Today we celebrate the Presentation of the Lord. It is a feast that cannot be celebrated in isolation, but only in the light of the other earlier events in Christ’s life. In his book, The Mill and the Cross, a commentary on Brueghel’s Christ Carrying His Cross Michael Gibson encourages the viewer to break up the narrative by “going over the painting from left to right as though it were a printed page. And since this is the usual direction of reading in our part of the world, whatever stands to the left of the picture must already be drifting into the past.”
Rogier Van der Weyden does this in his Columba Altar piece, made for the Church of St. Columba in Cologne. In the middle panel is the Adoration of the Magi and on the side panels Mary’s Annunciation and the Presentation of Jesus in the temple. Here there is brilliant coloration and a detail which brings a solemnity to all the figures presented.
Before examining the right panel of the Presentation notice the hidden symbols in the entire work such as the crucified figure above the new born, and the fall of man on the prie dieu in the Annunciation, and the “New Eve” motif. Symbolically these narratives bring us to the right panel.
The Right Panel
Here is the Gospel of the day.
In a building which resembles a baptistery, Mary, Jospeh, Simeon and Anna gather along with three other participants. The two on the far right are customary witnesses. The elegant, worldly woman on the right with the contraposta stance in the left foreground is Mary’s servant who carries the doves. I would like to point out that the fact that she is dressed the same way as the Magdalene in the Braque Triptych. The presence of the dog may be purely anecdotal or a symbol of loyalty.
For your meditation I have included the Nunc Dimmittis in G by Charles Villiers Stanford
And Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, “Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.”
Here is Simeon’s prophecy fulfilled.
Now There Was One, Anna, A Prophetess
Not dissimilar to Joseph in the nativity narratives, Anna has gotten short shrift. The Scriptures tell us something different and it is worth noting. In light of the New Evangelization Anna evangelizes immediately and to paraphrase Romans 12:11: she never lacks in zeal but keeps her spiritual fervor serving the Lord.
Other Names, Other Meanings
The Gospel records three presentations in the Temple. Today’s feast marks the first. The second will be when, as a boy of twelve, he sits among the temple authorities and impresses them with his knowledge. The third sees Jesus demanding that His Father’s House will be a” house of prayer and not a den of thieves.”
Drawing on Gibson’s directive, there is more narrative connected to today’s feast. In addition to the the Presentation of the Child Jesus there are two other actions celebrated traditionally with today’s feast, namely the Purification of the Virgin and Candlemas.
Purification of the Virgin Mary
According to Jewish customs, women were considered “unclean” after the birth of a child. The unclean period lasted 40 days after the birth of a son, and 60 days after the birth of a daughter. During this period, they were not allowed into the temple to worship. At the end of this time, the woman was brought to the temple and “purified” in a ceremony. After the birth of Christ, Mary subjects herself to the Jewish law and is purified.
One of the few images which distinctly separates the action of the Presentation with that of Mary’s Purification is found in one of the world’s most brilliant illuminated manuscripts: Les Tres Riche Heures du Jean Duc de Berry.
In pre-Christian days, this day was known as the ‘Feast of Lights’ and celebrated the increasing strength of the sun as winter gave way to spring.
According to some sources, Christians began Candlemas in Jerusalem as early as the fourth century and the lighting of candles began in the fifth century. Other sources say that Candlemas was observed by blessing candles since the 11th century. An early writing dating back to around 380 CE mentioned that a feast of the Presentation occurred in a church in Jerusalem. It was observed on February 14. The feast was observed on February 2 in regions where Christ’s birth was celebrated on December 25.
It has been an ancient custom in the Church to bless candles on this feast—hence, the name. I mentioned that we are at the halfway point between the shortest day of the year, in December, and the Spring equinox in mid-March. The blessing of candles gives us encouragement for the remaining days of winter. It offers us the profound hope that we will be sustained by holy light—and uplifted and guided by the Greatest Light, the light that is Christ. Our candles symbolize the faith we declare that Christ is a “light to the revelation of the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel” (Luke 2:32).
This Feast cries out to us: Christmas was just the beginning. There is more.