Christmas ends next Thursday
Sacred Mysteries: the Jewish ritual with an honoured place in the Christian calendar.
By Christopher Howse – 27 Jan 2012
When the pilgrim Egeria went to Jerusalem in the fourth century, the church of the Holy Sepulchre was only a generation old. It must have looked wonderful with the light of the lamps in the rotunda catching the gold woven into the silk curtains, as she describes.
A festival kept with a solemnity like that of Easter, she says, came 40 days after the Epiphany. It marked the presentation of the child Jesus in the Temple (as depicted above by Giovanni Bellini), a few hundred yards from the place where his Resurrection was to take place. Today, the presentation is celebrated 40 days after Christmas, next Thursday, February 2, known as Candlemas.
Why was Jesus being presented in the Temple? Because the book of Numbers stipulates that the first-born, whether man or beast, belongs to the Lord. First-born children are to be redeemed or bought back. The first offspring of sheep are to be sacrificed to God.
St Luke’s Gospel notes that Mary, Jesus’s mother, had another purpose in going to the Temple, which was to offer a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons. For those who could afford it, the offering would have been a lamb and a turtle dove. This offering marked the end of the mother’s period of ritual uncleanness. Uncleanness was not one of guilt for sin, but concerned blood.
Just as touching a corpse made anyone ritually unclean, so too did an issue of blood from a woman, either of the ordinary kind, or from a chronic haemorrhage, as with the woman who sought Jesus’s healing when he was on the way to raise Jairus’s daughter.
We do not think in such terms today, or we suppose that we don’t. In fact many of our attitudes to cleanness have little to do with the germ theory of infection that we formally acknowledge. People vary, but many do not like to touch a dead bird, for example, though they happily eat chicken, or are disgusted by the food from someone else’s plate, though they would happily kiss their lips. I mention this only to suggest that it would be foolish to assume an attitude of ritual superiority over our forebears in religious matters.
There is, in the Book of Common Prayer, a ceremony “commonly called the Churching of Women”. I do not know how often it is performed, but it used to be an essential rite of passage for any woman who had given birth before she rejoined the congregation at worship in church. The woman must also, the rubric says, “offer accustomed offerings”. The ritual is seen as a thanksgiving rather than a purification, just as it was in the parallel ceremony in the Roman Missal.
It is understandable that there is impatience with ceremonies that even hint at ritual uncleanness among people who do not believe in ritual uncleanness. Jesus clearly behaved as the master, not the servant of such regulations.
He said, referring to himself, that “the Son of man is Lord even of the Sabbath”. He told the woman with the issue of blood, who had touched him, that it was her faith that had healed her. Yet he underwent baptism from John, though he had no need for any cleansing from sin. The Metaphysical poet Richard Crashaw contrived a couplet to express it in this conceit: “Each blest drop on each blest limb / Is wash’t itself in washing him.”
The same sort of reverse process applies to the presentation of Jesus in the Temple. As the first-born, he is the Lord’s and must be redeemed by his mother, but he has really come to his own house in name of the Lord to redeem his people.
Jesus’s mother, instead of needing purification when her son is born of her womb, had been made holy by his entering it in the first place.
So Candlemas is the fulfilment of the Christmas season and the occasion of the third of the great canticles in St Luke’s Gospel, still sung every day, the Nunc Dimittis, when Simeon recognises the “light to lighten the Gentiles”.
Having today, in the Church of Saint Michael And All Angels, in Christchurch, New Zealand, celebrated the Feast of the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple, we followed the usage of the Church Catholic, in observing the Feast on the nearest available Sunday – which happens to be today, Sunday, January 29th; whereas the fortieth day after celebration of the Birth of Jesus actually occurs next Thursday, 2nd February.
It is right and proper that a festival of the Recognition of Jesus by the duty priest, Simeon, and the widowed faithful daughter of Phanuel, should be celebrated by the fuller family of the church congregation on the nearest available Sunday. The feast recognises the vital importance of Jesus’ Presentation in the context of the Jewish Tradition, which demanded that the first-born should be offered to God – together with a thanksgiving token from the parents of the child. In Mary and Joseph’s case, this was that of a pigeon and two turle-doves. Today’s congregation carried lighted candles to represent the occasion of Jesus being recognised as ‘The Light of The World’.
Fomr my earlier remembrance of the Feast, it was once called the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the occasion when, in accordance with the Jewish tradition, the mother of the newly-born would present herself for a purification rite in the temple before participating in any other public occasion. This was deemed necessary as a cleansing ritual after the woman had given birth. The relic of this ‘purification rite’ was perpetuated in the Church of England by the Service of ‘The Churching of women’ in the Book of Common Prayer.
Even women who were not regular church-goers in England were expected to attend a service of ‘The Churching of Women’, after childbirth. At least until the end of the Second World War, this was a discipline adhered to in most country parish churches in England. Latterly, the implication was changed to that of giving thanks for the birth of a child – as different from celebrating the child’s baptism, which would follow thereafter.
One of the difficulties of the rite of ‘Churching of Women’, was that it seemed to attach a stigma of ‘unclean-ness’ on the part of a woman immediately after childbirth, due to the conception and birthing process. This began to seem out of kilter with what was now perceived to be a natural occurrence within marriage wholly to be expected as part of raising a normal Christian family. This is why, then, the emphasis began to be given to thanksgiving for the birth of the child – rather then a ritual cleansing for the mother.
The seminal difference between the Anglican theological premise – of the need for ritual cleansing – though obviously derived in part from the biblical ‘Purification’ ritual; was that Jesus was introducing a new element into the acknowledgement of his particular arrival as the ‘first-born’ Son of God. On this occasion, the Baby Jesus was recognised by the old priest, Simeon, as the promised Messiah, the Anointed of God, destined to fulfil God’s call upon his Jewish children to be God’s Light to enlighten The Gentiles. Where God’s Chosen People had failed to live up to their special calling; Jesus was destined to be that Light – not only to his fellow Jews, but to every nation under heaven, as had been prophesied.
No wonder both the priest Simeon and the prophetess Anna were delighted by Jesus’ appearance, accompanied by Mary and Joseph, in the Temple. They had been faithfully watching and waiting for this moment of the revelation of the Messiah. The obedience of both Mary and Joseph had borne fruit. They had done what God had required of them -despite the initial doubts and fears that must have accompanied their corporate decision to do what the angel had told them – for ‘nothing is impossible for God’. Deo gratias!
Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand