Today’s Feast of the Presentation of the Lord is one of the earliest and ancient feasts in the liturgical year, first attested to by the pilgrim Egeria, who described the feast day as celebrated in Jerusalem. The city of course had a particular interest in marking this feast: the faithful in Jerusalem celebrated the day on which the Lord entered their city for the very first time. In time, the feast spread beyond Jerusalem, changing not only dates, focus, and names (Hypapante, “purification,” “presentation of the Lord”) but also adding key liturgical elements (e.g., a candlelight procession, probably in the fifth century, the basis of the later name “Candlemas”).
What remained throughout all these changes was the Gospel reading for the feast day, namely Luke 2:21-40. “Remained throughout,” that is, unless one attends Mass today in a Roman Catholic community that chooses to follow a shorter option of this Gospel text, provided in the current Lectionary. This shorter form simply drops the Lukan account of the prophet Anna (Lk 2:36-38), thus rendering her presence at the presentation of Jesus in the temple “optional”. Without Anna, however, Luke’s careful pairing of men and women in the infancy narratives – Zechariah and Elizabeth, Mary and Joseph, Simeon and Anna – is lost. Lost also is the emphatic presence of Spirit-inspired women in the infancy narratives: Elizabeth, Mary, and Anna are all depicted as giving prophetic voice to what God is doing. Last not least, Anna’s optional presence in liturgies on February 2 is doubly painful because Luke’s story itself already leaves this woman voiceless. While the gospel writer puts a beautiful prayer into the mouth of Simeon (“Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word”), we are left guessing about Anna’s voice. We do know she had plenty to say since she “began to praise God and speak about the child [Jesus] to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem” (Luke 2:38), but what she said is lost to us. In visual art, things can get even worse: many images depict Anna holding a scroll with Simeon’s words written on it.
Yet here is a woman who not only embodied her own basics of faithful witness, namely praise and proclamation, but who also witnessed to the Lord long before any of the apostles knew to embrace that task — and her witness in our liturgical assemblies should be considered optional? I hope not, on this February 2, 2011.