Luke the evangelist tells us that Jesus was presented in the house of God, as the Law of Moses required. He also records how the Christ-child was greeted by Simeon and Anna, two figures who represented Israel’s longing to see the Redeemer promised by God. The evangelist gave Simeon a song to sing, the Nunc dimittis, which acclaims Jesus as the saving Light of God. To symbolize the enlightening truth of Christ the western Church developed the custom of blessing candles on this feast — hence its other title, Candlemas.
The chief title of the February 2nd feast, “The Presentation,” comes from the ancient Jewish law that every firstborn son had to be dedicated to God’s service. But the Law of Moses allowed parents to redeem their child by offering something else in his stead. In Jesus’s case, Mary and Joseph offered the redemptive substitute which the law appointed for the first-born of poor parents, “a pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons.” Thus, paradoxically, the Redeemer himself was redeemed.
Many Christian writers have delighted to see the deepening of this paradox in the story of Simeon. In the fourth century, Ephrem of Edessa wrote:
“When Simeon the priest received Christ into his arms and presented him to God, he understood that he was not offering Christ, but was himself being offered.”
In celebrating the feast of the Presentation, the people of the Church become like Simeon, who cradled the infant Light of salvation in the crook of his arm and knew him to be as fragile as a candle-flame. In baptism, in meditating upon Scripture, and in the eucharist Christians cradle the same Light and take responsibility for the life of Christ in our world. And yet the paradox continues. Even as they hold Christ in their hands, they may discover that they are really in the crook of Christ’s arms, being presented by him in the sanctuary of God’s joy and glory.