Andrea Mantegna: The Presentation of Christ in the Temple
The Presentation of Christ in the Temple (Candlemas):
Malachi 3: 1-5; Psalm 24: 1-10; Hebrews 2: 14-18; Luke 2: 22-40
In the name + of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.
This morning we are marking the Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, also known as the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin, or Candelmas.
The earliest reference to a celebration of this feast is provided by the intrepid pilgrim nun Egeria. When she visited Jerusalem in the years 381-384, she reported of a solemn ceremony with a candlelit procession to the Church of the Resurrection and a sermon on Luke 2: 22.
The Emperor Justinian ordered its observance of this feast in Constantinople in the year 542 in thanksgiving for the end of the plague. In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, this Presentation is one of the 12 Great Feasts of the Church.
The Feast of the Presentation spread slowly in the West, and did not become important enough to find a place in the secular calendar. The English poet Robert Herrick (1591-1674) recalled how on this day Christmas decorations of greenery, including all traces of berries and holly, were removed from people’s homes.
This was the day to remove the cattle from the hay meadows and from the field that was to be ploughed and sown that spring. People believed that the weather at Candlemas predicted the weather for the following winter: good weather at Candlemas meant severe weather the next winter. An old English song goes:
If Candlemas Day be fair and bright
Come winter, have another fight.
If Candlemas Day brings cloud and rain,
Go winter and come not again.
But putting history and folklore aside, in the Western Church, Evening Prayer on Candlemas, 2 February, marks the end of the Christmas and Epiphany Season. This is the last feast in the Christian calendar that is dated by reference to Christmas – later moveable feasts are calculated with reference to Easter.
The story we are celebrating is found in Luke 2: 22-40, where Mary and Joseph bring the Christ Child to the Temple in Jerusalem 40 days after his birth to dedicate him to God, according to religious laws and traditions of the day.
As they brought Jesus to the Temple, they met Simeon, who had been promised “he should not see death before he had seen the Messiah of the Lord” (Luke 2:26). We continue to use Simeon’s prayer in Evensong as the Canticle Nunc Dimittis.
In his prophecy about the Christ Child, Simeon said he would be a light for revelation to the nations – the reference that probably inspired a tradition of blessing beeswax candles in churches on this day.
The prophetess Anna, who was in the Temple too, also offered her prayers and thanks to God when she saw the Child Jesus. But Simeon also warned Mary that a sword would pierce her heart.
With Candlemas as the feast that prepares us to move from Epiphany to Lent – that bridges the seasons of Christmas and Easter – I cannot help but hold together the twin images provided from Simeon’s words to the Mary who cradled the Christ Child in her arms as she brought him to the Temple and the same Mary who cradles the Man Christ in her arms when is taken down from the cross.
I cannot look at Andrea Mantegna’s painting of the Presentation (1460), now in Berlin and used on our chapel notices for this weekend, or a similar, contemporary painting in Venice by Mantegna’s brother-in-law, Giovanni Bellini, without thinking too of Michelangelo’s Pieta.
Simeon is handing the Christ Child back to Mary wrapped in swaddling clothes that look like the grave clothes in which is body would be wrapped after the Crucifixion. Mary is holding and caressing the Christ Child, giving him a gentle kiss, just as she would later hold his body taken down from the cross, gently weeping over him.
The Mary that must have wondered about the meaning of Simeon’s prophecies and promises about her son is soon reduced to weeping over his dead body. How could she have known that death meant anything other than the end? Could there be any hope after this?
We know there is. We live in the light of the Resurrection. The candles of Candlemas remind us why we have Christmas candles. There is no meaning to Christmas unless we understand the meaning of Good Friday. And Good Friday has no meaning unless we have Easter faith. Candlemas links the lights of Christmas and the light of Easter; Candlemas links the Incarnation and the Resurrection.
And so, “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5: 16).
Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological College, Dublin. This sermon was preached at the Eucharist on the Feast of the Presentation (Candlemas), 2 February 2008, during an NSM weekend.