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.