The Presentation of our Lord
A few days ago, the leaders of St. Paul’s exceptional Altar Guild were flummoxed. “What is the Presentation? We don’t have a card with that on it for the hymn board! What do we do?”
What is the Presentation? Well, a liturgical answer involves the Church Calendar. If you look at page 17 and following in the Book of Common Prayer you will see there are seven Principle Feasts during the Church Year. The dates for four follow after first full moon after March 21: Easter, Ascension, Pentecost, and Trinity Sunday. The other three fall on a set dates every year: All Saints (Nov. 1), Christmas (Dec. 25), and The Epiphany (Jan. 6). Should any of these Feasts fall on a Sunday, they take precedence over the Sunday assigned by the Lectionary. Then there are seven days known as Feasts of our Lord. Of these, there are three that, if they fall on a Sunday, take precedence over the assigned day. The Presentation is one of them. Thus, this year, last week was the Third Sunday after the Epiphany, today is the Presentation of our Lord, and next week will be the Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany.
What is the Presentation? Here is a Scriptural answer. The Law of Moses stipulates the first born male of each family belongs to the Lord. It harkens back to the Passover when God spares the first-born male in every Hebrew family. Forty days after the birth of the first male, the parents are required to present him in the Temple to the Lord. In essence, they give their son to God. Moses’ law allows the parents to redeem their child via a sacrifice. Those with means are required to offer a spotless lamb. The law makes a provision for the destitute, allowing them to make an offering of two small birds.
The Gospel of Luke tells us forty days after Jesus’ birth his parents present him in the Temple and redeem him by offering two pigeons. The Lord then presents Joseph and Mary with their son, entrusting them to raise him to be holy and good.
On any typical day the Temple is filled with people. Some come to make an offering, others to worship and pray. There are two particular people in the Temple on the day Joseph and Mary enter with their infant child. Seeing the family, they begin to praise God. Simeon is an elderly man who has received a promise from God he will not die until he sees the one who will bring God’s salvation. He takes the baby Jesus into his arms and praises God. “My eyes have seen the light to the Gentiles and the salvation of Israel.” He tells Mary her son is destined for the rising and falling of many and a sword will pierce his soul as well as hers – words picked up in the liturgy for the Stations of the Cross. Another person, Anna, an elderly prophetess, sees Jesus and commences to praise God for the promise of Jerusalem’s redemption.
All of this makes no small impression on Jesus’ parents, who, in Luke’s account, have already encountered the Angel Gabriel and welcomed shepherds who have been visited by an angelic messenger and chorus. They leave the Temple after fulfilling everything required by Moses’ law and return to Galilee where they raise their son in Nazareth.
What is the Presentation? From a historical perspective, it is one of the most ancient feasts in Christendom, dating back at least to 3rd century, and falling forty days after the celebration of Jesus’ birth. Inspired by Simeon’s words “a light to the Gentiles”, a tradition emerges of blessing candles on this day, thus it also has become known as Candlemas. In some places it is customary to leave out until this day nativity displays and other non-perishable items associated with the celebration of our Lord’s birth.
The Presentation also shares roots with another tradition held on this day. There is a saying popular in the United Kingdom that goes:
If Candlemas Day is clear and bright,
winter will have another bite.
If Candlemas Day brings cloud and rain,
winter is gone and will not come again.
What is the Presentation? Thinking spiritually, it is a day with which every parent – especially young parents – can identify. When we look into the eyes of our children we are filled with a sense of thanksgiving, blessing, wonder, and obligation. Who will this child become? What will he or she do in life? Inside the heart of every parent there is a question: Am I up to this task? Can I meet this responsibility? What if I am not good enough? And every parent, sensing an infant’s vulnerability, harbors quietly a fear of what might be: Oh God, what if something unthinkable happens? It would be like a sword piercing my own soul.
As parents we do as Mary and Joseph do. We hold our fears close and make a home for our children. We give thanks for how one day gives way to another and then becomes a year and then another and in the process, somehow, by the grace of God, we make what becomes a life. Through it all we sense God is good and God is faithful and we are adequate, at least, and when we are not, we come to realize we can be forgiven.
This is the Presentation.