If you’ve packed away joy with the Christmas decorations, pull that joy out again as the Church celebrates a feast with three names — the Presentation of the Lord, Candlemas and (for centuries before 1970) the Purification of Mary — on Feb. 2.
This feast celebrates how the Holy Family fulfilled the Law when they went to the Temple for Mary’s purification, a traditional ritual cleansing for mothers, and for Jesus’ presentation, a law that the firstborn male be consecrated to the Lord at that time. At the Temple, they met the jubilant Simeon and Anna.
Certainly, there’s much to celebrate and learn about on this feast 40 days after the Nativity, which we also remember every time we pray the Fourth Joyful Mystery of the Rosary.
The Presentation reveals “the joyful reaction all of us should have before the Baby Jesus, shown by the long Advent waiting of Simeon and Anna,” says Father Roger Landry, pastor of St. Anthony of Padua Church in New Bedford, Mass., and an EWTN host. “The fact that the rite of presentation involved a ‘redemption,’ a buying back of the life through the two turtledoves for poor families,” explains Father Landry, “also alludes to the purpose of Jesus’ coming into the world to become the ‘turtledoves’ or ‘lamb’ for the entire human race.”
Simeon’s prophetic words identify Jesus as a “light of revelation to the Gentiles” (Luke 2:32), not just Jews. Reason enough why Candlemas joins the celebration, as it has since the 11th century. On this feast, priests traditionally bless candles before or at the beginning of Mass for parish and family use. Some parishes retain the once-standard candle processions started in the early 8th century by decree of Pope Sergius I. The Pope’s liturgy at St. Peter’s Basilica does too, in the “solemn entrance” form. Everyone in the congregation holds lit candles.
The candle procession helps us realize the mission of bringing the light of Jesus out to all the nations. Says Father Landry, “Jesus identified himself as the Light of the World, but then called us to be the light. The Presentation helps us to remember that we share in the continuation of his mission.”
The Holy See’s Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy describes these processions as commemorating the Lord’s entry into the Temple in Jerusalem and his coming into the house of God for the first time, then meeting with Simeon and Anna.
In Seek That Which Is Above (Ignatius, 2007), Pope Benedict XVI — Cardinal Ratzinger at the time of the book’s writing — observes, “The warm candlelight is meant to be a tangible reminder of that greater light which, for and beyond all time, radiates from the figure of Jesus.”
Celebrate With Candles
Meredith Gould, author of The Catholic Home: Celebrations andTraditions for Holidays, Feast Days, and Every Day (Doubleday, 2004), sums up the symbolism of Candlemas as a ceremony of light: “I characterize it as another ‘Light from Light, true God from true God’ holiday. Jesus is the true Light of the World, and we celebrate with candlelight.”
Even children can become familiar with this Christian symbolism and other meanings associated with blessed candles. The wax symbolizes Christ’s flesh, the wick his soul and the flame his divinity. Together they give us light. Since he is the perfect Light, candles for church use must be at least 51% beeswax, the purest wax.
On Candlemas Day, every family should bring home a blessed candle, advises Catherine Fournier on her website Domestic-Church.com. She traces her own conversion to the Catholic faith to attending a Candlemas service as a girl. Fournier recommends that blessed candles have a place on the home altar for family devotions and be used when the sacraments are administered to the sick. They should “be lit in all moments of danger, during thunderstorms, during sickness, in time of tribulation.”
As Gould reminds us, the blessed candles are sacramentals. She finds that enduring, centuries-old customs and traditions like Candlemas have great catechetical value in a tangible way.
“In a world where it’s easier to forget the faith or get so caught up in everyday life, when you commit to keeping these traditions, it really does bring faith to life. These traditions are important because they keep the faith alive,” Gould says. “But the real importance is they’re always vehicles to teach. Faith doesn’t end when you leave the building called ‘church.’ The domestic church is where we can and should be teaching the faith, and customs and traditions are a way to do that in an engaging and fun and beautiful and memorable way. And it’s living in sync with the liturgical calendar.”
Candlemas, she says, is a great opportunity to talk about how we should be light to others and see light in one another. It’s not just about telling your children that the church lights candles, she says, but teaching what it means: When do you see light in your little brother or sister?
Blessing of Throats
Certainly a light of Christ to others was St. Blase, whose feast is celebrated Feb. 3, the day after the Presentation/Candlemas. A physician and bishop of Sebaste, Armenia, who was martyred about 316, he was one of the most popular saints of the Middle Ages and known for miraculous healings during and after his lifetime.
On his feast day (and also on the Sunday before in some churches) two crossed candles are used to bless the throats of the faithful. The tradition traces back to a miraculous cure in his lifetime: A mother brought her son who was choking to death on a fish bone to Blase, who immediately cured the boy.
“The blessing of throats on the feast of St. Blase has always been powerful for me, both as a disciple and as a priest,” says Father Landry. “It’s an action that shows a clear reliance on the powerful intercession of a saint. As a priest, it’s a concrete means by which I pray individually over my parishioners, asking God, through St. Blase’s intercession, that they not only be spared of illnesses of the throat but all other maladies.” It’s also a sign of the Church’s “maternal concern for the well-being of each of her children, which reflects the loving concern of God the Father.”
St. Blase lived the truth of the Presentation, and the faithful would do well to do likewise. Pope Benedict wrote in Seek That Which Is Above: “In everyday modern life we are hardly aware that on Feb. 2nd we celebrate an ancient feast,” but many historical sources flow together into this feast so that “it sparkles with many colors.”
Staff writer Joseph Pronechen
is based in Trumbull, Connecticut.