A Day of Light: Candlemas Celebrates the Light of the World
In an often-dreary February, the feast of the Presentation brings illumination.
While many people know the date as Groundhog Day, the celebration of Feb. 2 in the Catholic Church began far earlier than 1887, the year people across the United States started looking for a woodchuck’s shadow.
The Catholic feast has many names, including the feast of the Presentation of Our Lord, the feast of the Purification of Our Lady, the feast of the Encounter and Candlemas.
Nomenclature aside, the feast celebrates the event recorded in Luke 2:22-38: Mary and Joseph’s presentation of Jesus in the Temple 40 days after his birth and the response from Anna, the prophetess, and Simeon of Jerusalem.
Theological Significance and Origin
According to the Book of Leviticus, a mother was ritually impure from her bleeding for 40 days following the birth of a son, as Adoremus editor Christopher Carstens explained to the Register. After that period, Mosaic Law required that if that child was the firstborn son, not only was a sin offering required for the purification, but a sacrifice also had to be offered to God because the son belonged to God.
Like Epiphany and the Baptism of Jesus by John, the feast relates to the manifestation and revelation of Jesus, Carstens said.
When Jesus was presented to the Temple, Simeon took him into his arms and said, “Now, Master, you may let your servant go in peace, according to your word, for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you prepared in sight of all the peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and glory for your people, Israel.”
Inspired by this scriptural motif, the feast’s traditions center around candles and relate to the time of year, according to Carstens.
“Indeed, the associations with cosmic light and darkness show how much Groundhog Day and Candlemas have in common,” he wrote in Adoremus.
“The shortest and darkest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere is the winter solstice, usually around Dec. 21. From that day on, the daylight grows until matching the darkness and night at the spring equinox, roughly around March 21. The midpoint between winter solstice and spring equinox revolves around — you guessed it — Feb. 2.
“Even before Christ’s coming, and long after his ascension, nature knew of him — indeed, sun, moon, stars, and earth announce his mystery in concert, as it were. Today’s liturgical calendar thus incorporates not only the historical facts of Christ’s life — such as his incarnation in the womb of Mary, his birth in Bethlehem, his presentation in the Temple, and his Paschal Mystery — but also elements of God’s own creation. … Candlemas recalls this great mystery: that the light has come into the world (Dec. 25); that it grows in brightness even now (Feb. 2); until that day when it destroys darkness and death by its radiant beauty” at the Easter vigil.
And, according to Father Joseph Brom, associate pastor of St. John Cantius parish in Chicago, Candlemas, like the sacrament of baptism and the Easter vigil, this feast is an opportunity to focus on Jesus as the Light of the World, as candles always represent the light of Christ.
Egeria, a fourth-century pilgrim to Jerusalem, was the first to describe the celebration, Father Brom told the Register. A solemn procession and Mass would commemorate the Presentation of Our Lord in the Temple. Over the following centuries, the celebration spread to other churches. The feast appears in Rome in liturgical books of the seventh and eighth centuries. St. Sergius I was the first to prescribe a procession with candles, and the blessing of candles developed in Western and Central Europe during the early Middle Ages.
The blessing of candles and the procession both take place at the beginning of the main Mass, setting the feast apart from most other liturgies. The feast, as the procession highlights, features two themes: light and the encounter between the Lord and his Church.
One of the procession chants begins, “Sion, adorn your bridal chamber and welcome Christ the King,” mirroring the symbolism the procession presents of the Church, the Bride, going to meet Christ, the Bridegroom, the first time the Lord enters his temple in the flesh.
The feast also marks the end of the extended Christmas cycle and a change in the Marian antiphon that concludes Compline, or Night Prayer. The Alma Redemptoris Mater is sung from the First Sunday of Advent until Candlemas. After Candlemas, the Ave Regina Caelorum is sung until Easter.
In 1997, Pope St. John Paul II chose this feast day to also be the World Day of Consecrated Life, as the feast of the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple “is an eloquent icon of the total offering of one’s life for all those who are called to show forth in the Church and in the world, by means of the evangelical counsels, ‘the characteristic features of Jesus – the chaste, poor and obedient one’ (Vita Consecrata, 1)”.
Celebrations Across the U.S.
St. John Cantius parish began celebrating the feast with a solemn evening Mass for Candlemas a few years ago. Parishioners and guests can either bring their own candles for a blessing or make a donation and receive a blessed candle.
The parish’s choirs typically sing a choral Mass. This year, the choirs will sing Missa in honorem S. Teresiæ a Jesu Infante by Licinio Refice. While most of the church’s decorations are taken down after the feast of the Baptism of the Lord, the Nativity scene remains until Feb. 2.
Although an ancient tradition, the celebration of Candlemas is not as widespread in the contemporary Church as in ages past. But in Father Brom’s experience, most Catholics appreciate discovering the Church’s ancient traditions and customs for feasts. He recommends emphasizing the feast through homilies, announcements, bulletin articles, decorations, vestments and music.
“Start the procession in another chapel, or even outside, to show the extraordinary nature of this feast,” he said. “Sing! The prayers and chants the missal provides are meant to be sung. And make a habit out of it. To build up interest, we need to be consistent in our practices. If people know we have a special evening Mass every year, they’ll expect it. They’ll be sure to buy their candles and bring them.”
Then parishioners can take those candles home and use them during devotions and household crises as a reminder of the light of Christ and the need for patience amid the struggles of life, he said.
Carstens, who’s also the director of the Office for Sacred Worship in the Diocese of La Crosse, Wisconsin, pointed out that the book Catholic Household Blessings and Prayers includes a ritual for candles. He also told the Register that the Diocese of La Crosse has held adult-formation weekends around Feb. 2 that allude to the theme of enlightenment.
The Roccasecca Project, named for St. Thomas Aquinas’ birthplace and comprised of people who are particularly fond of the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota, and the spiritual foundation they gained there, will celebrate the feast together. The organization includes alumni, students, parents, professors and other community members. The group’s event, which is in its seventh year, is open to the public.
Father Spencer Howe, the pastor of Holy Cross Catholic Church in Minneapolis and a co-founder of the Roccasecca Project, particularly enjoys the timing of the feast. Not only does it fall in a relatively slow time of the academic year, but it also is a reminder of the warmth and light of Christ amid a desolate time in Minnesota, he remarked.
The sidewalks tend to be icy that day, so the procession, which includes all in attendance, takes place inside. A brief talk that relates to the theme of light and truth follows the Mass. Father Howe views the talk as an “afterglow” of the beauty of the Mass that affirms the beauty of intellectual formation. Father Austin Litke, a Dominican priest, will give the talk at this year’s event, which will take place at St. Clement Catholic Church in Minneapolis.
Father Howe believes many priests would be elated if the faithful approach them with a desire to celebrate the feast. It’s distanced from busier times of the year, and it’s rich with meaning in a parish setting.
It’s an intergenerational feast, he said.
“You have Simeon and Anna, you have Mary and Joseph, and you have the Christ Child,” Father Howe explained. “And all of those are together, as the entire Church is all those ages together.”
It’s the day when the Church blesses all the liturgical candles it uses for the year, including those for the blessing of throats on St. Blaise’s feast day, Feb. 3, Father Howe added.
Missionaries of the Holy Spirit Father Miguel Márquez, priest administrator at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton parish in Bothell, Washington, says Feb. 2 is a hallmark in parish life, explaining that many Hispanic families “raise” the Baby Jesus on this day from their home Nativity scenes. They change the figurine into a different set of clothes and bring it to Church to be blessed. After they bring the figurine home, they set it in a place of honor in the family’s prayer corner. Traditionally, that place is a chair, he said. The church also blesses the candles for St. Blaise’s feast day that parishioners bring into their prayer corners.
“In a way, this Mass is a celebration that brings together different cultures and their customs, by pastorally allowing our parishioners to continue their traditions and pass them along to their children,” Father Márquez told the Register via email.
Michelle Schultz, a parishioner of St. Thomas the Apostle parish in Ann Arbor, Michigan, has adopted both the French tradition of eating crepes and the Polish tradition of a gromnica or “thunder candle” on Feb. 2.
She suggested laity and a willing priest can arrange the candle blessing, procession and traditional food, or people can simply invite friends and family over to enjoy food, light candles, read the Gospel account of the Presentation, and pray or sing the Canticle of Simeon, or Nunc Dimittis.
As Schultz said, “Candlemas is a feast of Jesus and Mary’s holy humility, and we can think of ourselves in the place of Anna and Simeon: eagerly waiting for Christ, who is our salvation and our light in the darkness.”
Resources for Expanding the Celebration
- The Church’s Year of Grace by Pius Parsch
- Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs by Francis Weiser
- Catholic Household Blessings and Prayers
- Past Candlemas talks of the Roccasecca Project
Mary Stroka is an award-winning journalist with experience writing for statewide news media, nonprofits and government bodies. A wife and mother of two, she currently lives in Gillette, Wyoming, where she reports on local news. Her smaller adventures have included studying foreign languages, like Italian and Spanish.
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