On Feb. 2 forget Groundhog Day. It’s yet another dumb secular intrusion into what is a triple celebration day in the Church. We don’t need weather prediction from a groundhog.
It’s a “triple” celebration day in the Church because the feast actually has three names — the Presentation of the Lord, Candlemas, and for centuries before 1970, the Purification of Mary.
We remember two of those names every time we pray the fourth joyful mystery of the Rosary.
Yet, “In everyday modern life we are hardly aware that on Feb. 2nd we celebrate an ancient feast,” Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI — then Cardinal Ratzinger — wrote in Seek That Which Is Above, (Ignatius 2007). He said that many historical sources flow together into this feast so that “it sparkles with many colors.”
Certainly there’s much to celebrate and learn about on this feast 40 days after the Nativity. In fact, until not long ago, the Church celebrated the season of Christmas for 40 days until Feb. 2, matching the 40 days of Lent.
Well-known Benedictine Abbot Dom Prosper Guéranger wrote, “The custom of celebrating the Solemnity of Our Savior's Nativity by a Feast of 40 days' duration is founded on the Holy Gospel itself; for it tells us that the Blessed Virgin Mary, after spending 40 days in the contemplation of the Divine Fruit of Her glorious Maternity, went to the Temple, there to fulfill, in most perfect humility, the ceremonies which the Law demanded of the daughters of Israel when they became mothers.”
Some churches still keep to this custom.
“Forty days are milestones in spiritual life,” Meredith Gould, author of The Catholic Home: Celebrations and Traditions for Holidays, Feast Days, and Every Day (Doubleday 2004), told me in a conversation we had a few years ago. On this day the Holy Family fulfilled the law as 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 that time.
At that time during another conversation with Father Roger Landry, now serving at the Holy See’s permanent mission to the United Nations, he also made an observation about this feast day. “The fact that the rite of presentation involved a ‘"redemption,’ a buying back of the life through the two turtledoves for poor families,” he explained, “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 (Candle-Mass) joins the celebration, as it has since the 11th century. On this feast churches traditionally bless candles before or beginning of Mass for the parish and family use. Some parishes even retain the once-standard candle processions started in the early 8th century by decree of Pope Sergius.
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.
The candle procession helps us realize the mission of bringing the light of Jesus out to all the nations. Father Landry explained, “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…”
In his book, Benedict (as Cardinal Ratzinger) observed, “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.”
No wonder Gould summed up the symbolism of Candlemas as a ceremony of light. “I characterize it as another ‘Light from light, true God from true God,’ holiday,” she said. “Jesus is the true light of the world, and we celebrate with candlelight.”
Even children can become familiar with this Christian symbolism, including other meanings associated with blessed candles. The wax symbolizes Christ’s flesh, the wick His soul, the flame his divinity. Together they give us light. That makes it also easy to understand why candles for Church use must be at least 51 percent beeswax, the purest wax.
BLESSED CANDLES FOR ALL FAMILIES
On Candlemas Day every family should bring home a blessed candle. Place one or more on a family altar for family devotions. Keep them in times the sacraments might need to be administered to the sick at home. Light them in moments of danger, like storms, hurricanes, tornadoes.
Remember, blessed candles are sacramentals. .
Furthermore, Gould finds enduring, centuries-old customs and traditions like Candlemas have great catechetical value. And they do so in a very beautiful, tangible, physical, understandable, engaging, even auditory and gustatory way of remembering who we are.
“These traditions are important because they keep the faith alive,” Gould said. “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 [and sacramentals] 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 continued, is a great opportunity to preach about light from light, being the light of the world, being light to others, and seeing light in one another. It’s not just telling your children lighting candles is fun, but teaching what it means — do you see light in your little brother or sister?
BLESSING OF THROATS
Certainly a light of Christ to others was St. Blaise, whose feast is celebrated Feb. 3, the day after the Presentation of the Lord and Candlemas. It’s another great day in the liturgical calendar.
A physician and Bishop of Sebaste, Armenia, martyred about 316, he was one 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 it in some churches), two crossed candles are used to bless throats of the faithful. The tradition traces to a miraculous cure in his lifetime. A mother brought her son choking to death on a fishbone to Blaise, who immediately cured the boy.
Reflecting on this feast, Father Landry told me, “The blessing of throats on the feast of St. Blaise has always been powerful for me, both as a disciple and as a priest. 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. Blaise'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.”
Gould concluded, “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.”
So forget the groundhog. Celebrate the Presentation and Candlemas, then blaze a trail next day to get your throats blessed too.