be purified and therefore receptive to enlightenment when we admit our powerlessness to protect them from the full measure of incarnation.
Yet, as we profess, the sign of contradiction who is Christ will be one which confounds, gives offense to all (i Corinthians 1:23), and ultimately turns the world upside down because only in so doing can we see the revelation of the lengths to which God is willing to go in order to woo us to himself which is itself the superabundant meaning of the passion. This feast of the Presentation of the Lord glimmers with the telos—the end, the purpose—of the Lord’s coming as the true light of the Temple, that is to enlighten that space which was presumed corrupt but, which like us, is made holy once again by being rent open and filled anew with the divine presence so that nations may walk by his light (Zechariah 8:23) which is unveiled and thus radiates out from we whom he has redeemed and in whom he condescends to abide. To wrap-up this reflection, I offer this song by music missionary, Danielle Rose: