In your church experience, you may have participated in observances or services that celebrate the presentation of Jesus in the Temple. Perhaps you’ve wondered why this particular event has earned its own day on the church calendar. What makes Jesus’ presentation in the Temple such a big deal?
The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple refers to Jesus’ consecration to the Lord 40 days after his birth. This event was recorded in Luke’s gospel and is observed by modern churches on the 40th day following Christmas. Jesus’ presentation involves key ties to both the Old Testament and the unfolding gospel narrative.
A Day with Many Names
Churches across the Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant branches of Christianity observe a feast marking the presentation of Jesus at the Temple around 40 days after Christmas. The date of this observation may vary, depending on the nativity date observed by each particular tradition. The Feast also marks the end of the Christmas (Epiphany) season on church liturgical calendars.
As the observation of Jesus’ presentation at the Temple developed among different branches of the church, it has come to be known by several names, including:
· Feast of the Presentation of Our Lord (Various traditions)
· Meeting of Our Lord (some Eastern Orthodox churches)
· Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary (prior name of the Catholic celebration)
· Candlemas (Anglican traditions)
Origins of the Feast
The Feast of the Presentation was first celebrated in the fourth century in Jerusalem. In the seventh century, the feast was introduced in Rome, where it first incorporated a procession of candles. The use of candles to observe the Presentation has been maintained throughout the western branches of Christianity.
Some groups have suggested that the Feast of Presentation was an attempt to Christianize the Gaelic seasonal festival, Imbolc, which marks the onset of spring. However, the fourth-century emergence and Jerusalem roots of the Feast of Presentation demonstrate that the Feast had been established in church practice before the church had spread to the Celtic regions of Europe.
The traditional use of candles is said to commemorate the words spoken by Simeon and recorded by Luke (which we will review momentarily). However, in the 17th century, Pope Innocent XII theorized that the candles were incorporated into the Feast of Presentation in order to supplant a Roman pagan festival to Pluto which was marked by a procession of candles.
Why We Celebrate the Presentation
To understand why this particular event was deemed worthy of inclusion on the church calendar, let’s examine the account recorded in Luke 2:21-40.
Honoring the Past
The passage begins with a record of Jesus’ circumcision and naming when he was eight days old. From there, Luke jumps ahead several weeks to Jesus presentation in the Temple “when the time of their purification had been completed.” According to Levitical law, this purification took place on the 33rd day after Jesus’ circumcision (the 40th day after his birth, Leviticus 12:1-4).
Luke’s narrative also reveals that Mary and Joseph offered two young doves or pigeons as a purification sacrifice. This was the required sacrifice for families who were too impoverished to afford a lamb (Leviticus 12:8).
In addition to ritual purification, Mary and Joseph brought Jesus to the Temple so that he could be consecrated to the Lord as was required of all firstborn males (Exodus 13:2). Under Mosaic Law, all firstborn males (both human and animal) were sacred to the Lord.
And just as God allowed for the rescue of firstborn sons from the tenth plague (the event commemorated by Passover), He established a law by which parents could redeem their firstborn sons (Exodus 13:12-15). The price of redemption was later set at five shekels of silver (Numbers 18:15-16).
So to start, Luke demonstrates to us that Jesus came in a manner that fulfilled the Mosaic Law of the Old Covenant. Scholars also note that Jesus’ presentation as an infant born to a poor woman underscores his messianic mission’s reliance on divine power, rather than on world power and prestige.
Announcing the Future
Just as Jesus’ presentation honors the ancient requirements of the Mosaic Law, this scene also marks a pivotal moment in which the narrative of the gospel looks forward to Jesus’ life, ministry, and purpose.
The people of Israel had long hoped for a messiah. Most expected a conquering king who would restore the line of David through military might. But a small number of people, whom commentator William Barclay describes as the “Quiet in the Land,” devoted their time to watchful prayer.
Simeon was one such man. He had been promised by the Holy Spirit that he would see the Lord’s messiah, he was moved by the Spirit to wait in the Temple courts. And when Jesus was brought to the Temple, Simeon was prepared to welcome him with praise and thanksgiving.
Simeon’s words upon seeing Jesus were both prophetic and revelatory. By the prompting of the Spirit alone, Simeon proclaimed Jesus as the promised salvation. This is the first such proclamation recorded in scripture.
Canticle of Simeon
Simeon’s proclamation is sung as a canticle during Feast of Presentation observations. The canticle, which has been adopted largely verbatim from scripture to the Book of Common Prayer reads:
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;
To be a light to lighten the Gentiles and to be the glory of thy people Israel.
This canticle is also commonly called the Nunc Dimittis (so named for its opening words) and has been adopted into general church use as a traditional night prayer. It has also been incorporated into funeral and memorial liturgies.
The use of candles in Feast of Presentation observances represents the “light for revelation to the Gentiles” that Simeon proclaimed in the final line of his song.
More from Simeon
After his celebratory proclamation, Simeon had some additional words, particularly for Mary. Simeon prophesied that Jesus would cause many to rise and many to fall, and would encounter opposition.
As Jesus’ ministry began, he forced his hearers to rethink human power systems through his servant leadership. He challenged the self-righteousness of the Pharisees while raising up evangelists from among the common fishermen. And he made powerful enemies that would ultimately hand him over to the Romans for crucifixion.
But perhaps most memorable are Simeon’s words to Mary. He warned that a ‘sword would pierce her soul.’ At this moment, Mary was still very young (fifteen years old at the most), and knew very little of what to expect. She had been promised by the angel that she would give birth to a future king but knew nothing of the events that would lead to his coronation.
As Jesus’ ministry reached the culmination of its purpose, Mary suffered no physical harm. However, she was present at the crucifixion (John 19:25). Scholars generally agree that Simeon’s warning to Mary looked ahead to the grief she would experience upon witnessing her son’s torture and death.
Anna the Prophetess
In addition to Simeon, Mary and Joseph also encountered the old prophetess Anna when Jesus was presented in the Temple. Having spent most of her 84 years as a widow, her life was not marked by the bitterness and despair that one would expect in her circumstance. Rather, with a heart of worship, she embodied hope.
As if to validate the words proclaimed by Simeon, Anna joined him in celebrating the realization of her lifelong hope with her own expression of gratitude.
The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple is celebrated because it represents a key turning point in the Biblical story. God’s people had been looking back, through rituals and sacrifices, to the Exodus and the Old Testament law, awaiting a distant hope.
But in Jesus, salvation is proclaimed, the law is fulfilled, and hope is realized. And now he invites us all to turn our eyes ahead as our hope is secured in Him and we move forward into the Kingdom of God that he has ushered in.