A neglected (by most of us) feast

By Ruth Powers
By now for most of us the Christmas decorations have come down and been stored away for another year. Some took them down by New Years; others at the more traditional Epiphany, but in other times and in other parts of the world, they remain in place until another important feast in the early life of Christ — Candlemas on Feb. 2.

Candlemas is known officially in the church by a couple of names: The Feast of the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple or the Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary. This feast day celebrates the events recounted in Luke 2:22-38 and illustrates clearly that the Holy Family were observant Jews and Jesus was brought up in the context of his Jewish heritage. In Jewish law, a woman was considered to be ritually “unclean” for 40 days following the birth of a son. She could not touch anything sacred or enter any sacred place until she had undergone ritual purification. To be purified, the woman was to go to the priest and provide a lamb for a burnt offering and a pigeon or turtledove as a sin offering. If the woman could not afford to provide a lamb, then she could offer two turtledoves or pigeons. The fact that Luke 2:24 records Mary as offering the birds gives us the insight that Jesus did not grow up in a wealthy or influential family. In addition, at this time it was the law that a woman’s first born male child was to be presented at the Temple and dedicated to God.

This feast day also commemorates another epiphany, or disclosure, of the nature and role of Jesus, and also of Mary. The Holy Family encounters Simeon, a “just and devout” old man who has been told that he will not die until he sees the Messiah. He is moved by the Holy Spirit to come to the Temple that day and recognizes the child Jesus as the one who has been promised. He prophesies that Mary will also suffer, (“and you yourself a sword shall pierce so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.”)

Simeon’s beautiful prayer upon seeing Jesus now forms part of Night Prayer which is said every night in the Liturgy of the Hours. It is called the Nunc Dimittis from its first few words and says, “Lord, now you let your servant go in peace; your word has been fulfilled: my own eyes have seen the salvation which you have prepared in the sight of every people: a light to reveal you to the nations and the glory of your people Israel.” His prophecy to Mary also forms the basis of her title as Our Lady of Sorrows and the image of her which shows her heart pierced by a sword. They also encounter the prophetess Anna, who recognizes Jesus as the Messiah and “speaks about the child to all who were awaiting the redemption of Jerusalem.”

This is an ancient feast in the church, dating to sometime at the end of the third century or the beginning of the fourth. It is a feast associated with light for a number of reasons, mainly in recognition that Christ is called the Light of the World and that Simeon refers to him as “a light to reveal You to the nations.” Because of this association, a custom arose in the early Middle Ages of blessing candles to be used in the home for the rest of the year on this day; so the celebration became commonly known as the Candle Mass, or Candlemas.

Ruth Powers

In addition, this feast day displaced certain pagan celebrations such as the Roman Lupercalia or the Celtic Imbolc that also revolved around the fact that at this time of year the days become noticeably longer as we move toward Spring. In many countries in Eastern Europe Candlemas marks the end of the Christmas season; and the withered greens used to decorate are taken down and burned in bonfires at this time while houses are cleaned and freshened to provide welcome for the coming Spring (the probable origin of the custom of spring cleaning).

Just for fun there are some other customs and traditions that link the celebration of Candlemas with the coming of Light and Spring. In Northern Europe, there is a weather prediction rhyme about the day: “If Candlemas be fair and bright, come winter, have another flight; if Candlemas bring clouds and rain, go winter and come not again.” This was brought to the United States by German settlers and should be familiar as the basis of the groundhog prediction on Feb. 2. In France it is customary to eat crepes or pancakes on Candlemas. If someone can successfully flip the pancake with one hand while holding a coin in the other, the coming year will bring prosperity (the round pancake is said to symbolize the sun). Finally, bouquets of the snowdrop flower, also called Candlemas bells, are brought inside on February 2. A legend says that an angel helped these flowers to bloom even though it was still winter as a sign of hope for Eve, who wept in despair at the cold and death that had entered the world, and those flowers have come to be a symbol of Christ bringing hope to the world. So, bring your candles to be blessed and celebrate Feb. 2 as a reminder of the coming of the Light of the World.

(Ruth is the Program Coordinator for St. Mary Basilica Parish in Natchez.)