THE RICH SIGNIFICANCE of this midwinter observance has been increasingly appreciated in recent years, and in the calendar of Common Worship it is ranked as one of the Principal Feasts. All the themes of this festival are derived from the Gospel reading of the day – Luke 2:22-40.
In the Book of Common Prayer the festival is designated as “The Presentation of Christ in the Temple. commonly called. the Purification of Saint Mary the Virgin”. Fifty years ago in the Church of England it was commonly regarded as a minor festival of the Virgin Mary, and the Gospel narrative makes it clear that the occasion celebrated was indeed that of the offering of the customary sacrifice at the end of the period of forty days’ ritual impurity of a mother consequent upon childbirth. This explains the date of the festival – 2 February, the fortieth day (reckoned inclusively) from Christmas Day.
The Gospel narrative, however, focuses less on the purification of Mary, or even on the ransom for the firstborn (which Luke does not directly mention), both of which were required by the Jewish Law, but rather on the voluntary presentation and dedication of the infant Jesus on the lines of that of the infant Samuel in 1 Samuel 1. The Prayer Book tried to shift the focus of the festival to this as its main aspect, so that it was to be regarded as essentially a feast of Christ rather than of the Virgin Mary.
The main part of the Gospel narrative, however, is actually concerned with the meeting between the elderly priest Simeon and the infant Jesus, whom Simeon was inspired to recognize as the promised Messiah. This meeting gave the festival the name that it has in the Greek Church: Hypapante (= “Meeting”) It came to be seen as the fulfilment of Malachi’s prophecy: “the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple”. Simeon’s prayer of thanksgiving, which forms the canticle Nunc Dimittis used at Evensong and Compline, contains the description of Christ as “a light for revelation to the Gentiles”, reminiscent of Jesus’ own saying. “I am the light of the world”. This in turn gave rise to the ceremony in the mediaeval church of giving lighted candles to every member of the congregation, hence the popular name of the festival, “Candlemass”.
FROM CHRISTMAS TO CROSS
Simeon’s words to Mary include the warning that “a sword will pierce your own soul too”, pointing forward unmistakably to the Passion. In the volume of services entitled The Promise of his Glory, the pivotal significance of this festival was brought out fully. It is at once the culmination and climax of the Christmas and Epiphany season and a major turning-point in the liturgical year, described as “One last look back to Christmas and now, turn towards the cross!” As such it forms a valuable point of integration between the Christmas and Easter cycles, reinforcing the unity of the liturgical year as a whole.
In Common Worship the Epiphany season is formally designated as lasting until the feast of the Presentation, thus providing a parallel between the forty days of Christmas + Epiphany and the forty days of Easter, each season culminating in a Principal Feast (the Presentation / Ascension Day).
Tony Gelston is Emeritus Reader in Theology in the University of Durham