A new look at an ancient feast

Each year the Church concludes her liturgical celebration of Our Lord’s Nativity and infancy period with the Feast of Candlemas, observed 40 days after Christmas on February 2. Candlemas marks both the ritual Purification of Mary and Our Lord’s Presentation in the Temple. Traditionally, candles are blessed and distributed to the faithful, recalling that Jesus’ Presentation represents the “Light of revelation” dispelling the darkness. 

Candlemas has various names, each of which expresses a different element of the feast: The Purification of Our Lady, The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple, The Meeting of The Lord, and Candlemas. The feast recalls both Mary’s obedience to Levitical precepts—which required new mothers to present themselves in the Temple for ritual cleansing—and the infant Christ’s Presentation in His Father’s house. 

Rev. John A. O’Brien Assistant Professor of Theology Gabriel Radle explained, “like Epiphany, this feast of the Presentation celebrates theophanic encounters: the infant Jesus is recognized as the Christ, the Messiah, at the Temple by Simeon and the prophetess Anna. If the Nativity is celebrated in the humility and obscurity of a manger of Bethlehem, it is Candlemas that represents Christ’s entry into the more public sphere of Jewish society.” 

Luke’s Gospel account supplies the Church with the canticle she recites each night in the Office of Compline (i.e., night prayer): the Nunc dimittis or Song of Simeon. Taking the infant Jesus into his arms, the old man Simeon declares, “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” (Lk. 2:30-32). 

Simeon’s cry of joy encapsulates the expectation of the entire people of Israel, a nation whose redemption is at hand. However, later in the same Gospel passage, Simeon tells the purified Virgin Mary: “Behold, this child is destined for the rise and fall of Israel and to be a sign that will be contradicted, you yourself a sword will pierce so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed” (Lk. 2:34-35). 

In an interview with the Rover, Fr. Gregory Haake, C.S.C. reflected that “the feast encapsulates the ambiguity of the Christian life. In one feast we encounter both the first of the Seven Sorrows of Mary (The Prophecy of Simeon) and a joyful mystery of the Rosary in the Presentation of Our Lord. It forces us to consider the bittersweet nature of life as a disciple of Christ and the sacrifice it demands. Mary offers us the perfect example as Our Lord’s first disciple.”

The traditions associated with Candlemas serve to remind the faithful that Jesus’ entrance into the Temple encapsulates the wider entrance of Our Lord, the Light of the nations, into the world. To symbolize this event, the liturgy of Candlemas is traditionally preceded by a blessing of candles to be used throughout the coming year, both for liturgical use and the private use of the faithful. This blessing is often accompanied by a candlelit procession imitating the entrance of Christ the Light into the Temple. 

“The solemn blessing of candles, which is the origin for the name ‘Candlemas,’ provides the faithful with a tangible token of the spiritual meaning of the feast: The Christ child, the Light of revelation to the Gentiles, has risen among us” said junior student Buddy Williams when asked about the significance of Candlemas. The distribution of these candles offers a way to connect public liturgical practice with the domestic prayer life. 

According to Professor Gabriel Radle, the prominence of Candlemas developed early in the ancient Church: “It likely began in the East, as it is attested, for example, already in fourth-century Jerusalem, as well as in other local churches of late antiquity. According to medieval practice, the Candlemas procession called for the singing of a special antiphon, namely, Adorna thalamum tuum, Sion which is a hymn calling upon Jerusalem to prepare a bridal chamber to receive her spouse, Christ the King.” The ancient origins of Candlemas show that from an early stage it was recognized as a celebration of particular eschatological importance.

Professor Radle also noted that “there are also many folk customs associated with the feast in traditional Catholic cultures. In France, it is common to make crepes on the feast of Candlemas, a tradition that somewhat overlaps with the Swedish and Russian customs of eating crepes before the start of Lent. In South Texas, where I’m from, and in Mexican culture more broadly, it is traditional to bake a ‘Three Kings Cake’ as part of hosting an epiphany celebration on January 6. Inside the cake is hidden a small figurine of the infant Jesus, and whoever gets the slice of cake containing the figurine must then host the feast for Candlemas.”

The Basilica of the Sacred Heart will celebrate the Feast of the Presentation of Our Lord with Masses at 11:30 am and 5:15 pm and sung Compline (i.e. Night Prayer) sponsored by the Children of Mary at 8 p.m. in the Lady Chapel.

Daniel Martin is a sophomore from Skippack, Pennsylvania in the Program of Liberal Studies. For questions related to Candlemas or the neo-luddism of ‘The Lord of the Rings,’ email dmarti29@nd.edu, though carrier pigeon is strongly preferred.

Photo Credit: Paul Howard