This feast, celebrated on February 2, is known in the Orthodox Church as The Presentation of Christ in the Temple. Another name for the feast is The Meeting of our Lord. Roman Catholic and Protestant Christians call the feast, The Purification of the Holy Virgin. About 450 AD in Jerusalem, people began the custom of holding lighted candles during the Divine Liturgy of this feast day. Therefore, some churches in the West refer to this holy day as Candlemas or the Liturgy of the Candles. The Feast of the Presentation concludes the observances related to the Nativity of Christ, a period that opened on November 15 with the beginning of the Nativity fast.
The story of the Presentation is told in St. Luke’s Gospel which we just read. Mary and Joseph were faithful Jews and observed their religious customs. An important custom was for the couple to take their first-born son to the Temple. The baby was taken to the Temple forty days after his birth and was dedicated to God. In addition, if the parents were wealthy, they were to bring a lamb and a young pigeon or a turtle dove to be offered as a sacrifice at the Temple. The custom provided that if the parents were poor, they were to offer two pigeons or two turtle doves for the sacrifice.
When Jesus was forty days old, Mary and Joseph took Him to the Temple in Jerusalem. They were not wealthy, so they took two turtle doves with them to offer as a sacrifice at the Temple. As they arrived at the Temple, Mary and Joseph were met by a very old man named Simeon. He was a holy man and was noted as a very intelligent scholar. Simeon spent much time studying about the prophets of Israel. It was during his studies that he learned of the coming of the Messiah. The Jewish people were waiting for the Messiah to come and deliver Israel from their conquerors. From that time on, Simeon spent his time praying for the Messiah to come. He spent many years in prayer. Finally, while Simeon was praying he heard the voice of God. God promised Simeon that he would not die until he had seen the Messiah.
He who gave the Law to Moses on Mount Sinai now comes to us in the flesh and submits himself to the requirements of this law, not because He needs to, but to show that He is truly one of us in his humanity.
When Simeon saw Jesus, he took the baby in his arms and blessed the Lord and said: “Lord, now let Your servant go in peace according to Your promise, because my eyes have seen Your salvation which you have prepared before the face of all peoples, a light to bring revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory to your people Israel.” Part of the reason that Simeon can depart now is that the old covenant with its priesthood has passed away, and on this 40th day, our Great High Priest, Jesus Christ, who is the offerer and who is offered, who is the receiver and the received now replaces the Old Testament priesthood which is no longer in effect, no longer necessary.
Also, in the Temple was Anna the Prophetess. She had been a widow for many years. Anna was about eighty-four years old and spent her time in the Temple worshiping, fasting, and praying. When she saw the Christ Child she praised God and spoke of him to all who were awaiting the Messiah.
After Jesus was presented in the Temple, the family returned to Galilee to the town of Nazareth. The Bible tells us that Jesus grew and became strong, and was filled with wisdom.
The Holy Icon of this feast shows that the meeting takes place inside the Temple and in front of the altar. The altar has a book or a scroll on it and is covered by a canopy. The Theotokos stands to the left and is holding out her hands in a gesture of offering. She has just handed her Son to Simeon.
Christ is shown as a child, but He is not in swaddling clothes. He is clothed in a small dress and his legs are bare. Jesus appears to be giving a blessing. Simeon holds Jesus with both hands which are covered. This shows the reverence Simeon had for the Messiah. Simeon is bare headed and there is nothing to show that he is a priest. Some biblical scholars say that Simeon was probably a priest of the Temple or a Doctor of the Law.
Joseph is behind the Theotokos. He is carrying the two turtle doves for the sacrifice. Anna the Prophetess is also standing behind the Theotokos and is pointing to the Christ child.
The words Simeon spoke when he saw the Christ Child are known as “St. Simeon’s Prayer.” This prayer is sung every day at the evening Vespers services of the Church. I believe that in some western churches this prayer is sung at some funerals, where it is of course, quite appropriate.
In the Orthodox Church, both baby boys and baby girls are taken to the Church on the fortieth day after their birth. This is done in remembrance of the Theotokos and Joseph taking the infant Jesus to the Temple.
We too, bless candles before our Divine Liturgy today. They are beautiful lights. We have to be careful in handling them because we are not accustomed to using them in our daily lives. We burn candles in our churches and homes before our icons as a sign of reverence towards those depicted in the icon. The candles also signify our unending prayer going up to the Lord. It is not sufficient just to light a candle—it is the prayer behind the candle which is important. Even if we somehow had no candles available, the prayer could still be offered of course.
The faithful will take these candles home and use them on special occasions and in their prayers. Strictly speaking, it would be good if all the candles we used throughout the year were blessed in the Church. I have heard of people in other places lighting a blessed candle in their home during a storm. Again, the blessed candles are not magic—God willing, as we light a candle in our homes during a time like that, our prayers are going up to the Lord just as the smoke and light from the candle is ascending.
The candles are of course also reflections of Jesus Christ who is the Light of the world. But the light from the candles can remind us that we too must be lights to others in all our lives. The light that we show forth in our day to day living is even more powerful than the light of a candle—it has much more horsepower or candle power. How we live our daily lives in relationship to God and to our fellow human being is the greatest sermon ever preached.
While it sounds awesome that this old man should hold God Incarnate in his elderly arms, it is no less awesome that we, too, receive God Incarnate and Resurrected, Christ our God in our bodies as we partake of His Holy Body and Precious Blood at Holy communion.