Sunday, February 2, 2020


Today is the 40th Day of Christmas, kept in the Church as the feast of The Presentation of the LordThis ancient feast (which in some form dates back as far as the 4th century) marks the definitive end of the Christmas season. In Catholic countries, the Christmas nativity scene remains on display in churches until today. Back in 2012, during the first month of my "saints" course in Rome, I observed the popular custom of visiting as many nativity scenes in as many different Roman churches as possible prior to this feast. 

And so today I sadly say goodbye to my Peruvian Nativity set (photo). I first bought it on Bloor Street in Toronto some 25 years ago, adding an additional figure every year until I moved back to the US in 2000. It was displayed each Christmas season outside my office in the parish center during my 10 years in New York and has been displayed each Christmas season in our staff meeting room during these past 10 years here in Knoxville. After this year, Expecting to have no comparably suitable place to display it. in future, I have donated it to our local regional Catholic school, which means I am saying goodbye to it today - not just for another year but forever.

This feast is commonly called Candlemas Day, because on this day the Church blesses candles and invites the faithful to carry blessed candles in procession saying: “So let us also, gathered together by the Holy Spirit, proceed to the house of God to encounter Christ. There we shall find him and recognize him in the breaking of the bread, until he comes again, revealed in glory.” In this, the Church takes its inspiration from Luke’s Gospel account in which a holy man named Simeon took the infant Jesus in his arms and proclaimed him “a light of revelation to the Gentiles.” 

In the Gospel (Luke 2:22-40), the aged Simeon recites the canticle, “Now, Master, you may let your servant go in peace.” Known as the Nunc Dimittis, this canticle is an important part of the Church’s official Night Prayer (Compline). Concerning this, the great 20th-century liturgical scholar Pius Parsch wrote: “As we sing it we see Simeon holding the Child Jesus in his arms and then, with grateful heart, retiring from his earthly service to God. We too are in the Lord’s service. At the close of day we hold the Savior in our arms, mystically speaking; we hold Him in faith, in grace, in the sacraments, especially the Sacrament of the Altar. Fervently we thank God for His blessings; and we are prepared, if it be His will, to take our leave from the world.”

Until 1960, the Procession prior to today's Mass had a quasi-penitential character. It took place in violet vestments, and "folded chasubles" (planetae plicatae) were worn by deacon and subdeacon rather dalmatic and tunicle. This may perhaps have reflected the procession's putatively pagan, pre-Christian origins, although any connection with pre-Christian pagan festivals is uncertain and disputed. In any case, since 1960 the procession and the festive Mass have been more closely integrated. The only vaguely "penitential" hint, if one can call it that, is in wise old Simeon’s words to Mary in the Gospel, the first reference to what lies ahead, the first reference to the cross. Behold, this child is destined … to be a sign that will be contradicted – and you yourself a sword will pierce – so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed. This suggests that, even as we today take a last look back at Christmas, Candlemas looks ahead to Lent (and so reminds us that the point of Christmas is Easter). Simeon and Anna’s encounter with the infant Jesus in the Jerusalem Temple points us toward our own encounter with the The Risen Christ in the here and now. 

Coming close to midway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox, a secular version of Candlemas is Groundhog Day. (The fact that both mark this seasonal signpost is obviously not coincidental.) Not so long ago, of course, most people in the western world knew about Candlemas Day. Today, many people – even many Catholics - seem to have forgotten. Yet even those who may never have heard of Candlemas have heard of Groundhog Day and connect it with the change of seasons. While the weather is still wintry, the days are noticeably getting longer. Whereas Christmas comes at the mid-point of the winter’s darkness, with the year’s shortest day and its correspondingly longest night, Candlemas comes at the mid-point between the winter solstice and the spring equinox, the transition (according to one older way of reckoning the seasons) from winter to spring. Soon, day and night, light and dark will be equal. So this last of the winter light festivals invites us to look ahead to what these winter light festivals are meant to symbolize.

Since 1997, the feast of the Presentation has also been set aside as the World Day of Consecrated Life. Just as on Candlemas Day candles are blessed symbolizing Christ who is the light of the world, so too religious priests, brothers, and sisters in the various Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life are called to reflect the light of Jesus Christ to all peoples. It is obviously an especially appropriate day to pray that God will continue to bless his Church with abundant vocations to these communities so critical to the life of the Church. A (sadly silent) You Tube video shows clerics, who may possibly have represented Religious, presenting candles to Pope Saint John XXIII on Candlemas Day 1959 -

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