Today is a day of purification, renewal, and hope. On this day, exactly 40 days after Christmas, we commemorate Mary's obedience to the Mosaic law by submitting herself to the Temple for the ritual purification, as commanded in Leviticus 12:2-4:
Speak to the children of Israel, and thou shalt say to them: If a woman having received seed shall bear a man child, she shall be unclean seven days, according to the days of separation of her flowers. And on the eighth day the infant shall be circumcised: But she shall remain three and thirty days in the blood of her purification. She shall touch no holy thing: neither shall she enter into the sanctuary, until the days of her purification, be fulfilled.
Mary, of course, didn't need this purification -- which Catholic women imitate, in a sense, with the rite of the Churching of Women -- but she submitted out of obedience to the Law. Also on this day, she presented Jesus to the Temple for His "redemption," also per the Law:
Exodus 13:2, 12-13:
Sanctify unto me every firstborn that openeth the womb among the children of Israel, as well of men as of beasts: for they are all mine...Thou shalt set apart all that openeth the womb for the Lord, and all that is first brought forth of thy cattle: whatsoever thou shalt have of the male sex, thou shalt consecrate to the Lord. The firstborn of an ass thou shalt change for a sheep: and if thou do not redeem it, thou shalt kill it. And every firstborn of men thou shalt redeem with a price
Whatsoever is firstborn of all flesh, which they offer to the Lord, whether it be of men, or of beasts, shall belong to thee: only for the firstborn of man thou shalt take a price, and every beast that is unclean thou shalt cause to be redeemed, And the redemption of it shall be after one month, for five sicles of silver, by the weight of the sanctuary. A sicle hath twenty obols.
This "redeeming of the firstborn," known as pidyon ha-ben in Hebrew, is why this day is also known as "Feast of the Presentation."
Also commemorated on this "Feast of Light" ("Lichtmess" in German) or "Feast of the Candles" ("Candelaria" in Spanish, and "La Fête de la Chandeleur" in French) is the prophecy of Holy Simeon, the "just and devout" man of Jerusalem who was inspired by the Holy Ghost to know that he would live to see the "consolation of Jerusalem." It was he to whom Mary presented Jesus, and in his prophecy to her, he told Mary her heart would be pierced with a sword, a prophecy found in the second chapter of the Gospel according to St. Luke 2:34-35:
And Simeon blessed them, and said to Mary his mother: Behold this child is set for the fall, and for the resurrection of many in Israel, and for a sign which shall be contradicted; And thy own soul a sword shall pierce, that, out of many hearts, thoughts may be revealed.
This prophecy and the sorrows that befell the Virgin during her time on earth are why depictions of the Immaculate Heart almost always show her or her heart itself being pierced by a sword. Depictions of Our Queen as the Mother of Sorrows (Mater Dolorosa) often show her being pierced by seven swords, one for each of her Seven Sorrows.
Now, before Simeon gave this prophecy to Our Lady, he referred to her Infant Son as the Light to the revelation of the Gentiles, and because of this, light and candles play an important role before and during the Mass, hence the most common name for this Feast -- "Candlemas."
On this day, there will be a Blessing of the Candles and Procession. The symbolism of the candles is described by Dom Prosper Guéranger, OSB, in his "Liturgical Year":
The mystery of today's ceremony has frequently been explained by liturgists, dating from the 7th century. According to Ivo of Chartres, the wax, which is formed from the juice of flowers by the bee, always considered as the emblem of virginity, signifies the virginal flesh of the Divine Infant, who diminished not, either by His conception or His birth, the spotless purity of His Blessed Mother. The same holy bishop would have us see, in the flame of our Candle, a symbol of Jesus who came to enlighten our darkness. St. Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury, speaking on the same mystery, bids us consider three things in the blessed Candle: the wax, the wick, and the flame. The wax, he says, which is the production of the virginal bee, is the Flesh of our Lord; the wick, which is within, is His Soul; the flame, which burns on top, is His divinity.
The Golden Legend, by Jacobus de Voragine, A.D. 1275, gives us another level of symbology -- one that illustrates the error of Protestantism's idea of "sola fide," or that we are saved by "faith alone":
...if we will appear in this feast tofore the face of God, pure and clean and acceptable, we ought to have in us three things which be signified by the candle burning: that is good deeds, true faith, with good works. And like as the candle without burning is dead, right so faith is dead without works as Saint James saith, for to believe in God without obeying his commandments profiteth nothing. And therefore saith Saint Gregory: The good work ought to show withoutforth that thy intention abide good withinforth the heart, without seeking within any vain glory to be allowed and praised. And by the fire is understood charity, of which God saith: I am come to put fire in the earth, and whom I will, I will burn.
The candle blessing -- one of the three principle blessings of the liturgical year, the others being the blessing of palms and ashes -- will be given by the priest wearing a purple cope. He will pray 5 prayers over the candles placed near the Altar. The candles are sprinkled three times while the Aspérges me is sung, and then they are incensed and distributed. When we take a blessed candle from the priest's hand, we kiss the candle and then the priest's hand, just as we do on Palm Sunday when we kiss the palm and then the priest's hand when receiving the blessed palms.
During the Distribution, the Nunc Dimittis -- the Canticle of Simeon (Luke 2:29-32) -- is sung:
Now dismiss Thy servant, O Lord,
In peace, according to Thy word:
For mine own eyes hath seen Thy salvation,
Which Thou hast prepared in the sight of all the peoples,
A light to reveal Thee to the nations
And the glory of Thy people Israel.
Latin Version: Nunc Dimittis
Nunc dimittis servum tuum, Domine
Secundum verbum tuum in pace:
Quia viderunt oculi mei salutare tuum
Quod parasti ante faciem omnium populorum:
Lumen ad revelationem gentium,
Et gloriam plebis tuae Israel.
There follows a procession with the lighted candles and the singing of anthems. Then the Mass begins, and the lighted candles are held during the reading of the Gospel and from the beginning of the Canon of the Mass to Communion.
It is customary to bring candles from home to be blessed -- candles one uses for devotional purposes (candles for the family altar, Advent candles, etc.) -- so they can be lit after dusk on All Saints' Day (1 November), during the Sacrament of Unction, and during storms and times of trouble. A bit of very old poetry summarizes the use of blessed candles to ward off troubles:
This done, each man his candle lights,
Where chiefest seemeth he,
Whose taper greatest may be seen;
And fortunate to be,
Whose candle burneth clear and bright:
A wondrous force and might
Both in these candles lie, which if
At any time they light,
They sure believe that neither storm
Nor tempest cloth abide,
Nor thunder in the skies be heard,
Nor any devil's spide,
Nor fearful sprites that walk by night,
Nor hurts of frost or hail.
From the Pieta prayer book comes this prayer to pray while burning a blessed candle (or pieces of blessed palm) during storms:
Jesus Christ a King of Glory has come in Peace.+ God became man, + and the Word was made flesh.+ Christ was born of a Virgin.+ Christ suffered.+ Christ was crucified.+ Christ died.+ Christ rose from the dead.+ Christ ascended into Heaven.+ Christ conquers.+ Christ reigns.+ Christ commands.+
May Christ protect us from all storms and lightning. + Christ went through their midst in Peace, + and the Word was made Flesh.+ Christ is with us with Mary.+ Flee you enemy spirits because the Lion of the Generation of Juda, the Root David, has won.+ Holy God! + Holy Powerful God! + Holy Immortal God! + Have mercy on us. Amen.
In Poland, the candles brought from home to be blessed are decorated with symbols and ribbons. There, the custom is to let a blessed candle burn all night tonight before an icon of Our Lady who, when the world still had forests, was relied upon to keep the wolves away during these cold nights. Now, our "wolves" tend to be of a different sort, but the pious burning of a blessed candle tonight, with prayers offered to Our Lady, still might help keep them at bay. This tradition gives Candlemas its Polish name -- "Matka Boska Gromniczna," or "Mother of God of the Blessed Thunder Candle."
Symbols, Customs, and Foods
Snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis) are known as "Candlemas Bells" because, being the usual earliest blooming flower of all, they often bloom before Candlemas (some varieties bloom all winter long in some places). Legend says that they sprang up by the hand of an angel, who then pointed them out as a sign of hope to Eve, who was weeping in repentance and in despair over the cold and death that entered into the world after she and her husband sinned. Because our Hope is Christ, the Light of the World as Simeon says in his canticle today, it is providential that the snowdrop should bloom by this Feast! If possible, gather some Candlemas Bells to bring inside (folk belief is that bringing them indoors before this date is bad luck, and bringing them indoors today "purifies" one's house.) These flowers, along with carnations, are also the "birth flower" for those born in January.
As to foods, tamales and hot chocolate are eaten today in Mexico, the party being given by the one who found the trinket inside the Kings' Cake on the Feast of the Epiphany. Crepes are the traditional Candlemas fare in many parts of Europe. These crepes can be filled with savory things or be used with sauces to make them a dessert. Below is a recipe for the classic Crepes Suzette as created by Henri Charpentier, protegé of Escoffier, for Edward, Prince of Wales:
2 tablespoons flour
1 tablespoon cream
2 tablespoons milk
1 pinch of salt
Stir the ingredients smoothly to the consistency of olive oil, or until it will pour back silently and smoothly from a foot or more above the mixing bowl. Remember this is a French pancake and must be thin. Put 1 teaspoon of butter into a small round-bottomed frying pan (not aluminum) and when it bubbles pour in enough paste to cover the bottom of the pan. Be quick in moving the pan so as to spread the paste thinly. Keep the pan moving; that paste is a delicate substance. After 1 minute turn the pancake over, then turn it again and again until it is nicely browned. Fold the circle in half, then again to form a triangle. Make eight of these, which should serve four. This first step is a smoky one and should be done in the kitchen. The pancakes, however, are to be cooked a second time, a procedure which occurs in the dining room.
Juice of 2 oranges
Skin of 2 oranges
Juice of 1 lemon
Orange Blossom water
This sauce should be made in advance since it keeps for many months without spoiling. It can be made in great quantities; like good wine, it will improve with age. Vanilla sugar is one of the requisites for a fine cuisine. Put three or four vanilla beans in a quart jar of granulated sugar. After several days the sugar will be delicately flavored by the vanilla in the beans.
With a knife peel 2 oranges and 1 lemon so thin that the pulp remains on the fruit. Cut the peel julienne style and mix it with 4 tablespoons of vanilla sugar. Squeeze the strained juice of the 2 oranges and 1 lemon into a chafing dish. Add the vanilla sugar, etc. and 1/8 pound of butter. Let it come to a boil and then add 1 teaspoon of orange blossom water, 2 ponies* of kirsch, 2 ponies of white curacao, 2 ponies of rum and 1 pony of maraschino. When it comes to a boil, remove it from the fire. This is the sauce which, if prepared in advance, will keep indefinitely.
After the Crepes Suzette have been made and have been brought to the dining room, the final step is ready to be taken. Put some of the above prepared sauce into a large chafing dish (the quantity depends on your desire) and when it begins to bubble lay the pancakes in the sauce. Those who have no chafing dish need not worry: it's not the chafing dish that makes the Crepes Suzette, it's the sauce. If necessary, make it in the kitchen using a pan. Cut minute pieces of orange and lemon peel (no pulp) and put a little on top of each pancake. Blend 1 pony* of each of the cordials used in the making of the sauce by placing them in a small heated casserole. Make the cordials flame and pour it over the pancakes which are in the bubbling sauce. Serve immediately. The perfect Crepes Suzette are not too liqueur-y. This is an equally delicious sauce for compotes, puddings, ice cream or sweet omelets. * [Ed. a pony is 2 TBSP, approx.]
Serve whatever Candlemas foods you eat today with candles burning everywhere!
The eve of this Feast is the absolutely last (and best) day for taking down the Christmas tree, putting away the creche, etc. In some Latin countries, the creche isn't just put away, but is replaced with a figure of the Child Jesus sitting on a chair, acting as a sign that it is time for the devotion to the Divine Childhood to give way to a focus on the grown-up Savior and the public ministry, forty days of fasting, and Passion to come.
In any case, when Candlemas is finished, all feelings of Christmas give way to the penitential feelings of Septuagesima and then Lent. The English poet, Robert Herrick (A.D. 1591-1674), sums it up in his poem "Ceremony Upon Candlemas Eve" -- and reveals a folktale in the process:
Ceremony Upon Candlemas Eve
Down with the rosemary, and so
Down with the bays and misletoe ;
Down with the holly, ivy, all,
Wherewith ye dress'd the Christmas Hall :
That so the superstitious find
No one least branch there left behind :
For look, how many leaves there be
Neglected, there (maids, trust to me)
So many goblins you shall see.
This very ancient carol also speaks of the departure of Christmas on this day. It is called "I Am Christmas," and was written by James Ryman, a Franciscan Friar, ca. 1492. Note that the reference to Hallowtide here refers to the fact that it was during Hallowtide that monarchs used to announce where they would be spending Christmas.
I Am Christmas
Here have I dwelled with more or lass
From Hallowtide till Candelmas,
And now must I from you hens pass;
Now have good day.
I take my leve of king and knight,
And erl, baron, and lady bright;
To wilderness I must me dight;
Now have good day!
And at the good lord of this hall
I take my leve, and of gestes all;
Me think I here Lent doth call;
Now have good day!
And at every worthy officere,
Marshall, panter, and butlere
I take my leve as for this yere;
Now have good day!
Another yere I trust I shall
Make mery in this hall,
If rest and peace in England fall;
Now have good day!
But oftentimes I have herd say
That he is loth to part away
That often biddeth 'Have good day!";
Now have good day!
Now fare ye well, all in fere,
Now fare ye well for all this yere;
Yet for my sake make ye good chere;
Now have good day!
Candlemas Day is also known as "Groundhog's Day" in America, the day when, if the groundhog sees his shadow, there'll be 6 more weeks of Winter. All Europeans have a similar belief about how Candlemas weather portends the length of winter. The English have a saying, "If Candlemas Day be bright and clear, there'll be two winters in the year." The Germans also have a few sayings about how the weather at Candlemas bodes ill or well for the nearness of Spring:
|Wenn der Bäzu Lichtmess
seinen Schatten sieht,
so kriecht er wieder auf sechs Wochen ins Loch.
||When the bear sees
his shadow at Candlemas,
he will crawl back into his hole for another six weeks.
|Ist's zu Lichtmess mild und rein
wirds ein langer Winter sein.
||If Candlemas is mild and pure,
Winter will be long for sure.
|Wenn's an Lichtmess stürmt und schneit,
ist der Frühling nicht mehr weit;
ist es aber klar und hell,
kommt der Lenz noch nicht so schnell
||When it storms and snows on Candlemas Day,
Spring is not far away;
if it's bright and clear,
Spring is not yet near.
Excerpt from "Homily on Our Lord," by St. Ephraem (d. A.D. 373):
48. Now Simeon the priest, when he took Him up in his arms to present Him before God, understood as he saw Him that He was not presenting Him, but was being himself presented. For the Son was not presented by the servant to His Father, hut the servant was presented by the Son to his Lord. For it is not possible that He, by Whom every offering is presented, should be presented by another. For the offering does not present him that offers it; but by them that offer are offerings presented. So then He Who receives offerings gave Himself to be offered by another, that those who presented Him, while offering Him, might themselves be presented by Him. For as He gave His body to be eaten, that when eaten It might quicken to life them that ate Him; so He gave Himself to be offered, that by His Cross the hands of them that offered Him might be sanctified.
So, then, though the arms of Simeon seemed to be presenting the Son, yet the words of Simeon testified that he was presented by the Son. Therefore we can have no dispute concerning this, because that which was said put an end to dispute; 'Now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace. He then who is let depart to go in peace to God, is presented as an offering to God. And in order to make known by whom he was presented, he said, For lo! mine eyes have seen Thy mercy.'
If there was no grace wrought on him, why then did he give thanks? But rightly did he give thanks, that he was thought worthy to receive in his arms Him, Whom angels and prophets greatly desired to see. For lo! mine eyes have seen Thy mercy. Let us understand then and see. Is mercy that which shows mercy to another, or is it that which receives mercy from another? But if mercy is that which shows mercy to all, well did Simeon call our Lord by the name of the mercy that showed mercy to him, Him Who freed him from the world which is full of snares, that he might go to Eden which is full of pleasures; for he who was priest said and testified that he was offered as an offering, that from the midst of the perishing world he should go and be stored up in the treasure-house which is kept safe. For one for whom it may be that what he has found should be lost, to him it belongs to be diligent that it should be kept safe. But for our Lord it could not be that He should be lost; but by Him the lost were found. So then, through the Son Who could not be lost. the servant who was very desirous not to be lost, was presented. Lo! mine eyes have seen Thy mercy. It is evident Simeon received grace from that Child Whom he was carrying. For inwardly he received grace from that Infant, Whom openly he received in his arms. For through Him Who was glorious, even when He was carried, being small and feeble, he that carried Him was made great.
49. But inasmuch as Simeon endured to carry on his weak arms that Majesty which the creatures could not endure, it is evident that his weakness was made strong by the strength which he carried. For at that time Simeon also along with all creatures was secretly upheld by the almighty strength of the Son. Now this is a marvel, that outwardly it was he that was strengthened that carried Him Who strengthened him; but inwardly it was tile strength that bore its bearer. For the Majesty straitened itself, that they who carried it might endure it; in order that as far as that Majesty stooped to our littleness, so far should our love be raised up from all desires to reach that Majesty.
50. So likewise the ship that carried our Lord; it was He that bare it, in that He stayed from it the wind that would have sunk it. Peace, for thou art shut up. While He was on the sea, His arm reached even to the fountain of the wind, to shut it up. The ship bare His manhood, but the power of His Godhead bare the ship and all that was therein. But that He might show that even His manhood needed not the ship, instead of the planks which a shipwright puts together and fastens, He like the Architect of creation, made the waters solid and joined them together and laid them under His feet.
So the Lord strengthened the hands of Simeon the Priest, that his arms might bear up hi the Temple the strength that was bearing-up all; as He strengthened the feet of Simeon the Apostle, that they might bear themselves up on the water. And so that name which bore the first-begotten in the Temple was afterwards borne up by the first-begotten in the sea; that He might show that as in the sea the drowning was borne up by Him, He did not need to be borne by Simeon on the dry ground. But our Lord bare Simeon up openly in the midst of the sea to teach that also on the dry land He supported him secretly.
51. Accordingly, the Son came to the servant; not that the Son might be presented by the servant, but that by the Son the servant might present to His Lord Priesthood and Prophecy, to be laid up with Him. For prophecy and priesthood, which were given through Moses, were handed down, both of them, and reached to Simeon. For he was a pure vessel, who sanctified himself that he might be like Moses, capable for both of them. There are small vessels which are capable for great gifts. There are gifts for which one is capable, by reason of their. grace; yet many are not capable for them, by reason of their greatness.
Thus, then, Simeon presented our Lord, and in Him offered both these things; so that that which was given to Moses in the wilderness, was received from Simeon in the Temple. But seeing that our Lord is the vessel wherein all fulness dwells, when Simeon was offering Him before God, he poured over Him as a drink-offering those two gifts, priesthood from His hands and prophecy from His lips. Priesthood continued to oil the hands of Simeon, because of his purifications; and prophecy dwelt in operation upon his lips, because of revelations. When then these two powers saw Him who was Lord of both, they two united together and poured themselves into the vessel that was capable of both; that could contain priesthood and kingdom and prophecy.
That Infant then, who was wrapped in swaddling clothes, because of His graciousness, clothed Himself in priesthood and prophecy because of His Majesty. For Simeon clothed Him in these, and gave Him to her who had wrapped Him in swaddling clothes. For when he gave Him to His mother, he gave along with Him the priesthood; and when he prophesied to her concerning Him, This Child is set for the fall and rising again, he gave prophecy also with Him.
52. Then Mary received her firstborn and went forth. He was outwardly wrapped in swaddling clothes, but secretly He was clothed with prophecy and priesthood. Whatsoever then was handed down from Moses, was received from Simeon, but continued and was possessed by the Lord of both. So then the steward first, and the treasurer lastly, handed over the keys of priesthood and prophecy to Him who has authority over the treasurer of them both.
Therefore, His Father gave Him the spirit not by measure, because all measures of the spirit are under his hand. And that our Lord might show that He received the keys from the former stewards, He said to Simeon [Simon Peter]: To thee I will give the keys of the doors. But how should He have given them to another, had He not received them from another? So, then, the keys which He had received from Simeon the priest, them He gave to another Simeon the Apostle; that even though the People had not hearkened to the former Simeon, the Gentiles might hearken to the latter Simeon.
53. But because John also was the treasurer of baptism, the Lord of the stewardship came to him to receive from him the keys of the house of reconciliation. For John used to wash away in common water the blemishes of sins; that bodies might become meet for the garment of the Spirit, given by our Lord. Therefore, because the Spirit was with the Son, He came to John to receive from him baptism, that He might mingle with the visible waters the invisible Spirit; that they whose bodies should feel the moistening of the water, their souls should feel the gift of the Spirit; that even as the bodies outwardly feel the pouring of the water upon them, so the souls inwardly may feel the pouring of the Spirit upon them.
Accordingly, even as our Lord when He was baptised, was clothed in baptism and carried baptism with Him, so also when He was presented in the Temple, He put on prophecy and priesthood, and went forth bearing the purity of the priesthood upon His pure members, and bearing the words of prophecy in His wondrous ears. For when Simeon was sanctifying the body of the Child who sanctifies all, that body received the priesthood in its sanctification. And again, when Simeon was prophesying over Him, prophecy quickly entered the hearing of the Child, For if John leaped in the womb and perceived the voice of the Mother of our Lord, how much more should our Lord have heard in the Temple? For lo! it was because of Him that John knew so as to hear in the womb.
54. Accordingly, each one of the gifts that was stored up for the Son, He gathered from their true tree. For He received baptism from the Jordan, even though John still after Him used to baptise. And He received priesthood from the Temple, even though Annas the High Priest exercised it. And again, He received prophecy which had beets handed down amongst the righteous, even though by it Caiaphas in mockery platted a crown for our Lord, and He received the kingdom from the house of David, even though Herod held the place and exercised it.
55. This is He Who flew and came down from on high; and when all those gifts which He had given to those of old time saw Him, they came flying from every quarter and rested on Him their Giver. For they gathered themselves together from every side, to come and be grafted into their natural tree. For they had been grafted into hitter trees, namely into wicked kings and priests. Therefore they hastened to come to their sweet parent-stock; namely to the Godhead Who in sufficiency came down to the people of Israel, that the parts of Him might be gathered to Him. And when He received of them that which was His own, that which was not His own was rejected; since for the sake of His own He had borne also with that which was not His own. For He bore with the idolatry of Israel, for the sake of His priesthood; and He bore with its diviners, for the sake of His prophets; and He bore with its wicked dominion, for the sake of His holy crown.
56. But when our Lord took to Himself Priesthood from them, He sanctified by it all the Gentiles. And again, when He took to Himself prophecy, He revealed by it His couusels to all nations. And when he wove His crown, He bound the strong One who takes all men captive, and divides his spoils. These gifts were barren, with the fig-tree, which while it was barren of fruit made barren such glorious powers as these. Therefore as being without fruit, it was cut off, that these gifts might pass forth from it and bring forth fruit abundantly among all the Gentiles.
57. So He, Who came to make our bodies abodes for His indwelling, passed by all those dwelling-places. Let each one of us then be a dwelling-place for Him Who loves me. Let us come to Him and make our abode with Him. This is the Godhead Whom though all creation cannot contain, yet a lowly and humble soul suffices to receive Him.