Thursday, Feb 2, is the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord. It occurs forty days after Nativity. There is a twofold logic to the feast that is more detailed than I want to get into in this essay, but this article offers a good overview.
Today most Christian communions consider Christmas to be a twelve day event stretching from Nativity (Dec. 25) to Epiphany (Jan. 6). This is an historical accident that, to a certain extent, has to do with various calendar systems. An oversimplified version is as follows: Certain older calendar systems were (and are, because so-called “Old Calendarists” such as certain Russian Orthodox groups and the Coptic Church) off twelve days from the Gregorian Calendar that we use today in our secular lives. December 25 on the old calendar is Jan. 6 on the new.
Long before that Christmas was a 40 day event (much like Easter, which is a 50 day event from Pascha to Pentecost). For instance, in 380 Egeria said that the Feast of Presentation was observed forty days after Nativity and marked the end of the Christmas season. Emperor Justinian codified many of the practices that had been normative in the church but never written down, and he said that the sermon for this Feast had to be focused on the Prayer of Simeon, or Nunc Dimitis, as it is called in Latin.
A forty day Christmas season makes a great deal more sense than a twelve day season because forty days typical marks a great salvation type event in scripture. Even though we no longer celebrate the Feast of Presentation as the end of Christmas, it offers a clue in one of the great turns in the modern Revised Common Lectionary.
For several Sundays after Christmas and Epiphany, the appointed scripture texts focus on “light”: A light has dawned, a great light is coming out of the east, let your light shine, etc. This is a season of simply reveling in the revelation of the light, so to speak. And then, somewhere along the line, the focus changes and we begin to hear texts of repentance. For a few weeks we look backward at the birth of Christ, and then, somewhere along the line, although there is no precise moment in the lectionary when this occurs, we turn around and start looking forward to Lent. The texts during this period might be called pre-repentance texts. Micah tells us we need to act justly, love kindness, and to walk humbly with God, for instance.
This great turn in the lectionary roughly corresponds to the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord. In Europe this feast is often called Candelmas. It is a service for the blessing of the candles and a service of candles. It is the final hurrah for our forty day period of reveling in the light of Christ. If we think seasonally, there is a palpable sense that winter is nearly over and we must now prepare for spring. The light of our candles is slowly recognized as a paltry prefiguring of the great dawning of the true day, the Dayspring.
This realization calls for action! We must get ready. We must evaluate our lives and measure them by the ruler of God’s truth. We must do a strength test and see where we are strong, but also where we are week and need to beef up. In this way we prepare for Lent, so that this forty day spiritual boot camp can be used most effectively as we prepare for the spiritual battle of Holy Week.