THE HISTORY AND SIGNIFICANCE OF “CANDLEMAS”
Every year the Church celebrates the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord on February 2, which falls later this week. While this is the current title of the feast on the liturgical calendar, it is also know by several other names. The older name for this day is the Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary. And in both ancient and modern times, Catholics have identified the day by the informal name, “Candlemas.”
This feast is one of the oldest liturgical feasts in the Church. , We have a surviving manuscript of a homily for this feast that can be reliably dated to 312 A.D. The famous traveler and author Egeria, while on an extended pilgrimage to the Holy Land, wrote a description in the 380’s A.D. of how this feast was celebrated in the city of Jerusalem. Egeria’s description relates that the day was celebrated with all faithful joining in a procession “with great joy, just as at Easter,” and that at the Mass for the day not only would the bishop preach, but after him, “all of the priests” would preach as well! (I suspect that is one part of the ancient liturgical custom that would not gain much popularity today…)
Jewish customs surrounding childbirth lie at the heart of the history of this feast. According to Mosaic Law, when a Jewish woman gave birth to a boy, she waited a period of forty days, after which she came to the temple (with her husband) and offered to the Lord a lamb and a turtledove; or if the family was poor and could not afford a lamb, they were permitted instead to offer two turtledoves or two pigeons. The temple priest would then pray for her and so she would be considered “purified” from her loss of blood (Leviticus 12:18). The Blessed Virgin Mary and St. Joseph, as faithful Jews, followed this practice, as the Gospel account from St. Luke that is read on this feast day relates.
And what about this informal name, “Candlemas,” that has been associated with the feast for so long? It is derived from the prophetic words spoken by Simeon when the Christ child was brought to the temple on this day, identifying Jesus as “a light for revelation to the Gentiles” and the glory of His people Israel. By the middle ages, as the Church reflected more deeply on this great mystery, it became clear that the day on which Christ “the Light” was first brought to the temple would be a fitting day for the Church to bless candles, which bring light to us in our churches and homes and which symbolize the True Light, which is Jesus Christ. In the English speaking world it became known as the “Candle Mass” (from the Old English Candelmaesse), a term that has stuck to this day.
So if you can make it to Mass this coming Thursday, you will witness the priest blessing an assortment of candles of the various shapes and sizes used in the parish over the course of a year. As you witness this, remember always that Christ is the True Light, and that He wishes today to enter not merely into a temple made of stones, but even more, He wishes to enter and dwell within each of us, who are “living temples” (cf. 1Cor 3:16) in the Holy Spirit.
Wishing you all a blessed Candlemas!
Fr. John Paul