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Feb. 2: It's not just for Groundhogs & Seahawks

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Chicago Catholics, on February 2, 2014, you may remember the Seahawks annihilating the Broncos in Superbowl XLVIII, or that Punxsutawney Phil predicted six more weeks of winter on Sunday (I agree with his prediction), but did you know that date was also the Presentation of the Lord? If not, perhaps its time to reclaim this day and remember its important Christian roots.

The Presentation of the Lord, originally as the Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin, is an ancient Christian feast day that celebrates when the infant Jesus was brought to the temple at Jerusalem on the 40th day after His birth. Readings on the feast day include Malachi 3:1-4; Psalm 24:7, 8, 9, 10; Hebrews 2:14-18; and Luke 2:22-40. This day was particularly significant because under Jewish law, the firstborn male child belonged to God. The parents were required to "buy him back" on the 40th day after his birth, by offering a sacrifice of "a pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons" (Luke 2:24) in the temple as a sacrifice. On that same day, the mother who gave birth to the baby would have be ritually purified so she was no longer “unclean”. The Blessed Mother and St. Joseph followed this law even though Mary had remained a virgin after the birth of Christ, and thus would not be “unclean”. Thus, Feb. 2nd is a rare example of a feast that honors both Jesus and Mary simultaneously.

One important aspect of this story is that upon bringing Jesus into the temple, Mary and Joseph encountered Simeon. Luke's Gospel tells us that God had promised Simeon that "he should not see death before he had seen the Lord's Christ" (Luke 2:26), and thus this prophesy was fulfilled on that day. Simeon then told Mary, "Behold, this child is set for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and for a sign which is spoken against. Yes, a sword will pierce through your own soul, that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed" (Luke 2:34-35).

In the Roman Catholic Church, the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple is also the fourth Joyful Mystery of the Rosary. The feast day was also traditionally known as “Candlemas” (or Candle Mass). This referred to the tradition of a priest blessing beeswax candles on February 2nd for use throughout the year. In Poland, this tradition has remained in common use. However, since the reforms of Vatican II,the focus of the feast day has been on the prophecy of Simeon. Pope John Paul II also used the feast day to promote the renewal of religious vows. Only in the United States does the feast day traditionally coincide with Groundhog Day, and in the case of 2014, the Superbowl.

This ancient Christian feast day spread throughout the whole world fairly quickly, and today it is celebrated in both eastern and western Christianity, and by Catholics, Orthodox Christians, and many protestant denominations such as Episcopalians, Lutherans, and Methodists. So Punxsutawney Phil (as well as his cousin from Illinois, Woodstock Willie) needs to take a back seat next year. Let's keep the focus on the Presentation of the Lord!