The Presentation of the Lord
Scarcely have we reached the calmer waters of Ordinary Time than we have to pause for the feast of the Presentation. This is celebrated every year on February 2nd, but this year that is a Sunday. It’s also a really neat palindromic date, 02.02.2020. When the Presentation falls on a Sunday, there are (surprisingly recent) rules about what we do liturgically, and nowadays the Presentation is a serious enough feast to bump the Fourth Sunday of Ordinary Time out of the sequence.
The Presentation, third Epiphany
It used to be one of the most important feasts of the Church’s year, because it’s another ‘epiphany’ or showing-forth. For a long time it was regarded as the last feast of Christmastide (and that’s why you will still find Christmas trees up until February 2nd in some places, including for example this year St Asaph’s Cathedral in North Wales). First we have the showing to the shepherds, the Jews; then to the Wise Men, the Gentiles; then the baby is brought to the Temple where Simeon reveals him to be the Messiah for everyone and the key to God’s eternal plan.
Travelling in time
This does lead to a certain amount of chronological confusion in our Sunday readings. Jesus is an adult at his baptism by John (which we celebrated on January 12th), and the two weeks of Ordinary Time that we have just experienced are a development of the Baptism (2 OTA) and the calling of the first four apostles (3 OTA) as Jesus gathers his team for the work of his public life. Indeed, the Gospel we would be having if Presentation hadn’t bumped it, is the Beatitudes; so we are already squarely into the middle of Jesus’ adult life, with healings, miracles and Sermons on the Mount. But because this year February 2nd is a Sunday, we’re back again with the Lord as a small baby in Mary’s arms, being presented in the Temple, like any other little Jewish first-born boy, with his pair of pigeons.
The Baptism of the Lord
It is in fact the feast of the Baptism as a separate operation which is the latest of the arrivals and the source of the confusion. It has become an increasingly important feast only over the last few Popes. It wasn’t even celebrated in its own right for the early centuries of the Church, then it became a sort of sub-feast attached to the Epiphany. John XXIII fixed it to January 13th, Paul VI tweaked its date slightly, and John Paul II instituted the tradition of baptising Vatican babies on that feast every year, which the current Pope has just happily repeated. More information on the date for other denominations from the ever-helpful wiki here. The Eastern Orthodox tradition is different, still combining the Baptism with the Epiphany as different aspects of the great ‘showing-forth’ or ‘Theophany’.
The Presentation and Candlemas
But we’ve moved on from the Baptism, although we’ve gone back in time as far as Jesus is concerned, and I’m trying to look at next Sunday rather than a couple of weeks back. The date this year is highly appropriate, because it is two feasts in one : Candlemas and the Presentation. Like ‘Christmas’, the shape of the word ‘Candlemas’ indicates that it’s been around for a long time. It refers to the blessing of the Church’s candles for the rest of the year. It was/is celebrated on this feast because of the words of Simeon about Jesus being ‘a light to enlighten the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel’. It is another celebration of the power of light in the darkest part of the year (Northern hemisphere, check your privilege). In the days when people made their own candles for lighting, they would bring those candles also to be blessed. Nowadays we use candles just for special occasions and celebrations (candles on birthday cakes are a fascinating tradition which we hardly think about), so we don’t tend any more to take our own candles for blessing. Maybe we should.
Psalm for Candlemas : 23/24
Those words are in the Gospel, as part of the Nunc dimittis, which the Church uses every night as part of Night Prayer (setting here). The psalm we have for this feast is not one of those where the imagery of light is used, which I discussed recently. Instead it is Psalm 23/24, the toe-curlingly exciting one where we sing to make the gates grow high enough to let in the King of Glory. This is Jesus’ first entrance into the Temple, God’s house; – but God’s house where the Son is given the name of King of Glory. This is why I tried to make the setting as trumpetty as I could, because this is almost like a coronation. And I’ve tried to set it high enough that you feel the reach, but not so high it’s uncomfortable to sing or listen to.
Presentation and Purification
Epiphany clearly used to be a much more complex feast, with all these potential extras celebrated at the same time, but today we have simplified it and we think of it as the arrival of the Three Kings first and foremost. The Presentation however remains a complex feast. Its first significance is the arrival of Jesus in the Temple and the testimony of Simeon and Anna (and I am grieved every year by not having Anna’s words). Candlemas and the blessing of candles for everyone was grafted on; but yet another major part of the feast is the Purification of Our Lady, because of the requirements of Leviticus.
A male first-born had to be presented in the Temple (with the pigeons as a sacrifice) forty days after birth. The mother, forty days after the birth, is supposed to come to the Temple with a lamb as a burnt offering and another pigeon as a sin-offering, ‘and the priest shall make atonement for her, and she shall be clean’ (Leviticus 12, 1-8).
Purifying something that wasn’t impure anyway
I know this is all about ritual and ceremonial, rather than morality and ethics, but I think the terminology is unfortunate. I am delighted that the modern version of this (basically since Vatican II) is a special blessing (and it’s usually replaced by the blessings given to both parents at the child’s baptism). It’s the same thing as ‘churching’ for the Anglicans. Pollution is not usually a helpful or positive idea to bring into the debate, especially when used by one group (in this case, celibate men) to denote another group to which they cannot in any circumstances belong (new mothers). At the moment I am probably feeling a little over-sensitised to this, and it’s all the fault of English rhyme words.
Rhyme words influencing association
The words for human offspring in English are peculiarly tricky, in this language normally so rich in alternatives. We have ‘child’, ‘baby’, and (at a pinch) ‘babe’. None of them is an easy rhyme (search your Christmas carols; thank goodness at least for ‘boy’ and ‘joy’). When we are talking about the Christ-child, the preference is often given to ‘child’ as somehow being more serious and less babyish. What rhymes with ‘child’? ‘Mild’, which is wussy and exactly fits all those dreadful pictures of Jesus as a little boy with gold curls and a white nighty, too Fotherington-Tomas for words. Gentle Jesus, meek and mild,/Look on me a little child ….. and so on. ‘Wild’ is not a helpful alternative, so it is not used much in this context as a rhyme word.
The danger of collocation : pregnancy as ‘defilement’
The other regular option is ‘undefiled’, usually applied to Jesus’ mother, which is really peculiar. Sing of Mary, pure and lowly/Virgin Mother undefiled. Sing of God’s own Son most holy, /Who became her little child. The idea appears to be that unlike all other mothers, Mary has not been contaminated by conceiving, carrying and delivering a baby. I think the contamination here is from the Levitical purification concept : you only need to ‘purify’ something which has become impure. Then you have the sin-offering as well. What sin are we talking about here, precisely? And why only the mother? From here it’s only a small step to translations like ‘Lo! he abhors not the Virgin’s womb’ (from Adeste fideles), which has overtones from the word ‘abhor’ absolutely not there in the Latin. ‘Gestant puellae viscera’ simply means ‘Born of a young girl’. As a mother myself, I do object to the defilement notion, and I firmly reject the idea that ‘purification’is necessary after having a baby, though I like the idea of a special blessing, and I’m all for expressing thankfulness after surviving childbirth.
Moving back to the main timeline
It is interesting to see how fast the tone changes, even during the Gospel itself. We move from the excitement and joy of Simeon and his prayer, to the sombre words he says to Mary, where he predicts rejection and suffering. It would be so fascinating to know what Anna said, especially if she spoke to Mary, as Elizabeth and Mary are the only two women who ever have a conversation in the Gospels (see the Bechdel blog here), but all we know is that she spoke, not what she said. The story is moving on very quickly again. At least we can think of the peaceful years of Jesus’ early life, after this great event, when the family lives peacefully together as the little boy grows up.
I have thought of another rhyme for ‘child’. ‘Smiled’.
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