Candlemas, the end of Christmas

February 2nd: the Presentation of Christ in the Temple

The story of the Presentation can be read in Luke 2:22-4. We can note in passing some difficulties. Why Mary and Joseph should be surprised by Simeon’s remarks (Luke 2:33) after annunciation, shepherds, angels and so on earlier in the gospel is not clear. Perhaps Luke is bringing together birth/infancy stories that were originally separate.

More importantly, Luke confuses two different Jewish customs, perhaps because he had only an outsider’s knowledge gleaned from reading Jewish scriptures rather than actual practice. Firstly, there is in Leviticus 12 a rite of purification for a new mother, forty days after the birth of a son, eighty days after a daughter’s birth. Purification has nothing to do with dirt, distaste or patriarchal control, but with reverence for the processes of life - symbolised by blood, only imperfectly understood in the ancient world. The blood of childbirth was a matter of reverence, since blood represented God’s gift of life. The mother is declared ‘unclean’, that is, unable to attend Temple services, to protect her from the possibility of irreverent bloodshed. At the end of the allotted time she offers a lamb as a thank offering for the gift of a child, and a dove or pigeon to cover any possible sin incurred in the flow of blood; those unable to afford a lamb could offer a second dove as in Luke 2:24.

The second custom was redemption of the firstborn son from service to God (Exodus 13:1&2, 11-16; Numbers 18:15-16). Although this involved a five shekel payment to the priests, there was no obligation to go physically to the Temple to pay. Similarly, most Jewish mothers in Jesus’s time would not have been able to go to the Temple and make their sacrifice. Luke makes no mention of the money payment and it is not clear what he means by ‘their purification’(2:22).

However all this may be, Luke’s main point is that Jesus comes from a devout family, compliant with the Torah (cf. Galatians 4:4). We can also see important motifs to be developed later in Luke’s gospel. The importance of Jerusalem and the Temple probably reflects the strong influence of the similarly Zion-centred book of Isaiah on Luke’s thinking. Other influences here are I Samuel 21-28 and Malachi 3:1. The inspiration of the Holy Spirit - on Simeon here - is characteristic, as is the balance of male and female characters.

The whole story here has a mixed character, on the one hand the joy of Simeon and Anna at the coming of Jesus, on the other Simeon’s warning of Jesus as a source of division and pain within community and family, which begins almost immediately (see Luke 2:41-52 and also Luke 14:26). The Christian feast reflects this; it is the final celebration of Christmas/Epiphany and a turning towards Lent and Holy Week. The older liturgies recognised this, with a procession – a penitential rite in the early Church – and a joyous Eucharist.

Appropriately, the feast originated in Jerusalem in the fourth century, and was celebrated on 12th February – moving to its present date when the Nativity was fixed at 25th December. Pope Sergius I (687-701) introduced the procession with lighted Candles, brought to Rome from his native Syria. This is a custom we try to keep up at All Saints, usually on the nearest Sunday. This procession, and the custom of dedicating the candles to be used in church for the year, led to the common English name of Candlemas for the feast. Other medieval church customs involved liturgical drama. At Beverley, parishioners represented Joseph, Simeon, Anna and angels, and a woman adorned as the Queen of Heaven carries an image of the infant Jesus. Although this disappeared at the Reformation, the early English Prayer Books retained the medieval title of the feast: the Purification of St Mary the Virgin. Only in 1662 did it become the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, its modern title in all parts of the Western Church.

The B.C.P. collect for this day is old (late sixth century):

Almighty and everlasting God, we humbly beseech thy Majesty, that, as thy only-begotten Son was this day presented in the temple in substance of our flesh, so we may be presented unto thee with pure and clean hearts, by the same thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

A.S.B. made it fuller with a reference to Simeon’s song, but Common Worship returns to the original simple form. Locally, we can note the dedication of the parish of Blidworth to S. Mary of the Purification, while the poet and clergyman Robert Herrick (1591-16714) wrote three Candlemas poems noting the removal of greenery and Christmas food and the quenching of the Yule Log until next year.

Clarence Rickards
© St Peter's Church, Nottingham
Last revised 8th February 2004