Joseph Pronechen is staff writer with the National Catholic Register since 2005 and before that a regular correspondent for the paper. His articles have appeared in a number of national publications including Columbia magazine, Soul, Faith and Family, Catholic Digest, and Marian Helper. His religion features have also appeared in Fairfield County Catholic and in major newspapers. He is the author of Fruits of Fatima — Century of Signs and Wonders. He holds a graduate degree and formerly taught English and courses in film study that he developed at a Catholic high school in Connecticut. Joseph and his wife Mary reside on the East Coast.
The feast we celebrate for centuries on Feb. 2 is known as the Presentation of the Lord, the Purification of Mary, and Candlemas. Today, the Church calls the feast the Presentation of Our Lord. Until 1969, in the West it was called the Purification of Our Lady.
Notice it takes place 40 days after Jesus’ birth and closed the Christmas season. It’s a Biblically significant number that echoes the 40 days of Lent, the 40 days from the Resurrection to the Ascension, and many Old Testament “40’s” too. The number relates to the feast’s first two names. Biblical significance also ties into the name Candlemas. Shortly, we’ll see how and why.
Pick up your Rosary, pray the joyful mysteries, and you’ll come to the fourth one: the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple. We remember this event every time we pray the joyful mysteries. We see the Holy Family, first Domestic Church, enter the Temple to fulfill Mosaic Law.
Written records tell us that by A.D. 380 the Church in Jerusalem was celebrating the Presentation. But that name was to become the Purification also because going to the Temple had a double purpose.
The first: Jewish law required the first-born male to be brought to the temple and consecrated to the Lord. Then through offering a sacrifice of a lamb and a turtle dove or young pigeon, the parents could “redeem” the child. Joseph and Mary did things according to the Mosaic Law. Their sacrifice of two turtle doves shows us they were poor because the law at the time said if parents couple not afford a lamb, the could sacrifice two turtle doves instead.
It also seems that we have a hint at the Presentation of Jesus being the real lamb to be sacrificed, but that would not come until years later — at the end of the 40 days of Lent as we now observe them.
The second: in simple terms, the Mosaic law also required a mother who had given birth to come to the temple 40 days after the birth for prayers for her purification, which the priest would do by offering prayers.
Although Mary did not have to be cleansed from sin, she and Joseph showed they were most observant of the Mosaic Law by observing and fulfilling both these precepts.
Interestingly, by 542, Emperor Justinian had the entire Eastern Roman empire celebrate this feast in thanksgiving for the end of a plague that had devastated Constantinople.
Jumping to the present century, the Directory on Popular Piety encourages new mothers concerning this feast as it explains, “Christian mothers can easily identify with the maternity of Our Lady, the most pure Mother of the Head of the mystical Body — notwithstanding the notable differences in the Virgin's unique Conception and birth. These too are mothers in God's plan and are about to give birth to future members of the Church.”
This part of the feast should prompt mothers — indeed married couples — to ask the priest for a blessing when they are expecting a child, and then after the child is born, “so that,” says the Directory of Popular Piety, “the pregnancy can be brought to term without difficulty (blessing before birth), and to give thanks to God for the gift of a child (blessing after birth).” There are Church prayers for such occasions.
Candlemas Is Added
Candlemas had yet to be part of this feast. Then in 701 Pope Sergius added a candlelight procession for a “Candlemas” service on the Feast of the Purification. It’s simple to see how “Candlemas” comes from “Candle Mass.” However, the regular blessing of candles as part of the feast didn’t start until the 11th century.
This “newest” part with the blessing of candles still makes the feast with three names a thousand years old. Before this, the feast was already celebrated for 17 centuries.
Although not all churches retain the candlelight processions nowadays, the Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy explains their meaning. These processions commemorate the Lord's entry into the Temple. The candles are carried in honor of Christ, “the light to enlighten the Gentiles” (Luke 2:32). and in the rite of purification it sees Our Lady’s humility. Everything connects together in this feast like the three points that make up one triangle.
Today, even without a procession, priests bless candles on Candlemas for the people to take home with them. We should always have a blessed candle — even more than one — in our home. Most churches provide the candles while sometimes people bring their own candles for the priest to bless. Since the blessed candles are sacramentals, we should see them “as a sign of Christ ‘the light of the world’ and an expression of faith.”
Keep the candles on home altars, or in a special place for family devotions. Light them during storms, in times of trouble or dangers, for sick calls. Light them “on birthdays, baptismal anniversaries, first Holy Communion, and in sickness,” advises Helen Mcloughlin in Her Book, Christmas to Candlemas in a Catholic Home.
More Meaning of the Candles
In his book Seek That Which Is Above, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, while Cardinal Ratzinger taught about this feast: “It takes up the words of Simeon when he calls this Child ‘a light to enlighten the Gentiles.’ Accordingly, this day was made into a feast of candles…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…The candle-lit procession, the symbolic encounter between chaos and light which it represents, should…give us courage to see the supernatural…as the only way in which meaning can be brought to bear on the chaotic side of life.”
Remember how Jesus identified himself in John 8:12? He made it very clear: “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”
So the candles are very symbolic. Blessed candles should be made of beeswax, or at least 51% beeswax because, explains the Catholic Encyclopedia, the purity or “virginity of bees is insisted on, and the wax is therefore regarded as typifying in a most appropriate way the flesh of Jesus Christ born of a virgin mother.” The wick symbolizes the soul of Christ and the flame his Divinity.
In his book The Lives or the Fathers, Martyrs and Other Principal Saints, Father Alban Butler reminds that Jesus “came to dispel our spiritual darkness. The candles likewise express that by faith his light shines in our souls: as also that we are to ‘prepare his way’ by good works, by which we are to be ‘a light to’ men.”
What a way to celebrate Feb. 2 — three feasts making up a single celebration — the Presentation of the Lord in the Temple, the Purification of Mary, Candlemas. What a day of celebration it is!