The Presentation (BL Egerton 3277, f.114)
Today is Candlemas, the Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, and the end of the forty-day Christmas season. It takes its English name from the custom of blessing and processing with candles on this day, a practice linked to the words of Simeon on meeting Christ that he is 'a light to lighten the Gentiles'. This is a festival of light and hope, a first shoot of spring.
The name 'Candlemas' dates from the Anglo-Saxon period (the first recorded appearance of the name is in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle's entry on the death of Svein Forkbeard in 1014), and there's plentiful and evocative evidence of the observance of this feast in England from the tenth century onwards. In the past I've posted an Anglo-Saxon sermon for this feast, a Candlemas miracle-story about St Dunstan, Cnut's Candlemas song at Ely, a particularly lovely Middle English Candlemas carol 'The queen of bliss and of beauty', and Margery Kempe's description of her experience of the celebrations of this day - five centuries of Candlemas Days.
The liturgy for this day is particularly dramatic, encouraging the congregation to re-enact the Gospel story by bearing the light of Christ in their hands. The Presentation in the Temple is also represented in medieval drama, in several different versions, so here are a few short extracts, in modernised spelling, from the fifteenth-century N-Town Plays. The full text can be found here, and you might like to compare the treatment of the same subject from the York Corpus Christi Plays. They are both full of beautiful poetry, and they take on greater depth of meaning from their place in the cycle of plays of which they form part: in both cycles, this play follows immediately after one in which the audience has just seen Herod, ranting and raving in the full bluster of tyrannical power, interrogating the Magi as they seek the baby Christ. This angry, violent, unjust ruler believes his power to be supreme, and plots how to secure it by attacking the innocent and the weak. But the next play presents the exact opposite: a simple scene of a meeting between two old people, made frail by years of patient service, a humble man and woman, too poor to afford anything but the simplest offering, and a tiny child, in whom dwells their long-awaited light and hope. In old age and helpless infancy, in faithful poverty and obscurity, in gentle love and tenderness, lies a power greater than any worldly ruler can comprehend.
The play begins with the aged Simeon, expressing his desire to see God before he dies:
I have been priest in Jerusalem here
And taught God's law many a year,
Desiring in all my mind
That the time were coming near
In which God's Son should appear
In earth to take mankind, [human form]
Before I died that I might find
My Saviour with my eyes to see.
But that it is so long behind, [overdue]
It is great distress unto me.
For I wax old and want my might
And begin to fail my sight,
The more I sorrow this tide,
Save only as I tell you right:
God of his grace hath me hight [promised]
That blissful birth to bide.
Wherefore now here beside
To Sancta sanctorum will I go
To pray God to be my guide,
To comfort me after my woe.
He prays, and an angel tells him to go to the temple in Jerusalem, where he will see God's Son. Simeon rejoices:
Ah, I thank thee, Lord of grace,
That hath granted me time and space
To live and bide this.
And I will walk now to the place
Where I may see thy Son's face,
Which is my joy and bliss.
I was never lighter, iwis,
To walk never here before! [I have never been so happy to come here]
For a merry time now is
When God, my Lord, is born.
'Light' here means 'happy, light-hearted', but of course it suggests the 'light' which has come to him. Anna, the prophetess, greets him:
All hail, Simeon! What tidings with you?
Why make ye all this mirth now?
Tell me whither ye fare.
Simeon: Anne, prophetess, if ye knew why
So should ye - I make a vow -
And all manner of men that are,
For God's Son - as I declare -
Is born to buy mankind! [redeem humanity]
Our Saviour is come to end our care!
Therefore have I great mirth to go.
And that is the cause I haste me
Unto the temple, him to see,
And therefore hinder me not, good friend.
Anna: Now blessed be God in Trinity
Since that time is come to be!
And with you will I wend
To see my Saviour ende [gracious]
And worship him also
With all my will and my full mind.
As I am bound, now will I do.
Presentation in the Temple (medieval wall-painting, Chalgrove, Oxfordshire)
They go to the temple, and Mary and Joseph enter with the child and their offering. Simeon prophesies:
In the temple of God, who understood, [let it be understood]
This day shall be offered with mild mood
He who is king of all,
Who shall be scourged and shed his blood,
And after die upon the rood,
Without cause to call; [without deserving it]
For whose Passion there shall befall
Such a sorrow both sharp and smart
That as a sword pierce it shall
Even through his mother's heart.
Anna: Yea, that shall be as I well find,
For redemption of all mankind,
That bliss for to restore
Which hath been lost time out of mind
By our father of our own kind,
Adam and Eve before.
Simeon and Anna greet the child in a beautiful passage of shared verse:
Simeon: All hail, my kindly comforter!
Anna: All hail, mankind's creator!
Simeon: All hail, thou God of might!
Anna: All hail, mankind's saviour!
Simeon: All hail, both king and emperor!
Anna: All hail, as it is right!
Simeon: All hail also Mary bright!
Anna: All hail, salver of sickness!
Simeon: All hail, lantern of light!
Anna: All hail, thou mother of meekness!
Mary: Simeon, I understand and see
That both of my son and me
Ye have knowing clear. [full knowledge]
And also in your company,
My son desires for to be,
And therefore take him here.
You could imagine these last lines as showing not only Mary's intuition of her son's will, but also a sweet bit of stage-business: it's as if the baby is reaching his arms out to Simeon, as babies do, capable of asking to be held long before they can speak. So she passes him over, as mothers do.
Simeon takes Jesus in his arms:
Welcome, prince without peer!
Welcome, God's own son!
Welcome, my Lord so dear!
Welcome, with me to wone! [dwell]
Then follow English versions of two Latin liturgical texts for Candlemas: the Introit, 'Suscepimus Deus misericordiam tuam' ('We have received thy mercy, O Lord, in the midst of thy temple') and the Nunc Dimittis.
Lord God in majesty
We have received this day of thee,
In midst of thy temple here
Thy great mercy, as we may see.
Therefore thy name of great degree
Be worshipped in all manere [every way]
Over all this world, both far and near,
Even unto the uttermost end;
For now is man out of danger
And rest and peace to all mankind.
Here the direction reads 'Nunc dimittis seruum tuum Domine, et cetera. The psalme songyn every vers, and therqwyl Symeon pleyth with the child and qwhan the psalme is endyd, he seyth:'
Now let me die, Lord, and hence pass,
For I, thy servant in this place,
Have seen my Saviour dear,
Which thou hast ordained before the face
Of all mankind, this time of grace,
Openly to appear;
Thy light is shining clear
For all mankind's salvation.
Mary, take your child now here
And keep him well, this man's salvation.
Joseph hands out candles to Mary, Simeon and Anna, and Mary takes the child to the altar:
Highest Father, God of power,
Your own dear son I offer you here,
As I to your law am sworn.
Receive thy child in glad manner,
For he is the first, this child so dear,
That of his mother is born.
But though I offer him you beforn, [to you]
Good Lord, yet give me him again,
For my comfort were fully lorn [lost]
If we should long asunder be!
She and Joseph make their offerings, and Mary's last words are as she places the birds upon the altar - a sacrifice which looks ahead to the greater 'offering' Christ will make, of his own life:
Almighty Father, merciful King:
Receive now this little offering,
For it is the first in degree
That your little child so young
Presents today by my showing
To your high majesty.
From his simple poverty,
By his devotion and my good will,
Upon your altar receive of me
Your son's offering, as it is skylle. [fitting]