Candlemas — The Feast of the Presentation

When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord… and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”
…Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying,
  “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
    according to your word;
  for my eyes have seen your salvation,
    which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
  a light for revelation to the Gentiles
    and for glory to your people Israel.”
(Luke 2 RSVCE)

The events of the presentation of the baby Jesus in the Temple are recorded here by Luke. They are a sort of epilogue to the Christmas story we know and love so well.

The details are simple: According to the Jewish law, Jesus, as a firstborn son, was to be presented in the temple after the statutory 40-day purification period for the new mother and her baby. The parents were prepared with their offering (two doves) but surely were not prepared to meet not one but two prophets (Simeon and Anna), who had each been sent to the Temple by the prompting of God, and bore witness to that unusual child, surely surprising his parents.

Simeon’s prayer (quoted above) is especially beautiful, so exquisite that some of us pray it at night (in Compline) before sleep, or at other times of reflection. It is one of the many jewels of the Divine Office.

The Feast of the Presentation falls after Christmas, exactly 40 days. (See the 40 days in the gospel above.) If you do the math that means February 2. Some people celebrate it as a last echo of Christmas, perhaps putting away beloved nativity scenes only at this point.

To celebrate today’s feast, Paul Rose has put together a booklet for a Presentation vespers service. It contains written-down music you are probably quite familiar with from the SingTheHours podcast. You might find it interesting to look at, as another view on our shared prayer. Here is a link:

The themes of this feast include Christ and his young Mother, innocence and purity, and (following the lead of Simeon’s prayer) hope, light, and glory. Traditional foods include crepes and a lovely cake called Roscón de Reyes. Celebrations include candle-light in the home and even candle-light processions with singing. (For some reason beeswax candles are preferred, perhaps somehow in honor of bees, who surely deserve their part on a holiday once in a while.) Perhaps you enjoy (as I do) light and levity as a relief from cold weather, during Yule season or perhaps Dewali or Hanukkah. Candlemas is yet another such occasion for good cheer.

There are many excellent hymns, in many languages, appropriate to the themes of purity, light, and hope. One of the oldest (second or third century) is the Greek Phos Hilaron, or Gladsome Light. It’s been translated many times; it was one of the first hymns I ever attempted.

Listeners to SingTheHours have heard many Latin hymns that are approriate to this day, including borrowings from Advent and Christmas, such as Te lucis ante terminum, Veni creator Spiritus, and Ave maris stella (links are to literal English translations).

A couple of fine old English hymns for Presentation are Joy, Joy the Mother Comes by F. W. Faber (a friend of St. John Henry Newman) and O Zion, open wide thy gates, a 17th-century French hymn translated by the excellent Edward Caswall.

The Solesmes Book of Hymns (the only book I own solely in Latin) has a Latin hymn for the Divine Office on every day of the calendar. And so, particularly for today’s Presentation Vespers, there is a beautiful, somewhat complex hymn about Mary, Simeon, Jesus, and us (the singers), for which it seemed difficult to get an accurate English translation. I have ventured to make one in my usual style, which is about as close to the Latin words and music as English can come (given my own limitations). Here is the music:

And here are the words. Happy Candlemas! Christ our light is come!

   Quod chorus vatum venerandus olim
   Spiritu Sancto cecinit repletus,
   in Dei factum genetrice constat
   esse Maria.

That choir of sages venerable of old
Filled by the Holy Spirit sang foretelling,
God by his own deed constitutes his Mother
To be you, Mary.

   Haec Deum caeli Dominumque terrae
   virgo concepit peperitque virgo,
   atque post partum meruit manere

She, by Heaven’s God, who is Lord of the Earth,
As virgin conceived, and gave birth as virgin,
And she after birth merited remaining
Inviolate still.

   Quem senex iustus Simeon in ulnis
   in domo sumpsit Domini, gavisus
   ob quod optatum proprio videret
   lumine Christum.

Elder Simeon the Just, with embracing
Received her in the house of God, rejoicing
That he should be elect, by his own vision's
Daylight, to see Christ.

   Tu libens votis, petimus, precantum,
   regis aeterni genetrix, faveto,
   clara quae fundis Geniti benigni
   munera lucis.

Your willing promise now we ask, entreating,
O King Eternal’s Mother, may you grant us:
The clear outpouring of your kindly offspring’s
Rewards of the light.

   Christe, qui lumen Patris es superni,
   qui Patris nobis reseras profunda,
   nos fac aeternae tibi ferre laudes
   lucis in aula.

You Christ, light of the Father high exalted,
Who open wide to us the Father’s vastness,
Make us to bear you praises, of eternal
Light within your court.

translations copyright ©2022 John R. Rose under CC BY-SA 4.0