One of the ancient Holy Days, or Feasts, of the Church is that celebrated on February 2nd. The Book of Common Prayer calls it “The Presentation of Christ in the Temple, commonly called The Purification of Saint Mary the Virgin”. In keeping with its title, the Prayer Book Calendar (p xlvi) and most Church Kalendars refer to it by the latter part of its title, “The Purification”.
This tends to be confusing, because the two rites, of Presentation and of Purification, are based on two different ideas. Anciently, the Jewish people considered childbirth to be so tainted by sin that the mother was obliged to be “purified” before God after childbirth. Jesus’ mother, Mary, was as yet only a devout Jewish woman, intent on fulfilling her obligations according to the Mosaic Law.
Under Christianity, the idea that childbirth is tainted has been rejected. Anglicanism does provide a Prayer Book Service for the “Thanksgiving of Women after Child-birth, commonly called the Churching of Women.” This service, almost totally neglected in recent years, is a very proper and admirable service of thanksgiving for the safety and health of a mother and the blessed birth of a child. It is the Christian successor to the Rite of Purification.
Because of this change of attitude and understanding, the Feast observed annually on February 2nd should much better focus on the first part of its Prayer Book name, “The Presentation of Christ in the Temple.” This, too, is an ancient Jewish Rite, which ought never to be abandoned for it is in full accord with our Lord’s teachings about life and children. The birth of a child is indeed a wondrous and mysterious miracle, and the occasion for great joy and thanksgiving. And so it was that Mary and Joseph brought their infant son to the Temple, to “present” Him to God, to offer thanksgiving for his birth. This is a Christian tradition which we ought to observe with renewed spirit and zeal, especially in these days when so many unborn infants are ruthlessly slaughtered by abortion.
St. Luke’s Gospel records the scene in the second chapter. It is here that we read the marvelous account of the manner in which the Spirit moved Simeon, a “just and devout” man of Jerusalem, to go into the Temple at precisely this moment. There he saw the infant and the Spirit opened his eyes so that he knew this was the Lord’s Christ, God’s appointed Messiah. The Lord has told Simeon that he should not die until he looked upon Christ. Seeing the child, he knew, and he was moved to utter those beautiful, poetic and inspired words that we now call the Nunc dimittis. “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word: for mine eyes have seen thy salvation, which thou hast prepared before the face of all people; a light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel.”
The observance of the Presentation is very ancient in the Church. It is found in the church in Jerusalem as early as the fourth century and has been included in liturgical worship books since at least A.D. 791. Hence its inclusion in Anglican worship through the Book of Common Prayer is eminently well-based. In the eleventh century (possibly even three centuries earlier) lighted candles began to be carried in procession on this day, symbolizing “a light to lighten the Gentiles.” Hence the day eventually came to be called in England “Candlemas Day”.
Anglican Christians should never neglect to observe this day and to re-present Christ to God and to give thanks for His great gift to us of the light of mankind all mankind, Jew and Gentile, old and young, civilized and pagan, men and women, white and black and yellow.