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Icons of the Great Feasts: The Presentation of the Child Jesus in the Temple

February 2nd, 2012, Promulgated by Bernie

“Now Lord, allow your servant to go in peace, just as you promised: because my eyes have the salvation which you have prepared before all the nations a light for the gentiles and the glory of your people Israel” (Luke 2:29-32)

This feast in the Orthodox world is called The Presentation or The Meeting, and refers to the meeting of Mary and her Child with Simeon the Just (“The Host of God”) and the prophetess Anna. Both were elderly and symbolize the patient waiting of Israel for the long promised messiah, and both represent the prophetic strain within faithful Israel. As such, they are the representatives of the Old Testament in this meeting with the New Testament. Simeon’s canticle, the Nunc Dimittis (see above), identifies the Messiah and prophesizes His role as a light not only for Israel but also for the Gentiles. The event, then, is also a meeting between the promised Messiah and the entire world.

In the above icon, Mary has handed over the Child to Simeon, the ancient holy man, who has received the babe with hands covered as a sign of reference. In some icons, Mary holds the babe. Her hands are covered with the maphorion in a gesture of offering. St. Joseph, on the left, is carrying the offering of poor parents of two turtle doves which represent the Old and New Testaments or, in some interpretations, the Church of Israel and that of the Gentiles. Anna in the icon shown here stands between Mary and Joseph and holds a scroll of prophetic text. In some icons she stands behind Simeon and looks up as a sign of prophetic inspiration.

The scene takes place in the Jerusalem Temple which is represented by an altar covered with a ciborium. The altar sometimes has a cross and a book or scroll. It looks exactly like the earliest altars in the Christian Churches. Mary stands on one side of the altar and Simeon on the other. The Child is often in Simeon’s arms and held over the altar. The symbolism, of course, is of sacrifice both in the Old and New Testaments: Abraham’s near sacrifice of Isaac, and Christ’s sacrifice on the altar of the cross. The Christ Child seems to know instinctively what lies ahead for Him as He reaches back towards his mother for protection and comfort. In some icons He extends his hand in blessing. [1]

The Feast was better known, in the past, in the Latin or Western Church as the Purification of the Holy Virgin and refers to the rite of purification a woman was to perform forty days after the birth of a male child (Leviticus 12:6-8). When the time -forty days- was over the mother was to “bring to the temple a lamb for a holocaust and a young pigeon or turtle dove for sin”; if she was not able to offer a lamb, she was to take two turtle doves or two pigeons; the priest prayed for her and so she was cleansed (Leviticus 12:2-8). Forty days after the birth of Christ Mary complied with this precept of the law, she redeemed her first-born from the temple (Numbers 18:15), and was purified by the prayer of Simeon.

The Feast of the Presentation dates back at least to the fourth century when it was celebrated in Jerusalem with a solemn procession. Finding its way to Constantinople in the sixth century it eventually passed to Rome during the seventh century. In Jerusalem, around 450, lighted candles were held during the office of the Hypapante (“the meeting of the Lord”). The practice was maintained in the Western Church and became known as Candlemas. [2]

According to the Roman Missal the celebrant after Terce, in stole and cope of purple colour, standing at the epistle side of the altar, blesses the candles (which must be of beeswax). Having sung or recited the five orations prescribed, he sprinkles and incenses the candles. Then he distributes them to the clergy and laity, whilst the choir sings the canticle of Simeon, “Nunc dimittis”… During the procession which now follows, and at which all the partakers carry lighted candles in their hands, the choir sings the antiphon… The solemn procession represents the entry of Christ, who is the Light of the World, into the Temple of Jerusalem. …during the Middle Ages the clergy left the church and visited the cemetery surrounding it. Upon the return of the procession a priest, carrying an image of the Holy Child, met it at the door and entered the church with the clergy, who sang the canticle of Zachary, “Benedictus Dominus Deus Israel”. [3]

The Feast of the Presentation of the Lord is celebrated on February 2

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[1] Russell Hart, The Icon Through Western Eyes, (Springfield, Templegate Publishers, 1991) p53

[2] Leonid Ouspensky & Vladimir Lossky, The Meaning of Icons, (Crestwood, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1989) p168

[3] Frederick Holweck, Candlemas, The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 3,(New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1908). 25 Jan. 2011 <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/03245b.htm>.

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3 Responses to “Icons of the Great Feasts: The Presentation of the Child Jesus in the Temple”

  1. avatar Nerina says:

    Fascinating, Bernie. Thanks for the history of Candlemas. I never knew much about the celebration. Why do the candles have to be made of beeswax?

  2. avatar Bernie says:

    Hi Nerina,
    “The pure wax extracted by virgin bees from flowers symbolizes the pure flesh of Christ received from His Virgin Mother, the wick signifies the soul of Christ, and the flame represents His divinity which absorbs and dominates both. Although the two latter properties are found in all kinds of candles, the first is proper of beeswax candles only. Thus the great paschal candle represents Christ, “the true light”, and the smaller candles are typical of each individual Christian who strives to reproduce Christ in his life. This symbolism we may say is still accepted in the Church at large…” more here: http://www.churchcandlesonline.com/beeswax.php

  3. avatar annonymouse says:

    Thanks for this very interesting series, Bernie.


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