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February 2, 2021

History of the Feast of the Reception of the Lord in the Temple

 “Let us celebrate the feast [of the Reception] in a solemn way, 
illuminating the mystery of the day with lights.”

-St. Cyril of Alexandria

The Church of Jerusalem is the Mother Church of all Christians, since the liturgical year had its beginning there and the liturgical services of the Christians were formulated there. The Christian Community of Jerusalem commemorated the main events of the life of Christ with liturgical celebrations in their historic settings. These solemn festivities, however, were greatly enhanced by the participation of pilgrims who began to throng the Holy Places after the Constantinian Peace of 313. The festive celebration of the Reception of our Lord in the Temple, as described by the Evangelist Luke, had its beginning in Jerusalem in the fourth century.

1. The oldest written account of the solemn celebration of the Feast of the Reception of our Lord dates back to the fourth century and is the work of a Spanish Nun, Egeria, who kept a diary of her pilgrimage to the Holy Land toward the end of that century. In it she writes: “The fortieth day after Epiphany [i.e. Christmas] is indeed celebrated here [in Jerusalem] with the greatest solemnity. On that day there is a procession into the Anastasis [Basilica of the Resurrection], and all assemble there for the liturgy, and everything is performed in the prescribed manner with great solemnity” (Egeria, Diary of a Pilgrimage, ch. 26).

It seems that at that early date, the Feast did not have a specific name and was simply called The Fortieth Day After the Nativity. Later it was called The "Reception of our Lord" (Gr. Hypapante), referring to the encounter of St. Symeon with Jesus in the Temple which is the theme of the oldest homily on the Feast, ascribed to Hesychios of Jerusalem (d. after 450). In the West, the Feast was called the "Purification" due to the Virgin Mary’s compliance with the legal purification prescribed by the Law (Lk. 2:22). In the English speaking world, however, the term "Presentation" was adapted since on that day Jesus was presented (offered) to God in the Temple (Lk. 2:22). In other places the Feast was called "The Candles", since on that day the solemn blessing of candles was prescribed.

In the fifth century, the solemn celebration of the Feast was transferred from Jerusalem to Egypt (cf. St. Cyril of Alexandria’s Homily), Syria and Asia Minor (cf. Homily of Theodore of Ancyra). In 542, Emperor Justinian I established the celebration of "Hypapante" as a Solemn Feast throughout the entire Roman Empire (cf. Nikephoros Kallistos Xanthopoulos, Ecclesiastical History, XVII, 28). At the turn of the sixth century, Pope Gregory the Great (590-604) introduced the celebration of the Feast in Rome from where it spread throughout the entire West.

2. When St. Symeon took the Child Jesus into his arms, he was inspired by the Holy Spirit and chanted the hymn, “Now let Your servant depart in peace, 0 Master” (Lk. 2:29-32), which was integrated into the service of Vespers. In his inspired hymn, St. Symeon referred to Jesus as the “Light to the Gentiles,” which prompted the early Christians to carry a lighted candle or lamp in the procession that day, symbolizing the mystical presence of the “True Light” (Jn. 1:9), Jesus. The solemn procession itself symbolized the journey of Joseph and Mary to Jerusalem in fulfillment of the Law.

The Spanish Pilgrim Egeria made no mention of the use of candles in the procession in Jerusalem, since this custom was introduced later, toward the middle of the fifth century, by a Roman matron, Ikelia. Both St. Cyril of Alexandria (d. 444) and Theodore of Ancyra (d. 446) mention the use of lights in the procession of the Feast in their homilies.

The Chronicle of Theophanes attests to the candlelight processions in Constantinople in the sixth century.

In all the religions of the world, the symbol of the deity is light and the lighted candle symbolizes the Divine Presence. This is more pronounced in the Christian religion in which God is referred to as the “Light” (Jn. 1:5) and that He dwells in the ”unapproachable light” (I Tim. 6:16). In the Old Testament, God Himself ordered the Israelites to burn lamps as a sign of His presence among the people (Lev. 24:14).

In the New Testament, the Christians followed the same prescription as attested to by St. Epiphanios of Salamis (d. 403) in his letter to the monk John of Jerusalem. As the Saint was passing through the country around Anablatha, he passed by a building in which he noticed a "lamp burning". In answer to his inquiry, he learned that the building was a “Christian church.” In our churches today, the presence of a ever-burning vigil-light indicates the Real Presence of our Lord Jesus Christ in the Holy Eucharist on the sacred altar.

St. John the Evangelist and Theologian presents our Lord Jesus Christ to us in his Gospel as the "Light of Life" (Jn. 8:12), a spiritual life, a life of grace. In this context, the burning candle presented to us at Baptism is a symbol of the new spiritual life we receive through the Mystery.

St. Matthew the Evangelist refers to light as a symbol of Christ’s teaching: “The people that lived in darkness have seen a great light ...” (Mt. 4:16). Hence the custom of having two lighted candles, one on each side of the Gospel, when it is read during a liturgical service, as explained by St. Jerome in 378 A.D.: “In all the churches of the East, whenever the Gospel is to be read, candles are lighted although the sun is already shining. Of course, it is not done to dispel the darkness but to express our joy … Under the material light that Light is represented of which the Psalmist speaks: ‘Your Word, 0 Lord, is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path'” (St. Jerome, Against Vigilantius, 7). The burning candles, then, flanking the Gospel during the reading, remind us that the teaching of Christ should enlighten us and guide us on our way to salvation as indicated by the words of our Lord Himself: "I am the light of the world; anyone who follows Me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life" (Jn. 8:12).

3. In the East, this custom is mentioned for the first time in the biography of St. Savvas the Sanctified which was written in 556 by Cyril of Scythopolis. It seems that this practice was introduced during the sixth century by the hermits who, in order to create a prayerful atmosphere in their caves, burned oil lamps or candles in front of the icons (J. Moschos, Spiritual Meadow, 155). St. Germanos, Patriarch of Constantinople (715-733), and a great defender of the veneration of icons, explained to one of his bishops: "Let it not scandalize some that lights and incense are burnt before the holy images, for these rites were devised in their honor, ... since visible lights are a symbol of their gift of divine grace and the burning incense is a symbol of pure inspiration and the fullness of the Holy Spirit” (Epistle to Bishop Thomas).

In 787, the Seventh Ecumenical Synod of Nicaea approved the custom of offering lights (candles or oil lamps) in honor of the icons of our Lord, the Mother of God, the Angels and all the Saints, as well as in honor of the Holy Cross and the Book of the Gospels, for "this was a pious custom since ancient times” (cf. The Decree of the Second Nicaean Synod)

The burning candles and lights placed in front of the holy icons should remind us of the light of the exemplary lives they lived and inspire us to model our lives after their’s in imitation of their “good works” (c.f. Matt. 5:16).

The custom of blessing candles on the Feast of the Reception has its roots in venerable antiquity. As recorded in the Chronicle of Theophanes, Emperor Justinian I had issued an order in 541 A.D. that on the Feast of the Reception, a candlelight procession was to be held throughout the city to implore Divine Protection against pestilence and the numerous earthquakes that plagued the city. And in answer to this holy gesture, God caused pestilences and earthquakes to subside. This gave rise to having similar processions on other occasions when the common welfare of the people was in danger.