Presentation of the Lord (Feast)
Today we celebrate the close of the Christmas with a festival of light. Candles are blessed and they are carried in procession to welcome Christ, the Light to enlighten the Gentiles and the glory of his people. Until the year 1969, the feast, which is of Eastern origin, was known in the West as the feast of the Purification of Our Lady and also as Candlemas. Now we prefer to refer to it as the Presentation of the Lord.
Forty days after the birth of Jesus, today’s celebration brings the Christmas season to a close. It was Jewish belief that, because of the bleeding, a mother was ritually unclean after giving birth and hence was in need of ritual purification. On giving birth to a son, a Jewish woman would be in semi-seclusion for 40 days (in the case of a girl, the period was longer). At the end of that period, the mother would then, in the case of her first-born, present him to the Lord in acknowledgement of his being source of all life. (First-born animals were also presented and sacrificed to God.)
So in today’s feast we see Mary and Joseph – 40 days after the birth of Jesus – submitting to the Law of Moses in bringing their Son to be offered, as the first-born, to God and for the purification of the mother after giving birth, even though we believe that Mary did not need such purification. For the ceremony, they have come up from Nazareth to the Temple in Jerusalem.
Today’s feast brings to an end a whole period which resonates with a sense of light. Christmas itself, taking place just after the winter solstice, is the celebration of the end of the darkness of winter and the coming of light into the world, especially the Light of the World. Twelve days later there is the feast of the Epiphany when the light of a star guides the Gentile outsiders to pay homage to the Light of the World. Then today, we bring the celebration to a close with this feast of light. It has long been a day for processions as we remember the Lord’s entry into the Temple, the house of his Father, for the first time. These processions originally replaced pagan celebrations. Later, it was identified with the blessing of candles carried in procession in honour of Christ, “the light to enlighten the Gentiles” (today’s Gospel).