The Feast of the Presentation

This Sunday, we’ll celebrate one of the most ancient and important holy days of the church year: it’s in the “top ten feasts” list on page 12-13 of the Book of Common Prayer.. It’s a feast with many names: the BCP currently calls it the feast of The Presentation of Christ in the Temple, but the “old” prayer book called it The Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary. In the eastern Orthodox church it’s often called The Meeting, but I’ve found it’s hard to get 21st century people excited about coming to a meeting (“couldn’t we just use Skype?”).

Forty days after the birth of their first son, families were to go to a priest and ceremonially dedicate their child to God. So, on February second, 40 days after Christmas, we hear the account of when the holy family went to the Temple in Jerusalem to offer the appointed prayers and sacrifices. Just as they’re leaving, an old man named Simeon takes the child from Mary’s arms, declares that he has been told by the Holy Spirit that he would see the Lord’s Messiah before he dies, and says “Lord, you now have set your servant free to go in peace, just as you promised; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared before the presence of all peoples, a light to enlighten the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel.”

We’re about halfway between Christmas and Lent, a time when the church traditionally begins to shift its gaze from the manger in Bethlehem to the garden of Gethsemene (some of you may remember when Sundays this time of year had funny names like Quinquagesima, which counted down the days until Easter). It’s also halfway between the shortest day of the year and the beginning of spring, and we’re all beginning to notice that the days are getting longer, and beginning to believe that spring might actually come this year after all.

In honor of Simeon’s words about light, people long ago came to see the Presentation as a day to celebrate the return of the light that spring promises. Large processions of people with candles and torches went all around the great cities of Europe in the late winter darkness, and all the candles that were to be used in the coming year were blessed in church on this day. So the feast gained another new name: Candlemas.

One tradition that grew up around Candlemas was that you could predict how harsh the second half of winter was going to be by looking at the weather on that day. An old Scottish saying says, “If Candlemas day is bright and clear, there’ll be two winters in the year.”

This tradition crossed the ocean to America with the settlers. In 1841, a shopkeeper in Morgantown, PA named James Morris wrote in his diary, “Last Tuesday, the 2nd, was Candlemas day, the day on which, according to the Germans, the Groundhog peeps out of his winter quarters and if he sees his shadow he pops back for another six weeks nap, but if the day be cloudy he remains out, as the weather is to be moderate.” Candlemas collected yet another name: Groundhog Day (and inspired the classic 1993 Bill Murray movie, but that’s a topic for another sermon).

So this Sunday we’ll take our part in an ancient celebration of hope. As our ancestors longed for light in the darkness, so do we. The warmth and life of spring are on their way, just as surely as Easter follows Good Friday.This Sunday we’ll bless some candles and put away our Christmas creche, and we’ll warm ourselves in the depth of winter with warm drinks and conversation following the service. It’s all ages worship this Sunday — just one service, at 10. Please join us!

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