Joseph Pronechen is staff writer with the National Catholic Register since 2005. 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 holds an MS 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 Church has no shortage of feasts and memorials to celebrate. For centuries, we have a triple celebration on one day, Feb. 2 — alternately 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. The date is 40 days after the birth of Jesus, a Biblically significant number, and back before the name was changed, marked the end of the Christmas season.
Candlemas also became associated with both names for centuries, and remains so. Certainly, there’s much to celebrate and learn about on this triple feast.
The Feasts Develop
First, the Presentation of Our Lord. We remember this one every time we pray the fourth joyful mystery of the Rosary. We see the Holy Family, first Domestic Church, enter the Temple to fulfill Mosaic Law.
By 380 there’s a written record that the Jerusalem Church was celebrating the Presentation, but the title was to become the Purification. Going to the Temple had a double purpose.
One, it was the Purification of Mary. She fulfilled the Jewish ritual cleanings as the tradition pious Jewish women did after giving birth (Leviticus 12:1-4). Two, Jewish law required the first born male to be brought and consecrated to the Lord and then through offering a sacrifice be “redeemed” by his parents. Joseph and Mary did things according to the Mosaic Law. Presentation and Purification.
By 542, Emperor Justinian had the entire Eastern Roman empire celebrate this feast as thanksgiving for a dangerous epidemic that had ended. Then Pope Gregory I introduced the feast in Rome. In 701 Pope Sergius added a candlelight procession for a “Candlemas” service on the Feast of the Purification. The word easily derived from “Candle Mass.” It wasn’t until the 11th century for the blessing of candles to become another regular part of this feast. Since then, we’re talking centuries for these celebrations in the Church.
The Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy points out that the Candlemas processions commemorate the Lord's entry into the Temple and the candles are carried in procession 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 weaves together – or is connected together in this feast like the three points of a triangle.
Light of the World
In his book Seek That Which Is Above, Benedict XVI, writing as Cardinal Ratzinger, had this to say about the feast: “It takes up the words of Simeon when he calls this Child aa light to enlighten the Gentiles.’ Accordingly this day was made into a feast of candles.”
Benedict goes on to describe, “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.”
Years ago, Meredith Gould, who wrote The Catholic Home: Celebrations and Traditions for Holidays, Feast Days, and Every Day, liked to see the symbolism of Candlemas as a ceremony of light, as “another ‘Light from Light, true God from true God’ holiday.”
Remember how Jesus identified himself in John 8:12? He revealed, “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 percent 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.”
Blessed Candles Light Feast
Candlemas is the feast on which churches bless candles which people can and should take home with them. Some churches provide the candles, and sometimes folks bring their own candles for the priest to bless. Also, not all churches include the processions.
A word here about how this fits into “popular piety.” The Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy talks about its great value, reminding that the Magisterium sees popular piety as “a true treasure of the People of God.”
One of the main reasons? “Popular piety can easily direct its attention to the Son of God who, for love of mankind, became a poor, small child, born of a simple humble woman.” Now doesn’t that fit perfectly with the Presentation-Purification? And Candlemas?
Since the blessed candles are sacramentals, the faithful should see them “as a sign of Christ ‘the light of the world’ and an expression of faith.”
Gould says these religious rituals are activities that help create a sense of the sacred, provide comfort and continuity, and have great catechetical value. They keep the faith alive because they are ways to teach it.
Some of the lessons? 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.
Other Connections to the Feast
One other minor, non-spiritual tradition that fell on Candlemas has gotten corrupted over the years. Farmers used an old English song of long ago that went: If Candlemas be fair and bright, Come winter, have another flight; If Candlemas bring clouds and rain, Go winter, and come not again. You guessed it about how that custom got corrupted over the years into what Feb. 2 brings today about weather. Stay with the blessed candles.
An infinitely more important connection to this feast is how the Directory on Popular Piety encourages new mothers.
“Popular piety is sensitive to the providential and mysterious event that is the Conception and birth of new life,” it tells us. “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.”
The Presentation of the Lord in the Temple. The Purification of Mary. Candlemas. Which to celebrate on Feb. 2? The choice hardly needs a second thought. All of them.