By Martha Long
The Feast of the Presentation of the Lord (also known as the Purification of Our Lady and Candlemas) is one of my favorite feasts. The Feast, filled with references to light, reminds us once again that Our Lord is the Light of the World. Simeon and Anna both had spent their lives praying and waiting for the Messiah. They hoped for the chance to see Him and they were ready to meet Him. This child stood out among all the children brought to the Temple that day. They recognized that light in the child presented to them. Immediately, Simeon burst out with the beautiful prayer, the Nunc Dimittis, which the Church recites each night in Compline, “Now you may dismiss Thy servant in peace O Lord, according to Thy word: For mine eyes have seen Thy salvation, which Thou hast prepared in the sight of all peoples: A light to reveal Thee to the nations and the glory of Thy people Israel.” I love these words.
But Simeon’s words did not end there. He went on to tell Our Lady that because of her Son, her heart would be pierced by a sword. How hard this must have been for her. First, she rejoiced because Simeon’s prayer reminded her of the greatness of her infant Son. But then her joy was turned to sorrow – as so often happens in this vail of tears.
The passage below is from a sermon the feast by St. Sophronius and is found in the Office for this feast.
“Let us receive the light whose brilliance is eternal. In honour of the divine mystery that we celebrate today, let us all hasten to meet Christ. Everyone should be eager to join the procession and to carry a light.Our lighted candles are a sign of the divine splendour of the one who comes to expel the dark shadows of evil and to make the whole universe radiant with the brilliance of his eternal light. Our candles also show how bright our souls should be when we go to meet Christ.The Mother of God, the most pure Virgin, carried the true light in her arms and brought him to those who lay in darkness. We too should carry a light for all to see and reflect the radiance of the true light as we hasten to meet him. The light has come and has shone upon a world enveloped in shadows; the Dayspring from on high has visited us and given light to those who lived in darkness. This, then, is our feast, and we join in procession with lighted candles to reveal the light that has shone upon us and the glory that is yet to come to us through him. So let us hasten all together to meet our God.The true light has come, the light that enlightens every man who is born into this world. Let all of us, my brethren, be enlightened and made radiant by this light. Let all of us share in its splendour, and be so filled with it that no one remains in the darkness. Let us be shining ourselves as we go together to meet and to receive with the aged Simeon the light whose brilliance is eternal. Rejoicing with Simeon, let us sing a hymn of thanksgiving to God, the Father of the light, who sent the true light to dispel the darkness and to give us all a share in his splendour.Through Simeon’s eyes we too have seen the salvation of God which he prepared for all the nations and revealed as the glory of the new Israel, which is ourselves. As Simeon was released from the bonds of this life when he had seen Christ, so we too were at once freed from our old state of sinfulness.By faith we too embraced Christ, the salvation of God the Father, as he came to us from Bethlehem. Gentiles before, we have now become the people of God. Our eyes have seen God incarnate, and because we have seen him present among us and have mentally received him into our arms, we are called the new Israel. Never shall we forget this presence; every year we keep a feast in his honour.”
In paintings of this event, the temple is usually represented in some manner – by a church building or perhaps a canopy and altar. The figures of Simeon and Anna (both in old age) and Our Lady and St. Joseph are always present. The Infant Christ is the central focus, sometimes already in the arms of Simeon. In other paintings Our Lady is shown extending her hands in gesture of offering as she presents the child to Simeon. The exchange is symbolic of the encounter between the Old Covenant and the New Covenant. Simeon represents the unbroken chain of inspired prophets who awaited the coming of the promise of salvation. He is the last watchman of Israel and in looking for the dawn he sets his eyes on the true Light. St. Joseph often holds the turtledoves for the sacrifice (either in his hands or sometimes in a basket).