Every year the Church celebrates the Feast of the Presenta on of the Lord on February 2, which is this coming Tuesday. While this is the current tle 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 Purifica on 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. (!!!) We also have another very early testimony from the famous traveler and author Egeria, a woman who went on an extended pilgrimage to the Holy Land in the early 380’s A.D. and describes 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 a5er him, “all of the priests” would preach as well! (What do you all think? Should this be a new custom in the parish that on major feast days, all three of the priests should give homilies back-to-back-to-back?)
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 “in the blood of her purification,” 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. 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 Ang 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.
Obviously with COVID we won’t be holding any massive processions like the one Egeria describes. But we will be celebrating the Feast Day nonetheless and blessing representative candles that will be used throughout the church year. And we all can and should spend the day recalling that Jesus Christ is indeed the Light and we all have the great grace of being bathed in His light.
Wishing you all a blessed Candlemas!
Fr. John Paul