Augustine Sokolovski, Doctor of Theology, Priest
The liturgical calendar of the Orthodox Church has many dimensions. It simultaneously contains different time sequences, liturgical cycles and links of festive events that similarly enter into certain – often paradoxical – interactions with each other. So commemoration becomes a profound matter.
The first and most important feast day from the very beginning of Christianity is Easter. Easter is celebrated on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox. This peculiarity of celebration means that all the festivals and memories associated with Easter (Lent, Pentecost and the sequence of liturgical readings on Sundays) fall on a different date every year. Parallel to the Easter cycle in the liturgical calendar is the Christmas cycle. This period runs from the Annunciation, i.e. the day of the conception of the Lord Jesus Christ by the Virgin Mary and the Holy Spirit, and includes Christmas, Circumcision and the Presentation of the Lord.
Initially, in the early Church, Epiphany was almost the only Christian holiday besides Easter –a kind of antithesis to the latter. If Easter was a celebration in honour of the risen Christ, then Epiphany was a celebration in honour of Christ’s incarnation, the remembrance of his earthly life. Over time, different events from the life of the Lord Jesus were separately celebrated. Finally, together with the events of the Easter cycle and the feast days in honour of the Virgin Mary, they formed a sequence of the Great Twelve Feasts of the Orthodox Church. The Feast of the Presentation of Jesus is one of them. It is celebrated in the Russian Church on the 15th of February.
The Feast of the Presentation of the Lord has different names: Bringing Jesus to the Temple; the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary; the Candlemas,’the Liturgy of Light; and even the Meeting of the Lord in Russian and Greek Orthodoxy. Each of these names is associated with different meanings of the feast, which are gradually revealed in the story as described in the Gospel. The Feast of the Presentation bears a biblical origin. The Church’s dogma on the Incarnation states that God in Christ Jesus truly became a man and lived a real human life. As the Messiah sent by God to save humanity, the Lord Jesus was a truly religious person. The religiosity of Israel during the time of Jesus Christ was built around certain constants, the most important of which was the Law and the Temple. Jesus Christ came to fulfil the Law and had to fulfil it. Following the Law of Moses, the birth of the first male child was accompanied by a triad of obligatory ceremonies described in the biblical book of Leviticus: Circumcision, Purification of a Woman and Dedication of the Firstborn.
Accordingly, the narrative of the event of the Presentation of Lord begins with the words about the circumcision of the child Jesus. For us 21st-century people, it is significant that the child was given the human name Jesus on the eighth day after birth (Genesis 12:3). This seemingly familiar event takes on incredible significance in light of the dogma of the Incarnation.
It is crucial to remember that the word “God” itself, no matter what language you pronounce it in, is not the name of God but a conventional concept denoting the One who is above every name and merely cannot be named. In the biblical book of Exodus, God calls himself “JHWH” (Exodus 3:14). However, this is only an inaccurate translation. In Hebrew, the term means this: “He is the one who is what he (continually) becomes. Becomes what he should become. He is and will be.” Or more simply, “I will be.”
But if for God the absence of a name is a sign of his majesty, then the giving of the name “Jesus” to the newborn divine child on the eighth day signifies the depth of God’s self-humility, which in theological language is called kenosis or exhaustion. After all, the born God-man remained nameless until the eighth day. He remained nameless to free man from all destructive anonymity and lack of a name, to fill our names with life.
According to the same book of Leviticus that prescribes circumcision, a woman who gives birth to a male child is considered unclean for 40 days. After that, she must sacrifice a lamb. If the woman cannot afford a lamb, she shall bring two doves or two pigeons (Lev. 12:6-8). Based on Luke’s Gospel testimony of “two turtle doves or pigeon chicks” we can conclude that Mary and Joseph were poor (Luke 2:22-24). When the days of their purification according to the Law of Moses were fulfilled, they brought Jesus to Jerusalem to present him before the Lord, as prescribed in the Law of the Lord, so that every firstborn male baby must be dedicated to the Lord. The combination of these two rituals – the purification of the mother and the bringing of the first-born child – was, in turn, the reason why, according to the liturgical rule, the Feast is simultaneously dedicated to the Lord and the Theotokos.
The history of the biblical people before the coming of the Messiah into the world is a history of expectation. In the case of the Presentation, this expectation takes on concrete, astonishing and meaningful characteristics. “Then there was a man in Jerusalem named Simeon. He was a righteous and devout man who longed for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. The Holy Spirit foretold him that he would not see death until he saw Christ the Lord. And he came by inspiration to the temple” (Luke 2:25-27). In these brief words of the Gospel text, everything is said about Simeon. Simeon was one of those biblically righteous people who, over the millennia of the history of God’s chosen people, beginning with Abraham, followed the divine call and awaited deliverance without knowing exactly how, when and under what historical circumstances it would come from God. The Holy Spirit rested on Simeon and the promise that he would see Christ the Lord was an unmeasurable blessing. And it was not only Simeon who waited for Christ in the temple. Anna the prophetess, a remarkable combination of female biblical holiness and prophetic gift, was also waiting for Christ the Messiah. It is interesting what exactly the Gospel says about her, as about reaching a very advanced age. The presentation was this meeting of two righteous people, Simeon and Anna, historical figures who simultaneously embodied righteous men and women throughout Israel’s history, with the Lord.
The Presentation as a meeting of the Messiah and righteous Israel. The Presentation as a meeting of God and man. The Presentation as the meeting of the two testaments. The Presentation as the joy of the people of God. The Presentation as the fulfilment of our hope.