In the United States, February 2 is one day of the year that everyone looks to a prophet for knowledge of the future. The “seer of seers, prognosticator of prognosticators” is a groundhog, Punxsutawney Phil, made famous by the movie Groundhog Day. Is spring approaching, bringing lighter and warmer days? Or will there be six more weeks of dark winter?
For the church, though, February 2 recalls another prophecy about light and darkness. The Feast of the Presentation of the Lord commemorates the Holy Family’s visit to the Temple 40 days after his birth. They were “performing all things according to the law of the Lord” (Luke 2:39), but the event was more than a religious formality. It was a holy encounter between Jesus the Messiah and God’s expectant people, represented by Simeon and Anna (who share the feast day of February 3). In fact, the Greek name for the feast, Hypapante, means “encounter” or “meeting.” The events at the Temple, including Simeon’s prophecy to Mary about her child’s future—and her own—continues the Epiphany theme of “the glory of God manifested through Jesus.”[notes]Webber, Robert. Ancient-Future Time: Forming Spirituality through the Christian Year. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2004, 84.[/notes]
I. History and Celebration of the Feast
Although a number of early Church Fathers preached sermons on the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord, including Cyril of Jerusalem, Gregory Nazianzus, and John Chrysostom, the feast was not celebrated as lavishly as some other feasts until the sixth century.1 Western churches often call the feast “Candlemas” (which I will use for clarity’s sake) as congregants sometimes hold a lighted candle during the liturgy, or mass (“candle-mass”). The eighth century pope Sergius added a candle procession honoring “the Light of the World.”2 But unlike Christmas and Epiphany, not much in its celebration sets Candlemas apart. Churches celebrate their various liturgies and focus their services using appropriate readings and hymns to underline the event’s theme. Some churches still have their parishioners hold candles; some still host a candle procession; and some still bless candles for later community use, another tradition. But it is not the feast’s content but its context that gives it deepest significance: Jesus the Messiah, the Light of the World, appearing to His people at the Temple.
With this context in view, we can see that Candlemas marks a crucial bridge between the Old Testament and the New. Jesus the Word (Law) of God comes to the Temple as God promised through the prophet Malachi: “The lord whom you seek will come suddenly to his temple; The messenger of the covenant whom you desire—see, he is coming!” (3:1).
A quick review of the biblical narrative on which the feast is based. Forty days after Jesus’ birth, and 33 days after Jesus’ circumcision and naming, Joseph and Mary travel from Nazareth to Jerusalem (about 65 miles) to fulfill the new mother’s purification requirements. Leviticus 12:2-8 commands mothers to offer a sacrifice—preferably a lamb—for their purification after delivery. For any who could not bring a lamb, which apparently included Mary, the prescribed sacrifice was “two turtledoves or two pigeons.”
While in the Temple, the family meets Simeon (“just and devout”) who has been led there by the Spirit to see a promise fulfilled. Simeon takes the child in his arms and prophesies about His identity, calling Jesus “God’s salvation” and “a light to bring revelation to the Gentiles.” He also blesses and prophesies to Mary about the painful future she and her child face.
At the same moment, a prophetess named Anna appears and speaks about God’s redemptive purposes for the child in Israel. Then the family returns home, where Jesus grows up “strong in spirit, filled with wisdom” (Luke 2:40, NKJV).
Early Christian theologians saw rich symbolism and Old Testament allusion in the story. For example, though Joseph and Mary brought doves or pigeons rather than a lamb for their sacrifice, they also brought the Lamb of God. Additionally, “just and devout” Simeon taking Jesus (God’s Word) into His arms parallels Moses taking up the tablets of stone (God’s Law) into his arms. As I said above, the Church sees in this event a significant shift for a couple reasons. Jesus the Messiah comes to the Temple for the first time. One of the readings for this
John Chrysostom (c. 347–407)
John Chrysostom, or “Golden Mouth,” lived in the latter half of the 4th century. Born around 347 in Antioch, he received a classical education that included Greek language, literature, and the practice of rhetoric. As a result of this training, as well as the gift of God and his theological training under Diodore of Tarsus, Chrysostom became one of the finest preachers of the early patristic period, filling the Golden Church in Antioch with wise and powerful words. He was ordained a deacon in 381, a priest in 386, and then archbishop of Constantinople in 397. He was a reformer, and he spoke for the poor and marginalized in the city. He also wrote a full liturgy that some Orthodox churches still use today. John died in 407, on his way to exile in modern-day Georgia. His last words were reportedly “Glory to God for all things!” Read more about John Chrysostom at Christian History.
II. The Meaning of Candlemas
Many Western Christians come to Candlemas, as I did, with very little baggage. But we might assume that because it’s lighter on tradition that we’d miss little by just passing it by and preparing for Lent. But the church calendar invites us to live along with Jesus’ life, and once again, we encounter with Simeon and Anna the Light of the World.
The journey to the Temple demonstrates the obedience of Mary and, in a sense, of Jesus. Both submit themselves to the requirements of the sacrificial system, which will find its fulfillment in the life and death of Jesus himself. Some argue that Mary did not need the ritual purification the law prescribed, since Jesus’ birth was extraordinary. Still, she continues to be the “handmaiden of the Lord.” Jesus certainly needs no purification or redemption, but as he would with John’s baptism, he submits to the Father’s Law. In their obedience, then, they contrast sharply with Adam and Eve.
In fact, symbolically, Jesus and Mary are a second Adam and Eve, though they obey rather than disobey. And Jesus’ obedience will continue to his death, as Paul writes: “Being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8, ESV). And his obedience provides the means of our redemption, and it also provides us a model of the kind of unselfconscious obedience we should seek in our own lives.
Simeon provides a second perspective for our consideration of Candlemas. This elder of Israel trusted God’s promise that he wouldn’t die before seeing his people’s “consolation.”3 Eastern Christians call Simeon “the God-Receiver” because when he sees Joseph and Mary, he takes the infant—the Incarnate Word—into his arms. (Similarly, Mary is called Theotokos, “God-Bearer.”) But Simeon’s prophecy looks beyond the hope of Israel, in two directions: outward to the Gentiles, and inward to Mary herself. Jesus, he says, will be a light for the Gentiles. In Rembrandt’s painting of this event, a golden light bathes Simeon as he looks upward, as if he were seeing the very light of which he speaks. But Mary’s heart will be pierced, as with a sword. We read these words knowing exactly what’s ahead for her. The words of Simeon remind us that. God is concerned not only for his purposes in salvation for the whole world, but also for one person’s pain.
The family’s final encounter, with the prophetess Anna, builds on the same foundation. Anna’s life of faithful service at the Temple culminates in the way she recognizes Jesus as Israel’s Redeemer. She praises God and proclaims God’s Word to those who were listening and looking for redemption.
As we look next month to Lent, the lives of Mary, Simeon, and Anna—these heroes of faith, these saints—provide a great way to consider God’s invitation to us. Whether your church celebrates Candlemas or not, the feast day allows you to join them in obedience, faithful service, and joyful proclamation of Jesus Christ. You’ll find some ideas for reflection and practice below.
III. Suggestions for Practice
- Spend some time in a dark room or outside at night, contemplating the absence of light as well as the great joy that light brings. Begin adding a small amount of light—a lighter or candle. Read some of these verses as part of your thanksgiving for light, and for Jesus, the Light of the world (John 8:12). Genesis 1:4; Isaiah 9:2; Isaiah 42:16; 2 Corinthians 4:6; Ephesians 5:8; 1 John 2:8
- The festival’s name in Greek is Hypapante, which means “meeting.” Begin a time of prayer by lighting a candle, and give thanks for your own meeting with God.