On February 2nd the Church celebrates the Meeting of the Lord, one of the twelve great feasts of the church. Among Western Christians, this feast is known as the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple, the feast of the Purification of the Virgin, or Candlemas.
The occasion of this feast is described in St. Luke’s Gospel (Luke 2:22-40). According to the Gospel, the forty-day old infant Jesus is taken to the temple in Jerusalem for two reasons. First, there was the custom of “the churching” of women when they are welcomed back into the temple (or church) as a sign of thanksgiving that they had recovered from the labor of giving birth and are now ready to participate again in the life of the temple or church. We still have this custom in the Orthodox Church. The second reason was to “redeem” the first born son, Jesus. Again, according to the Old Testament, the child had to be redeemed by making an offering at the temple. Joseph and Mary offered two turtledoves or two young pigeons. This was the offering poor people would make the wealthier would offer a lamb.
It should be noted that calling Jesus the first-born son of Joseph and Mary does not imply that Mary had any more children. Because of the religious significance of having a first son, he was always called first-born, whether or not any more followed. When Jesus was brought to the temple his family were met by the righteous Simeon. He was a very old, very holy man, whom God had promised that he would die only after he had seen the Messiah. Simeon took the infant Jesus in his arms and spoke what is now known as the Canticle of Simeon, or the Nunc Dimitis.
“Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word; for mine eyes have seen thy salvation which thou hast prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to thy people Israel.”
This hymn is part of evening prayer or the Vespers services of the church. This service is celebrated on Saturday night and the eves of great feasts. Even if one cannot come to Church for this service, this hymn is very appropriate to recite on one’s own in the evening or night, to mark the ending of the day.
Simeon also prophesied “Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is spoken against (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), that thoughts out of many hearts may be revealed” foreshadowing the later suffering of Jesus and his mother. Finally, in the temple was an elderly, holy prophetess called Anna, who recognized the child as the Messiah and spoke about his significance to the people she encountered.
In the iconography of this feast one usually sees Simeon meeting our Lord at the entrance to the temple with the Theotokos holding the infant. One of the interesting aspects of this feast is that it is a feast of both our Lord and of the Theotokos, because they both play important roles in it.
As mentioned earlier, this feast is often known as Candlemas. The “mas” part of this word refers to the Mass, or Divine Liturgy. (Many feast days in the Western Church end in the word “mas”. For example, Christmas or Christ’s Mass). The word Candle is here because on this feast, both in the West and in the East, candles are blessed on this day.
This feast is one of the most ancient in the church. We have many sermons of the Fathers dedicated to this feast, as early as the 4th century. Also in the 4th century, a Spanish nun named Egeria traveled to the Holy Land and observed the celebration of the feast.
So this is truly a joyful feast, which shows that giving birth is not a purely private matter of the mother and family, but of the church and community who pray for her during her pregnancy and labor and now give thanks that she is back in church.
Troparion — Tone 1
Rejoice, O Virgin Theotokos, full of grace! / From you shone the Sun of Righteousness, Christ our God. / Enlightening those who sat in darkness! / Rejoice, and be glad, O righteous elder; / You accepted in your arms the Redeemer of our souls, / Who grants us the Resurrection.
Kontakion — Tone 1
By Your nativity, You did sanctify the Virgin’s womb, / And did bless Simeon’s hands, O Christ God. / Now You have come and saved us through love. / Grant peace to all Orthodox Christians, O only Lover of man!