Feast of the Presentation of Our Lord Jesus Christ
January 30, 2015
"Rejoice, О Mother of God, full of grace, for from you has shone forth the Sun of justice, Christ our God, who enlightens all who are in darkness..." (Troparion of the Feast)
The Christmas cycle of feast days concludes with the feast of the Presentation of our Lord on February 2nd, the fortieth day after the Nativity of Christ. This feast is closely connected with the Nativity of our Lord, for just as Christ's divinity was revealed at his Nativity, so it is also manifested at his presentation in the Temple. From the meeting of the Divine Child and his most Holy Mother with the just Simeon, the feast in the Eastern Church receives its name "The Meeting" or "Encounter". Here we shall consider the origin of the feast, its institution and the spirit of its service.
The Basis of the Feast
The feast of the Presentation or the Encounter is based on an event from the life of our Savior, recorded in the Gospel of St. Luke (2,22-40). The law of Moses prescribed that every woman who gave birth to a male child was excluded from the temple for forty days, for during that time she was regarded as impure. These forty days were called "days of purification". When this period of purification was ended, the mother of the newly born child went to the temple and offered a year old lamb as a burnt offering, and a young pigeon or turtle dove, while a poor woman had to offer a pair of pigeons or a pair of turtle doves. The most Pure Virgin Mary, being the Mother of God, was not bound to submit to this rite of purification, for she was sanctified by the birth of Christ, as our kontakion stresses: "You, О Christ, sanctified the Virgin's womb by your birth." Nevertheless, in her humility, she fulfilled the prescription of the law and offered as a sacrifice two turtle doves.
In addition to this, another rite was performed over the firstborn male on the fortieth day — the rite of offering him up to God and his subsequent redemption. He who was to sanctify and redeem all mankind, desired that he, himself, first be consecrated to God and then redeemed. "The Eternal God," says the stichera of Lytiya, ' 'who of old gave the law to Moses on Sinai appears this day as an infant. The Creator of the law fulfills the Law. He is brought into the temple and given over to the elder."
Here the providential meeting or encounter of the Divine Child and his most Pure Mother with the righteous Simeon merits special consideration. St. Luke relates that Simeon "was just and devout, looking for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he should not see death before he had seen the Christ of the Lord." (2,25-26) Through divine inspiration Simeon recognizes the Child Jesus as the Messiah. He takes him into his arms and with a beautiful prayer blesses the Lord God for the grace of seeing with his own eyes the Promised Redeemer. Our Church always concludes the Vespers service with the prayer of Simeon "Now you may dismiss..." Meanwhile, the aged Simeon predicts to the Most Holy Mother of God her forthcoming sacrifice and suffering because of Jesus Christ.
The Institution of the Feast
The feast of the Presentation or the Encounter originated in Jerusalem in the second half of the fourth century. First mention of it is made by the pilgrim Silvia Egeria in her Diary, where she calls it "the fortieth day after the Epiphany". She describes its celebration in the following words: "The fortieth day after Epiphany is indeed celebrated here with the greatest solemnity. On that day there is a procession into the Anastasis (Church of the Resurrection), and all assemble there for the Divine Liturgy; everything is performed in the prescribed manner with the greatest solemnity, just as on Easter Sunday. All the priests give sermons, as does the bishop also; all preach on the Gospel text describing how on the fortieth day Joseph and Mary took the Lord to the temple, and how Simeon and Ann, the prophetess, the daughter of Phanuel, saw him, and what words they spoke on seeing the Lord, and the offering which his parents brought." (26)
From Jerusalem the feast spread throughout the entire East, but only in the sixth century under the Emperor Justinian (527-565) did it assume special significance. Emperor Justinian ordered that the feast of the Presentation or Encounter be regarded as a great feast and celebrated throughout the entire Empire. For this reason, in the service of this feast the Church prays several times for the emperor.
The motives for the solemn celebration of the feast of the Presentation were two extraordinary events: a plague in Constantinople and vicinity, and an earthquake in Antioch. At the end of the year 541 a plague, from which people died daily by the thousands, afflicted Constantinople and its surrounding districts. This plague lasted for three months. In addition to this, a great earthquake occurred in Antioch. Tradition reports that, at the time, a certain holy man received a revelation from God that the disaster which had befallen the nation would cease when the solemn celebration of the Lord's Presentation had been instituted. The emperor ordered the feast of the Presentation to be solemnly observed and the plague ceased.
From the East, the feast of the Presentation passed over to Rome in the fifth century, and from there it spread to France and Spain in the seventh century, and then to Germany in the eighth century. Some ascribe its institution in the West to Pope Gelasius (-j-4960, while others attribute it to Pope Gregory the Great (f604). Pope Sergius (687-701) is believed to have introduced the custom of holding a procession with candles on this feast, a custom which quickly spread from Rome to Jerusalem and other cities in Palestine. Cyril of Scythopolis (f557) in his "Life of St. Theodosius the Great" relates that a wealthy wife of a Roman official, named IcaUa, built a beautiful church between Jerusalem and Bethlehem in honor of the Most Holy Mother of God and there introduced the custom of celebrating the feast of the Presentation with candles. The Patriarch of Jerusalem, Sophronius (fc.641), speaks of this custom also in his sermon on the feast of the Presentation. The light of the candles is a beautiful symbol of the true light of God — our Lord Jesus Christ himself.
Carrying candles in procession on the feast of the Presentation seems to have been practiced earUer in Alexandria. In his sermon on the bringing of the Child Jesus to the temple, Cyril of Alexandria (f444) mentions the carrying of candles on that day. Theodotus of Ancyra (f446) speaks of the same custom being practiced in Ancyra. Blessing candles on the feast of the Presentation became a custom only after the tenth century. First mention of it is made in the Roman-German Missal of the twelfth century.
In the West, the feast of the Presentation originally was counted as a feast of our Lord; only at a much later date was it recognized as a Marian feast designated as, "The Purification of the Most Pure Virgin Mary", or "The Offering of Jesus in the Temple". The most recent prescriptions of the Latin Church promulgated at the Second Vatican Council again place the feast of the Presentation among the Lord's feasts, designated as "The Offering of Jesus in the Temple".
In the Eastern Church, the feast of the Presentation is celebrated as a Marian feast and is sometimes called, "The Meeting (or Encounter) of the Most Holy Mother of God". This feast has a one-day pre-feast and a seven-day post-feast. Many Fathers and Doctors of the Eastern Church have sermons for this feast, and St. Andrew of Crete, St. John Damascene, St. Cosmas of Maiuma, Patriarch of Germanus and Joseph the Studite all have contributed to the liturgy of this feast. The Church solemnizes the memory of the Just Simeon and Anna on the day following the feast of the Presentation.
The Spirit of the Service of the Feast
The Spirit of the f eastday service is the same as that of the Nativity of our Lord and the Theophany: to glorify the Theophany (manifestation of God) on earth, to extol the Divinity of Christ and give honor to the Most Pure Virgin Mary as the Mother of God. St. Cyril of Alexandria speaks beautifully of the profound content and significance of this feast in his sermon for this day: "The Eternal," he says, "is both a small Child and the 'Ancient of Days' (i.e., God). A Child at the breast and at the same time the Creator of ages. I behold a Child and recognize God. The Child is nourished and at the same time sustains the universe. The Child weeps and at the same time he gives life and joy to the world. The Child is in swaddling clothes and at the same time he delivers me from the bonds of sin... This Child — the angels glorify him, the archangels bow before him. The Principalities tremble in his presence, the Powers praise him, the Cherubim minister to him, the Seraphim bless him, the sun praises him, the moon serves him, nature obeys him, fountains and seas yield to him... This Child conquered death, overcame the devil, abolished Adam's curse,...washed away all sins, condemned all heresy, adorned all creation, saved Adam, renewed Eve, summoned all the nations and sanctified the universe... Therefore, let us all go forth to greet the Presentation of our Lord with splendor... Therefore, let us brighten this day with candles, as befits the children of light, and let us bring to Christ the Light of spiritual illumination." (Prologue, I)
The sticheras of Vespers, the Sessional hymns, the canon and the sticheras of the Matins service form one magnificent hymn of glory in honor of Christ's Theophany (manifestation), celebrating the Incarnation of the Eternal Word of God, and extolling the Most Holy Mother of God. The small child, brought to the temple by his parents, is the Eternal God who gave the law to Moses on Mt. Sinai: "He who once gave the Law to Moses on Sinai," we sing in the sticheras of Lytiya, "today submits himself to the prescriptions of the Law, in his compassion, he has become like unto us for our sakes... Today Simeon takes into his arms the Lord of glory, whom Moses once saw in darkness, when on Sinai God gave him the tablets... The Creator of heaven and earth today is carried in the arms of the old Simeon."
The Child we see today in the temple is the Messiah sent by God and foretold by the prophets: "O Simeon, tell us whom you are joyfully carrying into the temple. To whom are you saying: Now you may dismiss your servant, О Lord, because my eyes have seen my Saviour? He is the child born of the Virgin. He is the Word, God of God! О Lord, who for our sake was incarnate and saved mankind, to you we bow in worship."
And the Mother of the Child brought to the temple is the Most Holy Mother of God: ' 'Adorn your bridal chamber, 0 Sion and welcome Christ the King," says the stichera of the aposticha in the Vespers service, "welcome Mary, the gate of heaven, for she has appeared as a cherubic throne on which the King of Glory is seated." The Most Pure Virgin Mary is not only the Mother of Christ, but also our hope and our Mediatrix. In the ninth Ode of the canon of Matins, we entreat her: "O Virgin Mother of God, Hope of all Christians, protect, watch over, and guard all those who put their hope in you... О Virgin Mother of God, good helper of the world, protect and preserve us from every care and worry."
Holy Church, seeing the great mystery of the Theophany and the love of God towards us, calls upon the faithful to give glory to Christ the Lord: ' 'Let the choir of angels be amazed at this wonder, and let us mortal men raise our voices in song, beholding the ineffable condescension of God. Aged arms now embrace him before whom the powers of heaven tremble, he who alone loves mankind. (Sessional Hymn, Matins)