February 2nd is the Feast of the Presentation of our Lord in the Temple, also known as The Purification of Mary, or Candlemas for short. I thought I’d take up some of the liturgical tid-bits that characterize the celebration of that day, and point out something of how they inform us of the Christian Faith, and biblical interpretation.
There are three primary worship services in Western liturgical tradition: Morning Prayer (or Mattins), the Mass (or Communion or Eucharist), and Evening Prayer (or Vespers). Although they are normally held throughout the day in that order, the Communion service is the “principle” celebration of the day; that means that the scripture readings in that service are usually the most significant ones for the given holiday, and the readings in the Office are supplementary. Also, what exactly the readings are, and how many of them exist, will vary between different specific traditions. Older Anglican Prayer Books differ slightly from newer ones, and Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox liturgies also have slightly different choices in many cases, but over all the similarities tend to outweigh the differences. With that in mind, let’s dive in!
The “Collect of the Day” is a prayer that is meant to collect together the theme(s) of the day from the Scripture readings. Looking at how this is done in a given Collect can reveal the theological, devotional, or practical emphases that the tradition is putting forth. Here is one Collect for the feast of the Presentation:
Almighty and everlasting God, we humbly pray that, as your only-begotten Son was this day presented in the temple in the substance of our flesh, 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.
This focuses on the historical event (Jesus’ presentation in the Temple) and draws a spiritual analogy to the end product of our salvation: the Day we are all made completely holy in Christ such that he may present us to the Father as adopted members of the household of God. It also points out that Jesus was in “our flesh,” providing an emphasis on the incarnation and the exchange that takes place: God entered into our humanity so that we can enter into His divinity.
Morning Prayer readings
One Old Testament reading that some of the classic Prayer Books set forth for the Office of Morning Prayer is Exodus 13:1-16. This makes for a great first reading on this holiday because it gives the Old Testament Law of Moses background for what’s going on with Jesus and his family. In the wake of the Passover (Exodus 12), God instructs Moses that by destroying all the firstborn males in Egypt except for those households protected by the blood of the Passover Lamb, all firstborn males in Israel now belong to Him. Therefore they must be redeemed (or bought back) after they are born. It’s like a first-fruit offering, except because children are not to be sacrificed, they are to be paid for instead. (Interestingly, it’s the same concept as an indulgence – a debt is owed, but another form of payment is accepted.)
This is what Mary and Joseph were doing in the Temple with 40-day-year-old Jesus; they were obeying this law going back to the time of the Exodus.
Holy Communion readings
Across the board, the Gospel reading for this holiday is Luke 2:22-40, as that is the account of the event on which this holiday is based. There we find the story of Jesus’ family in the Temple, Simeon recognizing Jesus and singing his prophetic song (or Canticle), and Anna the prophetess recognizing Jesus and sharing the good news of His arrival as well.
An Old Testament reading often included here is Malachi 3:1-5. Much of that passage provides material for the preaching of St. John the Baptist, which inevitably draws the participant in the liturgy back to the season of Advent. For there we heard for one or two Sundays about John and his preaching, and the accompanying Advent theme of the future return of Christ for the final judgement echoes in this reading too. But most importantly, the very first verse here says “suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple.” Obviously this has multiple fulfillments, as Jesus visits the Temple many times in his life and significant things take place at several of those visits. But this is his first arrival in the Temple, and there are two people there (Simeon and Anna) who had been seeking him there.
An Epistle reading often used in the service of Holy Communion is Galatians 4:1-7. There we find a theme mentioned briefly in the Collect – our own becoming sons of God. It also mentions the dynamic of moving from being bound to the Law to being adopted as sons. Jesus himself, it says, was “born of a woman, born under law,” which this holiday describes. So the sharing of Christ in our humanity leads to our sharing in his divinity, because “since you are a son, God has made you also an heir.”
Evening Prayer readings
One reading often used at the end of the day is Haggai 2:1-9. This prophetic writing speaks of the newly-build second temple and its inferiority to the original built under King Solomon. And yet, God promises that it will be greater in glory, for “in this place I will grant peace.” This promise is empty and void throughout Old Testament history; it is not until Jesus arrives there that God’s presence actually ever even enters the Temple again! As the Christian goes through Evening Prayer and sees this promise of peace at the end of the Old Testament lesson, he or she will be drawn back in memory to the Gospel reading earlier, specifically the words of Simeon: “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word.” Haggai’s words are directly answered by Simeon in Luke’s Gospel book!
The Canticle of Simeon
Let’s stick with Simeon’s song for a moment here. It’s Luke 2:29-32, specifically, and is actually used throughout the entire year as a canticle (prayer-song) in the Daily Office. Traditionally it’s a canticle appointed for Compline, the bedtime office of prayer. In that context, it is read by Christians sort of in union with Simeon with our approaching bedtime as a picture of our eventual death (as Simeon had been promised that would not die until he’d seen the Savior). In Anglican practice, the Canticle of Simeon is also used in Evening Prayer, but the end-of-day/end-of-life context and effect is the same. My point is that a regular participant in the liturgy will be intimately familiar with the Canticle of Simeon. As a result, hearing it in the liturgy for this particular holiday will have an interesting effect.
Two major promises stand out in the Canticle of Simeon: Christ will be a light to enlighten the Gentiles, and will be a light to be the glory of Israel. The theme of light coming into the world is echoed throughout the seasons of Advent (Romans 13:12’s armor of light), Christmas (John 1:9’s light coming into the world), and Epiphany (Isaiah 60’s light shining upon the nations). So as this holiday wraps up the Advent-Christmas-Epiphany cycle, the theme of light is brought to the foreground and celebrated quite visually.
The Blessing of Candles
This holiday’s nickname is Candlemas, because of the tradition of blessing candles on this day. All the candles to be used in the Church for the coming year are gathered up to be blessed for their sacred purpose. Additionally, other candles are blessed and distributed to the people to carry in procession and to take home. This is a physical enactment of what we learn from Simeon – Christ is the light of the world for all nations, including ourselves! One can also find in the Gospel books the words of Christ, “you are the light of the world” (Matthew 5:14 and following).
Light does many things. It drives out darkness and exposes what’s hidden. Thus, the blessings spoken over the candles include both penitential aspects as God’s people repent of their sins, and apotropaic aspects as demonic spirits are to flee from the light of Christ. The Scriptures do attest, after all, that the darkness has not overcome it (John 1:5). So, by receiving candles and lighting them, we participants in the liturgy are given physical reinforcement to the words and teachings of Scripture that we are God’s adopted children, receiving Christ the light of the world promised in ages past by the Prophets. And we receive this not just as some abstract teaching, but as historically linked to real events that actually happened. Christ the Light of the World is not just a spiritual reality that occurs in our hearts, but is grounded in the real arrival of the real Christ child in the real (though now long-gone) Temple. And with all that in place we are pointed to look ahead to the Day we each are presented in the heavenly temple to our heavenly Father by our adoptive brother, Christ Himself.