Why the Feast of the Presentation is More Important Than You Think
"Down with the rosemary,
and so Down with the bays and mistletoe
Down with the holly, ivy, all,
Wherewith ye dress'd the Christmas Hall"
— Ceremony upon Candlemas Eve by Robert Herrick
There is one more sacred day that should not be lost in avalanche of the “winter holidays.” February 2 – the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord – deserves more attention than just being the absolute final day for the Christmas decorations. (Not that I am above playing the ‘Catholic card’ when questioned about our lingering tinsel) We celebrate the blessing of the candles for the year – Candlemas – on February 2, as well as the American secular news/meteorological event of Groundhog Day. Groundhog Day is what is foremost in many minds when February 2 is mentioned. (Though this winter has been especially harsh in the U.S., so one can hardly blame people for being focused on an eventual respite from the weather. Even if said respite is predicated on the actions of a large rodent named Punxsutawney Phil.)
After celebrating the Nativity of our Lord, with its splendor in both the Church and the popular culture, it would be easy for one’s mind to drift and overlook the significance of the fortieth day after the Lord’s birth. But we should look beyond our hustling to banish the decorations to the attic, the obsession over the days remaining in this strenuous winter, and endless chatter about Super Bowl Sunday. Because the events set in motion with the Annunciation and Nativity continue with the significant presentation of our Lord in the Temple.
Joseph and Mary’s presentation of the baby was no pro forma event. The words of the prophet Malachi are fulfilled in the poor parents presenting their firstborn son along with their humble sacrifice of two turtledoves. (Now I am sending my messenger— he will prepare the way before me; And the lord whom you seek will come suddenly to his temple; The messenger of the covenant whom you desire—see, he is coming! says the LORD of hosts. Malachi 3:1) The mother of God – the Theotokos, in no need of ritual purification – and her husband did not set themselves above the Law.
In their conformation to the Law is God’s entrance into his Temple. Simeon and Anna, pious and elderly, having spent their lives in prayer and waiting in the Temple for the Messiah, have their ‘moment.” There is the glorious Nunc Dimittis of Simeon. (Having sung the Nunc Dimittis at the end of Lutheran Eucharistic liturgies as a child, the phrase “light to lighten the Gentiles” puzzled me. Were the Gentiles substantially heavier than the Jews? Newer Biblical translations often seem less poetic, but Simeon’s words retain the wondrous exaltation nonetheless.)
With Candlemas we celebrate the coming of the Light of the World. But a shadow also passes; a shadow foretelling the suffering that will precede the victory of the Light over darkness. Simeon not only proclaimed that he had seen his salvation, but also told the Mother of our Lord that her share would include a sorrow pierced heart. In Redemptoris Mater, Pope John Paul II wrote that Mary heard in Simeon’s words something akin to a second Annunciation, “for they tell her of the actual historical situation in which the Son is to accomplish his mission, namely, in misunderstanding and sorrow. While this announcement on the one hand confirms her faith in the accomplishment of the divine promises of salvation, on the other hand it also reveals to her that she will have to live her obedience of faith in suffering, at the side of the suffering Savior, and that her motherhood will be mysterious and sorrowful.”
This is where it starts to get ‘real’, i.e. moving past the holly, tinsel, and jolly carols. The tiny child snuggled in the crèche a few weeks ago is now revealed to be a sign of contradiction. His gentle obedient mother faces a future of sorrow. Simeon asked to depart in peace. What shall we ask of the Lord as we celebrate his Presentation?