Candlemas; Feast of the Presentation

And his father and his mother marveled at what was said about him; and Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, “Behold, this child is destined to be the rise and the fall of many in Israel, and a sign that is spoken against (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), that thoughts out of many hearts may be revealed.”
The Gospel According to Luke, Chapter 2

It is odd that this feastday -The Feast of the Presentation of Christ- (which is also called “Candlemas” because it is the day when the candles used throughout the liturgical year are blessed) is actually one of my favorite days of all, and yet I have never written about it.

Back when I was young and discerning a religious vocation
I would sometimes wonder what name-in-religion I would get (it’s not an uncommon wondering during such a time), and I always hoped that, whatever my name would be, my title would be “of the Presentation.”

It’s not because I ever thought of myself as much of a presentment of Christ -God forbid such a thought- but because I loved the illumination of the day, and the setting. Christ is carried into the temple: the Theotokos (the God-bearer) carries within her arms the Light, which is immediately recognized and proclaimed by both man (dear Simeon, who gives us our great prayer before sleep) and woman, Anna (who I like to think of as the first female monastic). Already, in this small scene, we see that he is truly -as the angels said at his Nativity- a light “for all the people,” from prophets to lowly widows.

And then there is Simeon’s great prophecy, made to Mary; one that as a mother, I can barely read for understanding how it must have sounded to young Mary:

. . .the old man praises God for your wonderful baby and then tells you:

“…this child is going to be great, so great that the whole world will respond to his birth, and the response will never abate. And in that greatness, he will be the focus of tremendous love. And because he is great, he will also be the object of unfathomable hatred. He will be spoken against and contradicted – forever! Over him wars will be justly and unjustly fought. In his name men will justly and unjustly die. For his having come into the world, men and women will kill and be killed…and yet…over him great wars will be prevented or resolved. In his name, men will awaken from the sleep of the spirit and arise. For his having come into the world, men and women will perform great and lasting deeds of charity and unselfish love, which might otherwise never come into being…”

How Mary must have gasped to hear such a prophecy. To hear such jarring words spoken about the tiny, sleeping child she held to her chest. Perhaps at Simeon’s words, she held Jesus that much closer and thought, “do not wish such awful things on my child, such terrible power and privilege! He is just my little boy…”

Her little boy, and her God. He is taken from her flesh, as Eve was taken from Adam’s – Eden is recalled here, in a reverse-mirror. The Serpent told Eve the lie she wanted to hear; Simeon tells Mary (the New Eve) the truth she would perhaps rather not know.

For Candlemas, there is a procession and a prayer, which my parish did this morning, and included the schoolchildren. They gathered at the entrance with lighted candles, symbolizing the Light of Christ, and the pastor declared:

Forty days ago we celebrated the joyful feast of the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ. Today we recall the holy day on which he was presented in the temple, fulfilling the law of Moses and at the same time going to meet his faithful people. Led by the Spirit, Simeon and Anna came to the temple, recognized Christ as their Lord and proclaimed him with joy. United by the Spirit, may we now go to the house of God to welcome Christ the Lord. There we shall recognize him in the breaking of bread until he comes again in glory.

Then the candles are blessed, and Mass begins.

The first reading at Mass brings us the prophecy of Malachi:

And suddenly there will come to the temple
the Lord whom you seek,
And the messenger of the covenant whom you desire.
Yes, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts.
But who will endure the day of his coming?
And who can stand when he appears?

Can you see why I love it? I still think of this feastday as “mine” as I did when I was younger, but in a slightly different way. As I get older I realize that one of the things I am called (and privileged) to do is pray for the good of others, and so that puts a different spin on the notion of a “presentation:”

I prayed everyone by name – but even if I could not do that, I still brought it all forward. I felt so ragged and unworthy – like a slave, or the lowliest servant – escorting one person after another, one group after another into the presence of the King, each time introducing them thusly:

“Lord, the one you love is sick…”

“Lord, the one you love is weeping…”

“Lord, the ones you love are overworked and fretful…”

“Lord, the one you love is lonely…”

“Lord, the one you love is under siege…”

“Lord, the ones you love are oppressed…”

“Lord, the ones you love are over-burdened…”

“Lord, the ones you love are slaves to hate…”

I brought everyone in and then receded into the background, bowing low, imagining my own self nose-to-the-ground, almost prostrate and dared not look up, praying,

“help them to comprehend the truth and strength and inviolability of your love, the generosity of your mercy – show to them the outpouring of your grace, gift them with your healing and let them recognize it and trust in it, for your gifts bestowed are never rescinded. You, Alpha and Omega, in whom we live and move and have our being, spread forth your peace like sweetest honey to refresh starving hearts and weary spirits. Let your light touch us like consoling balm to soothe and warm our chilled humanity, so that we might be opened to your justice and willing to be made whole. But I am no worthy intercessor, only a faulty and broken vessel trusting in your mercy. Consider not what I deserve in your sight but only the needs of these whom you love, these I bring before you, and for whom I, the lowest servant, plead. Let my prayer rise before you like incense, to carry these forward. Forgive my sins, especially my failures in love, my sins of omission (for you know those are vast and heavy) and cast them behind your back as your prophet Isaiah has promised, and with your grace may I do better. Jesus, Son of the living God, have mercy on me, a sinner, in your name I pray…”

That prayer wouldn’t be everyone’s cup of tea, I know. Some days it wouldn’t be mine, but yesterday it flowed and that’s the direction in which it meandered…and the meandering was good. It made me realize once again that prayer trumps everything.

I had hoped to do a podcast on the feastday, but another writing project is taking attention, and I really must finish it. But if you’d like to pray the second Vespers of the Presentation, you can join in here.

you fulfilled the hope of Simeon,
who did not die
until he had been privileged to welcome the Messiah.
May this communion perfect your grace in us
and prepare us to meet Christ
when he comes to bring us into everlasting life,
for he is Lord for ever and ever.

– closing prayer at Mass; Feast of The Presentation of the Lord

Related: “The Churching of Women”

About Elizabeth Scalia
  • March Hare

    I often wonder if Mary truly realized the God-and-human nature of her Son, especially when he was an infant and a child. Simeon’s words must have reminded her of her Son’s origins, as did Jesus’s words to her and Joseph when they found Him in the Temple.

    I mean–she might have known in her head her Son was the Son of God, but did she know it in her heart? Looking at her innocent babe, fulfilling the duties required of an observant Jewish mother, Jesus would have looked and acted like any other infant. Simeon’s prophecy might have been God’s way of reminding Mary what her “yes” to Him really meant.

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  • Bender

    March Hare — I tend to think that it was the other way around, that Mary knew in her heart that He was the Son of God, but still might have had some difficulty wrapping her mind around the idea. Then again, she had it a little easier than the rest of us, having a special relationship with the Holy Spirit throughout Jesus’ earthly life.

  • DaveW

    This has been one of my favorite mysteries since I started praying the rosary daily a couple years ago.

    I try to imagine myself in Mary or Joseph’s shoes (assuming they had shoes). This must have been so hard for them. It must have been very surprising to meet Simeon and have him say what he did.

  • Jim Hicks

    The knowing, yet not knowing, of the Holy Parents is something that continues to puzzle me.

    Both Mother and Foster-Father saw angels who told them what was going on. Shepards, visited by angels, came to see this new born babe. Mary’s cousin Elizabeth and Jesus’ cousin John both attested to the fact this child was special. There are some believers who contend Jeusus was not born in the usual way, but rather by way of an angelically performed c-section. Especially if the later were true, Mary and Joseph would have know something VERY different was going on here!

    Yet Mary and her protector-husband appear clueless. I assume the writers of the Gospels knew these stories because Mary shared the stories with them while she lived with John. And that would have been after she witnessed the death and resurrection.

    I guess the historical-research training I received in grad school is coming out here. I would like to go beyond the secondary sources and hear the stories from the primary souce: Mary herself. Maybe “marveled” is not a good translation of how she really felt. Maybe it is like one of the old Sherlock Holmes stories, where the detective looks at a rose and mumbles “How can anyone look at a rose and not believe in God.” Holmes had seen a rose before and knew what it was. But as he looked at the shear beauty of that part of creation, he marveled. Maybe Mary was simply saying “I can’t believe this is happening to us!”

    [Mary went from being a normal adolescent girl to being the Theotokos in a very brief period. While the angel told her and Joseph Jesus was Messiah, they didn't exactly go into detail. After the wonder of the Nativity -angels singing, shepherds and kings bearing gifts- it might have been easy for them to expect things to go along pretty smoothly. Instead they begin to hear prophecies of division and strife, and Simeon tells her that her own heart will be pierced with a sword of sadness. Seems to me perfectly reasonable for Mary and Joseph to "marvel" or "wonder" at all of it and say, "we of course cannot see all that God is doing or will do..." -admin]