According to the Church’s liturgical calendar, the feast held on Feb. 2 each year is in honor of the Presentation of the Lord. Some Catholics recall this day as the feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary because such was the feast day named until the 1969 changes in the Church’s calendar.
In fact, according to Luke’s Gospel, the presentation of Jesus and the purification of the Blessed Mother took place in the Temple on the same day, and both are remembered during Mass on Feb. 2. Also, in several countries, Candlemas is simultaneously celebrated on this day and involves a candlelight procession that was popularized in the Middle Ages. Until the Second Vatican Council the feasts on Feb. 2 ended the Christmas season. Today, the season ends in January on the feast of the Baptism of our Lord.
As early as the fourth century Christians commemorated the presentation of Jesus in the Temple, but, at the time, there was no feast name attached. In seventh-century Rome, the Church named the celebration the feast of the Purification of the Blessed Mother Mary, and it remained that way for nearly 1,300 years. In the reforms after Vatican II, the feast was given a stronger focus on Jesus (by stressing the Presentation of Jesus), but clearly the events of purification and presentation that took place when Jesus was 40 days old (see Lk 2:22-39) are tied together and thus commemorated together.
Purification and Presentation
Under Mosaic law found in the Old Testament Book of Leviticus, a Jewish woman who gave birth to a child was considered unclean (see 12:1-8). The mother of a newborn could not routinely go out into public and had to avoid all things sacred, including the Temple. If her child was a male, this exclusion lasted for 40 days. If the child was female, the period lasted 80 days. This was a ceremonial seclusion and not the result of sin or some kind of wrongdoing on the part of the mother.
At the end of the 40 or 80 days the woman presented herself at the Temple to be purified. If the baby was her firstborn male child, the infant was brought along to the Temple to be dedicated to the Lord. The law in Exodus specifies that the first male child belongs to God (see 13:2-16). This law is a tribute to God for His sparing the firstborn Israelite males during the time of the Exodus from Egypt. The firstborn Egyptian male children, of course, were not spared.
The mother’s purification ritual obliged her to bring, or purchase at the Temple, a lamb and a turtledove as sacrificial offerings. The lamb was offered in thanksgiving to God for the successful birth of the child; the turtledove was a sin offering. Families that could not afford a lamb could bring two pigeons or two turtledoves. After these animals were sacrificed, the Temple priest prayed over the woman and she could once again resume her normal role or status.
Mary, the ever spotless Mother of God, certainly did not have to comply with this ritual, but did so to honor God and observe all the rules handed down by Moses. She was the holiest of all women, but she still submitted to the humbling requirements of the law. She remained at home for 40 days, denied herself all association with sacred things and on the day required walked the five miles from Bethlehem to the Temple in Jerusalem. Arriving at the Temple, Mary likely stood in line and waited her turn to see the priest.
In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus, Mary and Joseph go to the Temple offering two turtledoves for Mary’s purification. Along with Mary’s willing submission, Jesus is presented into the hands of the priest and thus to God. In accordance with the Old Testament, the child was blessed and then bought or ransomed back by the family who would pay five shekels into the Temple treasury. The Savior of the world is ransomed in the manner of every other Hebrew boy. “When the days were completed for their purification according to the law of Moses, they took him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord, just as it is written in the law of the Lord, ‘Every male that opens the womb shall be consecrated to the Lord’”(Lk 2:22-24; see Nm 18:15-16).
The Gospel of Luke explains that the old prophet Simeon and the prophetess Anna were at the Temple that day (see 2:22-38). They, like many others, had spent their lifetime waiting, longing for a Messiah, and the Holy Spirit had revealed to Simeon that he would not die until he had seen the Savior. Among all the children and mothers coming into the Temple, Simeon recognized Jesus as the Christ Child; he held Jesus and exclaimed this hymn of thanksgiving, “Now, Master, you may let your servant go in peace, according to your word, for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you prepared in sight of all the peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and glory for your people Israel” (2:29-32). The hymn has traditionally been termed the Nunc Dimittis, from the Latin, “Nunc dimittis servum tuum, Domine, secundum verbum tuum in pace.”
Like Mary, Jesus the Divine Son of God did not have to undergo these rituals, but His parents willingly complied in order to pay tribute to Jewish laws, to avoid any possible scandal and in so doing demonstrated profound humility. They acquiesced to the law like all poor Jewish families.
The Holy Family must have experienced great joy, even wonder at all that had happened to them. Consider the events of the previous weeks. First, the shepherds miraculously arrived to adore and praise Jesus on the night He was born. And now, Simeon, another stranger, singles out Jesus as the Savior, not only of Israel but of the world. Someday all the other children being presented will know Jesus as their Savior. But here in the Temple there is also pain. The old prophet, moved by the Holy Spirit, tells Mary that she will experience unspeakable grief because of the outrageous way the world would judge and treat her Son. But Mary remained always committed to God’s will and to her Son.
Feb. 2 is on the liturgical calendar as the feast of the Presentation of the Lord, but in addition to the presentation, the Mass recalls Mary’s humble submission to the purification ritual.
D.D. Emmons writes from O’Fallon, Ill.