Readings for the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord are available HERE
At the end of the fourth century, a woman called Etheria went on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. She wrote a journal and described the ceremonies there. In those days, Christians celebrated the birth of Jesus on the Feast of the Epiphany; forty days later, there was a huge procession in Jerusalem which celebrated the presentation of the Lord in the Temple. In the Western Church, we celebrate the feast on the second day of February, forty days after Christmas, the day we celebrate the birth of Jesus. At the beginning of the eighth century, Pope Sergius decreed that there should be a candlelight procession on this day; since then, many people have called this feast Candlemas.
Some people call today’s feast the Purification of Mary. Why is that? The Law of Moses teaches that, if a woman gives birth to a boy, she is considered to be unclean for seven days, after which the boy must be circumcised. For the next thirty-three days, she is not allowed to touch anything sacred or enter the sanctuary. If she has a daughter, she is considered to be unclean for fourteen days, and then has to stay away from holy things and from the sanctuary for sixty-six days. At the end of this time, the mother should bring a lamb to the Temple as a burnt offering, and she must also offer a pigeon or a turtledove so that she may be purified. If she is not rich enough to give a lamb, she can bring a pair of turtledoves or two pigeons, one as a burnt offering and one for purification. That is what is happening in today’s Gospel.
Mary and Joseph were probably not rich enough to bring a lamb, so they know they have to bring a pair of turtledoves or two pigeons. Joseph also had to offer the priest five shekels, to “redeem” his first son. This is a reminder of the time when the first sons of the Egyptians were all killed, but the first sons of the Israelites were spared. When the priest received the five shekels, he presented the child to the Lord, and that is why today’s feast is called the Presentation of the Lord. When we pray the Rosary, the fourth joyful mystery is The Presentation of the Child Jesus in the Temple. Although Jesus is the Son of God, His parents are pious Jews, so they do for their son what all practising Jewish parents would do. They present Him to the Lord.
I was born on Wednesday and baptised on Sunday, so I really have been a Catholic for most of my life – only four days unbaptised. Somebody in my family handed me to a young girl who lived in the next house and said to her, “Take him to Saint John’s church and get him done”, so nobody from my family was there. In those days it was not necessary to arrange a baptism in advance. Even when I was a young priest it was the same. If it was my week to baptise babies, I would just go into the church at three o’clock and baptise all the babies. The girl who took me to church became my godmother. My godfather was my father’s brother Daniel, which is why my second name is Daniel. But he was not there. He was in Korea with the British Army, fighting the Communists. My father was probably in the pub, celebrating the fact that he had a son. But the strangest thing was the reason why my mother was not in the church that day. She would not come out of the house because she had not been “churched”. In other words, she was waiting for a priest to come and give her a special blessing, because in those days Catholic women believed they needed to be purified after having a baby. Most Catholics were scared that, if a baby died, its soul would not go to heaven, so babies needed to be baptised as soon as possible. That is why I was baptised when I was only four days old.
My mother thought she was in the same situation as Jewish women: she thought she was unclean, and in need of being purified. Young women like my mother had huge respect for sacred things and sacred places, so they would not go near a church until they had been purified, or “churched”. At the same time, my mother believed her new baby had to be blessed by baptism and become part of God’s Church. When I was presented to the Lord, it was Nancy, the girl in the next house, who did the job. Mary and Joseph had to wait forty days, so they did not need to hand Jesus to a stranger. They would never have done anything like that. They took their own son to the Temple, and did everything the Law told them they had to do. I think most of you would take your child to church yourselves. But I want to ask you a question, and I hope you will think about it, and perhaps even pray about it. Mary and Joseph knew they were doing something important when they presented the child Jesus to God in the Temple. But they must have had such a shock when they met Simeon and Anna, who explained how special this child would be. Here is my question: why would you have your child baptised? What difference do you think it makes to her or him – and what difference does it make to you?
Fr. Peter Fleetwood