Friday, February 02, 2007

Feast of the Presentation

For the monk at least, today's feast is a liturgical and theological potpourri. The jumble begins with the Evangelist Luke himself, when he writes: "When the time came for their purification...they brought him [Jesus] up to Jerusalem [Lk 2: 22]." As commentators will explain, Luke seems to be confusing several Jewish rituals in this short passage. Women who gave birth were considered ritually unclean for a period of time (depending on the sex of the child: see Lv 12). Nothing is said about the father, though Luke seems to imply that Joseph was somehow involved. Secondly, they bring an offering to redeem Jesus as the first-born male (see Ex. 13: 2 & 12). This is a separate ceremony from the purification of the mother.

The feast gets even more interesting when we get talking about the mysterious Simeon and Anna and their mysteries prophecies which are anything but clear and univalent (having one meaning). Giving Jesus the name "a light for revelation to the Gentiles" means that we also celebrate this as a feast of light, and so bless our candles for the coming year and process into the church as Simeon did.

You might say, "Well the feast is called The Presentation; so what's the big deal about Mary's purification? Isn't it just an incidental part of the gospel for today?" Perhaps. However, prior to the liturgical reforms after the Council, the feast was a feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary and was called The Purification! In a monastic community, we need to dredge up hymns for all the offices on feast days, and since these hymn texts in Latin don't just drop from the sky when we adjust the calendar, the monks at Solesmes (charged with printing the official Benedictine liturgical books) opted to keep the hymns from the Purification. Thus at Jesus' Presentation, we hymn the perpetual virginity of Mary ("after giving birth, she merited to remain inviolate" says the hymn at Vespers)!

For logicians this is clearly a lamentable mess. Personally, it is the sort of blurring of categories that takes place sub specie aeterna that delights the monk poet in me. I used to joke with a Presbyterian friend of mine who played violin at our big feast day liturgies that we Catholics are constantly celebrating something or other. And even when we celebrate, we overload the feast with all kinds of new details! I chalk this up to God's abundance. Efforts to slim down the liturgical calendar are praiseworthy, but in some ways ultimately futile where praise of the Holy Trinity is involved.

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