It is Candlemas today, – so called from the lighting up of candles, offering them, consecrating them, and bearing them in procession; … – to show that long expected Light of the Gentiles was now come, was now sprung up, and shined brighter than the sun at noon, and might be taken in our hands. Let the ceremony pass, reserve the substance; light up the two candles of faith and good works, light them with the fire of charity; bear we them burning in our hands, as Christ commands us; meet we him ‘with our lamps burning;’ consecrate we also them, all our works and actions, with our prayers; offer we them, all our works and actions, with our prayers; offer we them upon the altars of the God of our salvation, as S. Bernard speaks, as in procession, ‘two and two,’ in peace and unity together; the candle of faith will there show you him, and the candle of charity will light him down into your arms, that you may embrace him. We embrace where we love, we take into our arms whom we love; so that love Jesus and embrace Jesus – love Jesus and take Jesus – love Jesus and take him into our hands, and into our arms, and into our mouths, and into our hearts.
The Feast of the Presentation of the Lord, commonly called Candlemas, commemorates the presentation of Christ in the temple and the ritual purification of the Virgin Mary.
The nun Egeria, writing around AD 380, attests to a feast of the Presentation in the Jerusalem Church. It was kept on February 14th.
The fortieth day after the Epiphany is undoubtedly celebrated here with the very highest honor, for on that day there is a procession, in which all take part, in the Anastasis, and all things are done in their order with the greatest joy, just as at Easter. All the priests, and after them the bishop, preach, always taking for their subject that part of the Gospel where Joseph and Mary brought the Lord into the Temple on the fortieth day, and Symeon and Anna the prophetess, the daughter of Phanuel, saw him, treating of the words which they spake when they saw the Lord, and of that offering which his parents made. And when everything that is customary has been done in order, the sacrament is celebrated, and the dismissal takes place.
In regions where Christ’s birth was celebrated on December 25th, the feast began to be celebrated on February 2nd, where it is kept in the West today. In 542, the Emperor Justinian introduced the feast to the entire Eastern Roman empire in thanksgiving for the end to a great pestilence afflicting the city of Constantinople. Perhaps this is when Pope Gregory I brought the feast to Rome.
The name Candlemas comes from the activities associated with the feast. It came to be known as the Candle Mass. In the Western Church a procession with lighted candles became a distinctive rite. During this procession which commemorates Christ’s entrance into the temple, the Nunc Dimittis is sung.
Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace : according to thy word.
For mine eyes have seen : thy salvation,
Which thou hast prepared : before the face of all people;
To be a light to lighten the Gentiles : and to be the glory of thy people Israel.
The religious and liturgical events that provided the setting for this song were the traditional Jewish ceremonies that followed a baby’s birth. Though they aren’t clearly defined by Luke, who was not a Jew himself, three key Jewish ceremonies were taking place in the life of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus. The first ceremony was the Circumcision, which took place on the eighth day after birth. This was the time when the baby was named. It was considered such a sacred event that it could even be done on the Sabbath. The second ceremony was the Redemption of the Firstborn, where the baby was presented to God one month after birth. This ceremony entailed the “buying back” or “redeeming” of the child from God through an offering. This symbolic action was an acknowledgment that the child belonged to God, and the parents were required to pay five shekels. Incidentally, according to Jewish law, this could only be done when the child was free of any physical deformation.
The third religious ceremony following a baby’s birth was for the Purification of the Mother. This ceremony took place forty days after the birth of a son, or eighty days after a daughter. Prior to this event, the mother was considered ceremonially unclean and wasn’t permitted to enter the temple. At the end of the “unclean period,” the parents were to bring a lamb for a burnt offering and a dove or pigeon for a sin offering. If the lamb was too expensive for the parents’ economic status, they were permitted to bring a second dove or pigeon, and this was most probably the case with Mary and Joseph. It is for this third ceremony that they were at the temple and encountered Simeon in the temple courts. At this time the temple was approaching completion, standing as a gleaming white jewel wedged into the northeastern corner of the city, and to all pious Jews this temple was the very center of the world. The sprawling enclave was rimmed with a labyrinth of colonnaded porticoes and gates. It was here, as Mary and Joseph with their baby stood in the Court of the Women, that an old man named Simeon, among the most pious of all, came up to them. After taking the baby in his arms, he sings a song that is like Hebrew poetry, filled with scriptural language that closely paralleled the words found in the book of Isaiah.
Who was Simeon? He is often written about in literature, and is frequently referred to in the poetry of the Middle Ages. Artists throughout history have never tired of trying to catch the sacred fire in Simeon’s eyes as he sings his song. Perhaps the most striking effort is by the Dutch artist Rembrandt, who painted this scene four times during his lifetime. Simeon is usually presumed to be a priest since it is in the temple that he presents himself and takes the baby in his arms, which could perhaps be seen as a priestly function. He is also often thought to be elderly, as we are told that he waited so long for the arrival of the Messiah. Augustine, while preaching in Carthage in North Africa in the early fifth century, referred to Simeon as “aged” and “long-lived.” Furthermore, together with Simeon we are introduced to Anna, a woman we are told is eighty-four years old. It is a marvelous scene, with all the depth and mystery one could ever hope for. We can almost feel the chemistry of the moment as this old, gentle, saintly, bent-over man takes this baby boy into his arms and blesses him. And in so doing not only is the baby boy blessed, but so also is the old saint. Simeon clearly experiences something wonderful. It is a moment of grace in that great temple, when the child Messiah is laid right into his arms and into his heart. In response, he sings a song that has never stopped being sung throughout Christendom.
From Songs in Waiting: Spiritual Reflections on the Middle Eastern Songs Surrounding Christ’s Birth by Paul-Gordon Chandler. Copyright © 2009. Used by permission of Church Publishing Incorporated, New York, NY.
Over time different visions on today’s festival have been developed in various spiritual traditions. Some of them are older than the story told in the Gospel.
In Ireland, this holy day is called Imbolc and begins at sunset on February 1 continuing through sunset February 2nd. There are several different derivations offered for the name Imbolc: from Ol-melc (ewe’s milk) because the ewes are lactating at this time, from Im-bolg (around the belly) in honor of the swelling belly of the earth goddess, and from folcaim (I wash) because of the rites of purification which took place at this time. All of these explanations capture the themes of this festival.
February 1st is the feast day of St. Brigid, who began her life as a pagan goddess and ended up a Christian saint. She was a fire and fertility goddess. In her temple at Kildare, vestal virgins tended an eternal fire. On her feast day, her statue was washed in the sea (purification) and then carried in a cart through the fields surrounded by candles.The legends about the goddess, Brigid, gradually became associated with (the somewhat spurious) Saint Brigid who founded the first convent in Ireland (where else?) at Kildare.To celebrate St. Brigid’s day, people put out a loaf of bread on the windowsill for the Saint and an ear of corn for her white cow, offerings for the grain goddess like the loaf buried in the first furrow. A small quantity of special seeds are mixed with those to be sown. Wheat stalks are woven into X-shaped crosses to serve as charms to protect home from fire and lightning.In the Highlands, women dress the corn doll or last sheaf (from Lammas or the autumn equinox) in a bridal gown and put her in a basket, which is called the Bride’s bed. A wand, candle or other phallic object is laid across her and Bride is invited to come, for her bed is ready.
Another one we found on the website of the Dutch Liberal Catholic Church. Here Candlemas is placed in a longer series of annual festivals of light:
We celebrate Candlemas 40 days after Christmas. 40 days before Christmas was the festival of light called the feast of St. Martin. On this feast children walk with beautiful lamps in the darkening autumntime. This lamp is made from a drilled rutabaga or pumpkin, decorated by a skilled hand and made carryable.
The “bulb” is a symbol of the warmth of the sun, growth, bloom, power and colour and fire enabled by the warmth of the summer sun. We become connected with it by drilling these fruits and making free space in them, so that light could connect with us. The light in the lamp wanes, naturally, if we don’t protect it against the wind, and the candle can of course burn out. The power of human will is needed for the light to continue burning. Then it can connect with us. The sunlight can become internalized in our hearts. Full of expectation, we carry that light toward the middle of winter. Then our heart filled with light opens to the Christ child. The new seed of our life-giving light. If this all went well, we came out stronger of this struggle.