Purification of the Virgin
Commemorated on February 2
The Feast of the Presentation is among the most ancient feasts of the Church. There are sermons on the Feast by the bishops Methodius of Patara († 312), Cyril of Jerusalem († 360), Gregory the Theologian († 389), Amphilochius of Iconium († 394), Gregory of Nyssa († 400), and John Chrysostom († 407).
The earliest reference to specific liturgical rites surrounding the feast are by the intrepid nun Egeria, during her pilgrimage to the Holy Land (381–384). She reported that 14 February was a day solemnly kept in Jerusalem with a procession to Constantine I’s Basilica of the Resurrection, with a homily preached on Luke 2:22 (which makes the occasion perfectly clear), and a Divine Liturgy. This so-called Itinerarium Peregrinatio (“Pilgrimage Itinerary”) of Egeria does not, however, offer a specific name for the Feast. The date of 14 February indicates that in Jerusalem at that time, Christ’s birth was celebrated on 6 January, Epiphany. Egeria writes for her beloved fellow nuns at home:
XXVI. “The fortieth day after the Epiphany is undoubtedly celebrated here with the very highest honor, for on that day there is a procession, in which all take part, in the Anastasis, and all things are done in their order with the greatest joy, just as at Easter. All the priests, and after them the bishop, preach, always taking for their subject that part of the Gospel where Joseph and Mary brought the Lord into the Temple on the fortieth day, and Symeon and Anna the prophetess, the daughter of Phanuel, saw him, treating of the words which they spake when they saw the Lord, and of that offering which his parents made. And when everything that is customary has been done in order, the sacrament is celebrated, and the dismissal takes place.”
An Armenian miniature illustrating the subject (Mugni Gospels, ca. 1060).
Originally, the feast was a minor celebration. But then in 541 a terrible plague broke out in Constantinople, killing thousands. The Emperor Justinian I, in consultation with the Patriarch of Constantinople, ordered a period of fasting and prayer throughout the entire Empire. And, on the Feast of the Meeting of the Lord, arranged great processions throughout the towns and villages and a solemn prayer service (Litia) to ask for deliverance from evils, and the plague ceased. In thanksgiving, in 542 the feast was elevated to a more solemn celebration and established throughout the Eastern Empire by the Emperor.
In Rome, the feast appears in the Gelasian Sacramentary, a manuscript collection of the seventh and eighth centuries associated with Pope Gelasius I, but with many interpolations and some forgeries. There it carries for the first time the new title of the feast of Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Late in time though it may be, Candlemas is still the most ancient of all the festivals in honor of the Virgin Mary. The date of the feast in Rome was 2 February because the Roman date for Christ’s nativity had been 25 December since at least the early fourth century.
Though modern laymen picture Candlemas as an important feast throughout the Middle Ages in Europe, in fact it spread slowly in the West; it is not found in the Lectionary of Silos (650) nor in the Calendar (731–741) of Sainte-Geneviève of Paris.
The tenth-century Benedictional of St. Æthelwold, bishop of Winchester, has a formula used for blessing the candles. Candlemas did become important enough to find its way into the secular calendar. It was the traditional day to remove the cattle from the hay meadows, and from the field that was to be ploughed and sown that spring. References to it are common in later medieval and early Modern literature; Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night is recorded as having its first performance on Candlemas Day 1602. It remains one of the Scottish quarter days, at which debts are paid and law courts are in session.
Originally from: 365 Days with Mary