Wednesday, February 2, 2022


Contemporary neo-paganism calls it Groundhog Day. Christians call it Candlemas. Whatever the label, we are at the midpoint between the winter solstice and the spring equinox.

Not so long ago, almost everyone in the Western world would have known about Candlemas Day. Today, many sadly seem to have forgotten. Yet even people who have never heard of Candlemas recognize the folklore connected with this day and connect it with the change of seasons. (Hence the neo-pagan Groundhog Day.) Here in the northeast, the weather is decidedly still wintry, quite cold, somewhat snowy. Some rejoice in winter's quiet call to contemplative slowing down. Others are angered by how nature interferes with our modern, anti-natural lifestyle, capitalism's refusal to slow down as nature commands us to do. And, as befits our restless unsatisfied human condition, many who now complain about the bitter cold, will soon complain about the heat and humidity of summer. 

Even so, in spite of cold and snow, the impending change of seasons is increasingly evident, as the days are noticeably growing 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 transition (according to an ancient European way of reckoning the seasons) from winter to spring. In little more than six weeks, day and night, light and dark will be equal. 

So it is unsurprising that this day has traditionally been observed as the last of the winter light festivals, an occasion on which the Church's calendar directs our attention forward to what these winter light festivals are meant to symbolize

The familiar carol stops at day 12 (January 5), but Candlemas is actually the 40th and final day of Christmas. It marks the definitive end of the Christmas season, a transition marked liturgically by the replacement of the antiphon Alma Redemptoris Mater after Compline by the Ave Regina Caelorum. In Italy (and perhaps elsewhere), the presepio (nativity scene) typically remains in place in churches until today. Thus, 10 years ago at this time, having arrived in Rome in early January, I had the pleasure of almost a full month of visiting the various presepe – some monumentally elaborate, some surprisingly simple – on display in Rome’s many churches.

In the western, Latin Church, today is officially called the Presentation of the Lord, although for several centuries it was also known as the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Both themes are reflected in Luke's account, according to which Mary and Joseph took the infant Jesus to Jerusalem, in order to observe two important religious obligations. The first was an ordinary mother's obligation, to be purified after childbirth (reflecting ancient beliefs about the sacredness of blood, and the requirement of ritual purification after any direct contact with blood), an obligation with which Mary (notwithstanding her extraordinary circumstances) publicly complied. The second concerned the special status and religious responsibilities of a first-born son (because of God’s having spared Israel’s first-born at the time of the Exodus). Jesus, Mary, and Joseph’s participation in these rituals highlights for us, on the one hand, the sacredness of parenthood, and, on the other, the special status (and corresponding responsibilities) which now define our entire lives, because of our relationship with Jesus, the Redeemer of the world.

Yet, whatever the official name, the most common popular title for today’s celebration in the West has consistently been Candlemas Day, because of the Blessing of Candles and the Procession - originally in Rome an early morning, pre-dawn procession, originally somewhat penitential in character – with which today’s Mass begins.

That name Candlemas clearly calls attention, to the holy light of the blessed candles, and to the Lord whom that light symbolizes. The Church’s official ceremonial says that “on this day Christ’s faithful people, with candles in their hands, go out to meet the Lord and to acclaim him with Simeon, who recognized Christ as ‘a light to reveal God to the nations.’ They should therefore be taught to walk as children of the light in their entire way of life, because they have a duty to show the light of Christ to all by acting in the works that they do as lighted lamps.”

At the same time, we hear today, in wise old Simeon’s words to Mary, 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. So, even as we take one last look back at winter and Christmas, Candlemas looks ahead to spring and Lent, and reminds us that the point of Christmas is Easter.

Meanwhile, Simeon and Anna’s encounter with the infant Jesus in the Jerusalem Temple highlights the special vocation of old age, pointing us toward our own encounter with the Risen Christ.

In the Eastern, non-Latin Churches, this day is appropriately called the Encounter, the Feast of Meeting. Today, Christ comes to meet us, and we in turn get to meet him. Every Christmas we encounter Christ in a special way in the image the infant Jesus. When we encounter the infant Jesus in the nativity scene in church and at home, we appreciate anew the great mystery of the incarnation of God’s Son. When Simeon and Anna experienced in the infant Jesus the human face of God, they spoke about the child to all who were awaiting the redemption of Jerusalem. They hastened to proclaim and share their good news. That remains the Church's task today – to take the symbolic light of blessed candles out into our spiritually still so very dark world, and so to share with all the light reflected in our lives from the brightness of the human face of God.

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