Forty Days and Forty Nights: Candlemas

February 2, 2010

Yes, it’s Groundhog Day, but it’s also forty days after Christmas. That’s when Mary was required by Mosaic law to go to the Temple and be “purified” of the taint of childbirth. (And we think our lives are complicated.) This is a major feast in all the ancient churches and used to be a great folk celebration as well.

Down with the rosemary, and so
Down with the bays and mistletoe;
Down with the holly, ivy, all,
Wherewith ye dress’d the Christmas Hall.

— Robert Herrick (1591–1674), “Ceremony upon Candlemas Eve”

It used to serve as the end to the Christmas celebration. In the old days, feasts tended to have long tails, whereas now we prefer long anticipations — as in Christmas decorations right after Halloween.

But the Presentation of the Lord in the Temple (which has gone by many other names as well) has always struck me as a day that we ought to use to highlight the value of old people. It was the aged priest Simeon and the venerable prophetess Anna who really knew what a world-shaking thing was going on in the Temple that day — which it certainly was for history, whatever one’s religious beliefs — and their faithfulness and patience reach a climax in Simeon’s great song that is now sung all round the world every night of the year at Compline:

Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace :
according to thy word.
For mine eyes have seen :
thy salvation;
Which thou hast prepared :
before the face of all people;
To be a light to lighten the Gentiles :
and to be the glory of thy people Israel.

— Luke 2: 29-32 in the translation of the Book of Common Prayer

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son :
and to the Holy Ghost;
as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be :
world without end. Amen.

Many will remember the entry of that text into modern popular culture with the theme music of the television dramatization of John le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, in which a lovely paradox had a young boy singing the words of old Simeon:

Which brings full circle the irony of the Alleluia Verse at Mass on the feast:

Senex puerum portabat: puer autem senem regebat.
The old man carried the child, though the child was his ruler.

The singer in that video, by the way, is Paul Phoenix. He is now a member of the King’s Singers.

And here are many other musical takes on the Nunc dimittis of Simeon.

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