Presentation/Candlemas : two feasts in one, and a palindromic date to match

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.

Simeon gets a cuddle, Joseph carrying the pigeons
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.

one king, two king, red king, blue king
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’.

No infant baptism here
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.

Not holding a candle, but he could be
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.

Christ in glory ceiling mosaic
Coronation and glory, thrones, dominions and powers
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.

small blond child
see what I mean?
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.

Jesus learns to walk, as Joseph planes and Mary weaves

I have thought of another rhyme for ‘child’.  ‘Smiled’.


© Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2020 Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kate Keefe and Music for Mass, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

The Lord is my light

Essential light

All we have to do is shut our eyes in order to realise that it is difficult to overstate the importance of light.  It is the first thing God creates (Genesis 1), because without it, how could anything else happen, or be seen to happen?  As it says in Psalm 36/37, ‘In your light, we see light’.   God creates light first of all things, and then later the sun and the moon, because that is how he creates time for us to occupy.

God creating earth
Creating the light, the planets and the world in the middle
Jesus the Light of the world

Christian imagery is full of light.  Everybody knows ‘Shine, Jesus, shine’ even if it isn’t their favourite hymn, and there are lots of others (Walk in the light, Jesus wants me for a sunbeam, Morning has broken, Lead, kindly Light… and I haven’t even reached for a hymn book yet).  Particularly in St John’s Gospel, Jesus is identified with light. He is the light of the world, the true light which enlightens everyone (John 1). When he speaks, he calls himself the light, repeatedly. It seems like an obvious image, especially to dwellers of the northern hemisphere, but in this, as so often, Jesus is actually being quite novel, and making a huge claim.  The word light is not used so freely in the Old Testament.  God is more often (in) a cloud, or a pillar of cloud, a fire or a fortress; he is a giver of shade (Ps. 120/121), sometimes protection from the sun, but mostly as a way of keeping someone in danger concealed from his enemies.

Light-radiating baby Nativity
Light-radiating baby (Reni)
Picturing light
Two light sources, one focussed, one radiating

It is always worth spending time working out where the light in a painting is coming from, and in pictures of the Nativity it is often coming from the baby, to reinforce the image.   These are topical as well as gorgeous, so I have scattered them through my text.

In Holman Hunt’s The Light of the World, the adult Jesus is holding a lantern, but the light is also coming from the halo around his head.  In the account of the Transfiguration, Jesus is too bright to look at, his clothes more dazzling than any laundry could make them (Mark 9).  He has become a being of pure light, but when God speaks a few minutes later, he speaks from a cloud which overshadows the apostles.  Just like in John’s vision of the kingdom to come, there is ‘no need of sun or moon to shine upon it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb’ (Rev 21.23).

Radiance beams from thy holy face…
Light in the Psalms

The psalms talk so often about ‘the light of your face’ that this is clearly an idiom, similarly ‘the light of the living’, ‘the light of my eyes’; but the emphasis in the psalms is more on the contrast between night and day, darkness and light, God stepping in to rescue the sufferer from peril or darkness.  God is described as ‘my light’ far less often than he is addressed as ‘my strength, ‘my song’, ‘my fortress’.   I wonder if this is partly a result of when the words were written.  The psalms date back a very long way,  we don’t even know how far;   but certainly to nomad times, when light was rare and precious,  and mostly you went to bed as soon as you couldn’t see any more.   The Gospels date from a later time of settlement, when people were (mostly) living in little towns or great cities, and candles and lamps were less unusual.  Jesus can call himself the light of the world because light is something we all grasp the benefit of, as well as something everyday.  You would not want your Saviour to be steak or caviar; you need him to be bread.  ‘He makes the blind see’ would not mean anything if everyone were blind and no one understood the joy of sight.

Darkness: absence of light, absence of God
a wonderfully dynamic God separating the light from the darkness (Sistine Chapel)

Darkness can indeed mean in itself the absence of God (see the psalm of despair Ps 87/88), but it’s also a practical problem for the psalmist because he is worried that God will not be able to see him or know where he is so as to rescue him (one of Job’s comforters also talks about this, Job 22.13). Job himself is afraid of the darkness (23.16), but does not make the mistake of thinking that God cannot see through it.).  One feature of God which impresses the psalmist is that he can see to do things even in dark places (‘You knit me together in my mother’s womb’ ,  ‘You know when I wake and when I lie down’ Ps 138/139).  God can use the darkness to conceal himself (‘I answered, concealed in the storm cloud’, Ps 80/81).  What the psalmist fears is the dark valley in Psalm 22/23.  Darkness is scary and threatening, but God controls the darkness, and this means that God’s faithful child does not need to be scared even in the dark (‘I lie down at night, and sleep comes at once, for you alone, Lord, make me dwell in safety’ Ps 4). ‘You, O Lord, are my lamp, my God who lightens my darkness’ (Ps 17/18).

Nativity - the Lord as a baby in the light
More of a luminous baby this time (Le Nain)
The One who lights my lamp

God gives light to the psalmist, sometimes real, sometimes metaphorical.  ‘Your word is a lamp for my steps and a light for my path’, sings the author of the longest psalm, which is all about the Law, 118/119.  God is regularly described as ‘shining forth’, which again I think must be an idiom (Pss 50/51, 75/76, 79/80, 96/97), but many of the psalms describe a need for real light, not metaphorical, and long for morning to come.  God will help at the dawning of the day (Ps 45/46).  Joy comes with the morning (Ps 30/31).  God is even better than the coming of dawn:  ‘Let the watchman count on daybreak and Israel on the Lord’ (Ps 129/130).

Musical light

Haydn’s stunning portrayal of light in The Creation is probably the best-known, because it is so effective.   What does he do?  He shows us darkness and chaos with deep rumblings of the orchestra, masterfully portraying disorder and formlessness by an artful use of perhaps the most formal of the arts.  He keeps the sound gentle and hesitant, almost groping.  And then light is created; we have a huge major chord which just keeps reverberating.  The pitch goes up, everything is bright and noisy.  I’ve added that particular link because it’s in rehearsal, so you can see very clearly how the tension is all in the music, not in the occasion, or the dress, or anything else.  So exciting.

You can’t do that every time the word ‘light’ is mentioned in a psalm, but I have noticed that I tend to place it on an upper note comparatively and give it some stress (I think this must be the musical equivalent of not putting your light under a bushel).  It helps that it’s a strong, monosyllabic word (in both German and English).   And where there is light in a psalm, the music tends to be major rather than modal or minor; it just feels right.

The light shines in the darkness

We are in the dark part of the year at the moment, in the northern hemisphere, and Christmas is a feast of light-in-darkness.  (So is Hannukah, which happens at a similar time, and Jesus would have celebrated it.)  The next few Christian celebrations after Christmas are different ‘epiphanies’, ‘showings-forth’, ‘shinings-forth’: Epiphany itself, and then Candlemas, which used to be seen as the last feast of the Christmas season, when the baby Jesus is taken to the Temple and Simeon greets him as’a light for revelation to the Gentiles’.  This is the fulfilment of the prophecies of Isaiah.  ‘The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light’; here he is, and the darkness is over.

Nativity - baby radiates light
Lovely early spiky-light baby (Monaco)

© Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2020. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kate Keefe and Music for Mass, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.