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Saturday, February 2, 2013

Candlemas is a fitting end to the traditional Christmas season

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Written by Dorothy Cummings McLean

The Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary, or Candlemas, dates from the early fourth century and has for centuries been celebrated on Feb. 2. The “purification” refers to an ancient Jewish ceremony, described in Leviticus 12:2-8, in which a woman who has recently given birth returns to the synagogue after some time away. It seems unpleasant now to think that women might need purification for something as blameless and natural as giving birth, but the ancient peoples of the Mediterranean were very uneasy about any rupture between the body and the outside world. They found any kind of bleeding particularly worrisome.

As a Jewish woman of the first century, our Lady naturally followed such prescriptions of Mosaic Law. According to the Gospel of Luke, “when the time came for her purification,” Mary and Joseph took Jesus, as a firstborn son, with them to the temple in Jerusalem to be presented as holy to the Lord. (Fittingly, then, this was a joint ceremony for mother and Son together.) There they met Simeon and Anna, both elderly people who had longed for many years to see the Messiah. Simeon’s joyful response, beginning, “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,” is now a canticle known as the “Nunc Dimittis.” It has been for centuries part of Christian evening prayer.

These are the events in the life of the Holy Family specially commemorated at Candlemas, which takes its name from the traditional blessing of the year’s stock of candles before Mass.

The first prayer of the blessing service in the Extraordinary Form is particularly beautiful, invoking both creation and expectation, both the sacred and the mundane:

“O holy Lord, Father almighty, eternal God, who hast created all things out of nothing, and by Thy word hast caused this liquid through the work of bees to come to the perfection of wax, and who on this day did fulfil the petition of just Simeon; deign, we humbly beseech Thee, to bless and sanctify these candles for the uses of men, for the health of bodies and of souls, whether on the land or on the waters, by the invocation of Thy most holy name, and by the intercession of the blessed Mary ever virgin, whose festival we this day celebrate…”

There are five prayers, followed by an antiphon from Luke — “A light to the revelation of the gentiles, and the glory of Thy people Israel” — and the Nunc Dimittis. The juxtaposition of “light” with the revelation of the Messiah to Simeon underscores that the flames of the blessed candles will represent the light of Christ. Blessed candles are distributed to everyone at the service, and there is usually a candle-lit procession.

When I went to the Candlemas services in Edinburgh last year, there was no candle-lit procession as the chapel was so small and crowded. I took spiritual warmth from the beauty of the blessing service and the Mass, particularly in the almost-comical reference to the humble bees as ministers of God’s work of creation. There was the music, of course, sung by four musicians around the harmonium, and the priest’s gold vestments. And there was the joy of Simeon, who had been waiting all his long life for the fulfilment of the Holy Spirit’s promise that he would see Jesus, and the joy of Anna, a widow of 84, whose life revolved around fasting and prayer.

What beautiful juxtapositions: the baby, the young mother, the foster father, the elderly man, the elderly woman and, thanks to the candles, the bees. At Christmas, the Christ Child is revealed to local shepherds, to the Jews. At Epiphany, He is revealed to the gentiles. At Candlemas, He is revealed to the elderly and, not coincidentally, inspires an exclamation of utter trust in the face of death, an exclamation that even welcomes death, for the speaker has seen God’s salvation with his own eyes.

As the presentation is itself an epiphany, it is fitting that Candlemas traditionally marks the end of Epiphany and is the last feast day of Christmas. Those who have not yet taken down their Christmas decorations may rejoice to know that it is perfectly traditional to leave them up all January. But, alas, on Candlemas Eve, down they must come.

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