February 2: Mary, Anna, Egeria

February 2 — the “Feast of the Presentation of the Lord,” as it is now titled — could make a woman like me quite sad, for a number of reasons.  To begin with, the feast commemorates the “purification” of the Blessed Virgin Mary forty days after giving birth, the time prescribed in the Hebrew Bible, for the ritual purification of a mother after the birth of a son.  The birth of a girl would have doubled the time of a mother’s ritual impurity.  More importantly, the Lukan account of this event (Luke 2:22-38) keeps a woman prophet, Anna, silent while putting beautiful words into the mouth of a man, words that have become an important part of the liturgical tradition of prayers.  Compare Simeon’s eloquent “Nunc Dimittis” with Luke’s summary description of Anna, the prophet, as, simply also giving thanks to God – no words given to her.  What did she say, I always wonder every February 2?

Double reason, then, on February 2, to rejoice in the fact that the first extant notice of a feast marking the 40th day after Christ’s birth comes to us from a woman, and one often noted for her remarkable interest in matters liturgical, no less.  The woman, Egeria, in describing her visit to Jerusalem toward the end of the 4th century, mentions a feast day “celebrated with the highest honor” on the 40th day after Christ’s birth.  It is of course not surprising that Christians in Jerusalem would mark this day with particular attention: it commemorated a “local” event, Christ’s first entry into the Jerusalem temple.  Egeria mentions in particular that the sermons, by both priests and the bishop, treat Simeon and Anna and the words these two spoke when they encountered the Lord in the temple (Egeria, Itinerarium, 26).  The only problem is that the words of Anna were long lost by that time.  Which makes it delightfully appropriate, I think, that the first words on today’s feast are written by a woman.

And on that cheerful note: a blessed feast of Mary, Anna, and yes, Egeria to all.

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17 comments

  1. THANK you, Teresa. Male lenses keep patriarchy in place. We are evolving past that narrow viewpoint, and your blog helps.

  2. The Prophetess Anna is commemorated along with St. Symeon the God-Receiver on February 3rd by Churches that use the Byzantine rite, both Catholic and Orthodox.

  3. This feast is subversive imo.
    The Purification is for the man and woman who have no need of it, Jesus and his mother. They go through the motions, but as they are already pure, sinless, the ritual does not purify them.
    A celebration of this feast should recognize that purification has been set aside and some other purpose given to the rite by Jesus and Mary. It is to see the pure ones, the light to the gentiles, the hope of Anna and Simeon. The purity laws are broken, replaced by splendor recognised by Anna and praised by Simeon.

    1. Yes, the feast may be read as subversive: Mary and Jesus both submit to these laws of ritual impurity, and at the same time undo them.

  4. Teresa, what is the intent of this article? The Feast of the Presentation is meant to commemorate our Lord’s formal reception into the Jewish faith, an pivotal moment in the life of any Jew at the time. I can see your point that Luke’s account of the Presentation gives the women comparatively little screen time relative to the men, but if that is truly bothersome, you will be very disappointed with the rest of the Bible. Does this mean the prophets and the Evangelists were misogynists? Perhaps, but probably not. Mind you, these women [nor the men] aren’t the stars of the show in the first place; Jesus and his promise of salvation are. Besides, Mary, Anna, and Egeria are Saints, the highest honor any Christian can ever receive, and I’m sure they were overjoyed to witness such an important moment in Jesus’ life.

    Obsessing over who was and who wasn’t included in various Gospel stories is akin to missing the forest for the trees. The Gospel is for everyone; man and woman, black and white, young and old, regardless of what kinds of people are in each individual story. I don’t know about you, but I will be gladly celebrating this holy Feast of the Presentation of Jesus, in addition to brushing up on my “Ave Regina Caelorum” for tomorrow.

    1. Patrick, what is the intent of your comment?
      “you will be very disappointed with the rest of the Bible…” seems to assume that I am not already intimately familiar with the Scriptures. I am, therefore, also fully cognizant of the fact that, to cite just one example, of all the recorded prayers in the Old Testament, only 10% are put in the mouths of women. Surely, nobody will think that reflects the actual prayer lives of the Israelites… What this does reflect, however, is the largely androcentric context in which God’s Word emerged. To me, it is important to acknowledge that. Just as our Scriptures reflect an ancient cosmology, they also reflect (for the most part), traditional gender systems of their time.

      1. I don’t think that the gender of a particular person mentioned or speaking in Scripture is an unimportant detail, because it is, as you point out. I guess the bigger questions I have are, to what extent does this matter? To what what extent does this legitimately crowd out other types of people? Or even, to what extent does this invite internal criticism of Scripture, and its message, for the way that it lays out its narrative? (Lot of questions, I know)

        To answer your question (in response to my question), I don’t see much of an argument for a promotion of yesterday’s commemoration of these three holy women over the concurrent Feast of the Lord. In my mind, these women were sidelined in the General Roman Calendar (along with the other men involved) not because of a thinly veiled attempt to subjugate women (that St. Luke himself would have been complicit in), but to elevate Jesus’ status among ALL men and women. Feasts of the Lord are equal opportunity offenders in providing fewer days to commemorate us lowly humans. But back to my main point, modern critical evaluation of Scripture can be meaningful and conducive to the advancement of theology, but we as believers need to treat it differently than say Gone With The Wind. Otherwise we risk being blinded to the profound beauty that is there.

      2. Thanks for the clarification you provided, Patrick, which helped me better understand your concerns. Actually, I never saw myself as promoting “yesterday’s commemoration of these three holy women over the concurrent Feast of the Lord.” Far be it from me — why would I do that, in any case? Besides, of these holy women, Egeria certainly is not officially recognized — no one remembered her until her text was discovered just a century ago. (And yes, there is a historical imbalance in the calendar re male and female saints too, but that is another story).
        My musings were merely about the complicated gender-specific traditions woven into our Scriptures and into the liturgical tradition too. There is, in my mind, no quick fix for that, only acknowledging these complications from time to time. Hence my post.
        If I were not convinced that the Gospel is far more important than these complications, and God’s Word more powerful than the limitations of its context, I would not waste my time musing/writing about all this, believe me.

  5. Teresa,

    I think this is precisely why the 1969 Lectionary and 1970 Missal changed the title of the feast to the Presentation of the Lord. The Church has not celebrated Our Lady’s Purification for almost 50 years now. Initially it was quite difficult to persuade people that this is now a Feast of the Lord and not a Feast of Our Lady, but that is in the past now.

    En revanche, we now have the Feast of Mary, Mother of God on January 1 instead of the Holy Name of Jesus or the feast of the Circumcision in previous times. In this, as on Feb 2, the Church has become more sensitive as it moves on.

    I really don’t see any reason today why women should feel sad at this Feast of Lights, the end of the Christmas Season.

    1. Yes, of course, Paul, that is one reason why the title and focus of the feast were changed a half-century ago, focusing it Christologically. Also important, women at the time were beginning to forego the rite that had emerged in parallel with the story of Lk 2 (the “churching” of women). The point I was mulling over in my post was simply that however we re-claim/ christologize/re-narrate this feast, at its root is a rule of ritual purity: a woman is considered ritually (not morally!) impure after the birth of a child. At this ritual purity law did not disappear with Jesus but made it into Christian communities and their worship life, shaping them until the 20th century. That is almost 2,000 years. For me, as someone committed to taking the history of our liturgical tradition seriously, that is not nothing.

  6. I found this quote from dear old Father Stanton on the Streams Of The River blog which comes from a book about his life at S. Alban’s, Holborn that I read years ago. The Father’s comments on Blessed Anna are of particular interest to me. I suspect that the problem is we don’t know the actual words of the holy prophetess, but that gives preachers a chance to exercise their imaginations.

    ‘”So, too, that old woman; she had long fasted and prayed. Day and night, Scripture says, she had waited for the Consolation. It had not come, but day after day, and night after night she still went on — still fasted and prayed. “In eternity time struck the hour,” and Jesus Christ came. She had not waited in vain; and henceforth she could talk of nothing else to those others who were waiting too.

    1. you are absolutely right, Brian, and women over the last few decades have delighted in giving voice to Anna. One of my favorites is Miriam Therese Winter’s “Anna”:
      How long, O God, have I waited
      for a sure sign of liberation,
      waited with hope,
      waited in faith
      for the dawning of this day.
      And now my heart has feasted upon the One
      Who is my salvation.
      I have looked into a human face
      and have seen the face of God.

  7. Ah… this is no joke. Yesterday I went to Mass in a Roman Catholic parish for the Feast of the Presentation (when I probably ought to have been working on my own presentation for Monday)… and all I could think was, “Anna! What about Anna?!” By any account it was a beautiful Candlemas service at St Paul’s (Harvard Sq), but I felt the erasure of women very keenly yesterday.

    1. Thank your for weighing in, despite other tasks you face, Silvia. In a sense you nailed what I was trying to get at: the erasure of women, biblically, historically, liturgically.

      1. oh, and I haven’t even mentioned yet that in some lectionary systems, the Anna-part of the Lukan story is considered “optional,” which means that it is routinely not read in the liturgical assembly on this feast

  8. It is possible that Anna saw no need to say much at all, and that her being a woman who chose to say little is mere happenstance. None of us were there, so we can only guess, as does this author.

    1. … that might be true, except that Luke tells us that she had much to say. Granted, we are not talking strict historiographer ‘fact’ here, only what Luke chooses to tell us…

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