Red-letter days

Of course, I must write on The Feast of the Presentation of Our Lord Jesus Christ in the Temple this week, as it is a red-letter day.

Red letter days, referring to special days on any calendar, have their origins from calendars of the Roman Republic (509-527 BC) when they were printed on the calendars with red ink.

After the invention of the printing press, the red-letter day practice was continued in liturgical books of the Roman Catholic Church.

The feast days or holy days on the calendar of the first Book of Common Prayer (1549) were printed in red. In the current Book of Common Prayer (1979), these holy days are listed on p. 16.

Our cycle of feast days and holy days consists of Principal Feasts, which most everyone can quickly list: Easter, Ascension, Pentecost, Trinity Sunday, All Saints’ Day, Christmas, and the Epiphany.

All Sundays of the year are considered major feasts, feasts of Our Lord Jesus Christ. However, there are three fixed-date feasts that, when they fall on a Sunday, take precedence on a Sunday: The Holy Name (January 1), The Presentation (February 2), and The Transfiguration (August 6).

All these liturgical minutiae may not make a big difference in the day-to-day world, but when you work for the church and are trying to maintain the celebrations of the Christian Year correctly, these things do make a difference.

The Feast of the Presentation does document a beloved story in the life of Jesus. Following Jewish law, Joseph and Mary brought the infant Jesus to the temple in Jerusalem “to present him to the Lord.”

An old devoutly religious man, Simeon, was there in the temple. The Holy Spirit had spoken to Simeon, saying that he would not die until he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Seeing and taking the child into his arms, Simeon proclaimed,

“Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” (Luke 2:29-32)

Also in the temple, praying, fasting, and worshipping at the time, was the prophetess Anna, the daughter of Phanuel of the tribe of Asher. Anna also began praising God and testifying about who the child was.

Therefore, this Sunday, February 2, is not the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany but the actual Feast of the Presentation. Truth be told, our music and liturgy this Sunday will not be that different. Many of the themes of Epiphany season and the Presentation are the very same: light, revelation, truth, hope.

At the 10:30 service, the Sequence hymn is a metrical setting of the Nunc dimittis (Song of Simeon) canticle, which we occasionally use at choral or congregational Evensong; this hymn became a favorite when our 5:30 Sunday service began in 2001. At Communion, we will sing two congregational favorites, “Let all mortal flesh” and “Christ, mighty Savior.”

The text of this Sunday's opening hymn tells the story of this feast day:

O Zion, open wide thy gates, let symbols disappear;
a priest and victim, both in one, the Truth himself, is here.

Aware of hidden deity, the lowly virgin brings
her newborn babe, with two young doves, her humble offerings.

The aged Simeon sees at last his Lord, so long desired,
and Anna welcomes Israel’s hope, with holy rapture fired.

But silent knelt the mother blest of the yet silent Word,
and pondering all things in her heart, with speechless praise adored.

All glory to the Father be, all glory to the Son,
all glory, Holy Ghost, to thee, while endless ages run.

Jean Baptiste de Santeüíl (1630-1697), tr. Edward Caswall (1814-1878).
Hymn 257 in The Hymnal 1982.

Photo credit: The Presentation (c. 1000 AD) from the Menologion of Basil, an illuminated manuscript of the Eastern Orthodox Church. Public domain.

Posted by Dr. David Ouzts at 2:31 PM
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