The familiar carol concludes on the 12th day, but today is actually the 40th - and final - day of Christmas. In Catholic countries, it is a common custom for the nativity scene to remain in its place in churches until today. So eleven years ago at this season, while I was studying at "Saints' School" in Rome, I took advantage of that unique opportunity of almost a full month between my early-January arrival and Candlemas in which to visit the various presepe, which were on display in Rome’s many churches.
In the western, Latin Church, today is currently called the Presentation of the Lord, although for several centuries it was also known as the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary. According to the Gospel [Luke 2:22-40], Mary and Joseph took the child Jesus to Jerusalem according to the law of Moses in order to observe two important religious obligations. The first was the ordinary obligation in that society 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. 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 from Egypt).
But, whatever the official title, a common popular title for today’s celebration in the West has long been Candlemas Day, because of the Blessing of Candles and the Procession - originally in Rome an early morning, pre-dawn procession, somewhat penitential in character – with which the more solemn celebration of Mass today begins. This replaced an earlier pre-Christian Roman pagan custom. According to the medieval traditions recounted in The Golden Legend: "On the calends of February the Romans honored Februa the mother of Mars the god of war, by lighting the city with candles and torches throughout the night of that day. ... Since it is hard to relinquish such customs and the Christians, converted from paganism, had difficulty giving them up, Pope Sergius transmuted them, decreeing that the faithful should honor the hold mother of the Lord on this day by lighting up the whole world with lamps and candles."
The name Candlemas calls attention, obviously, to the blessed candles, but also to their light – and to Jesus as the One whom that light symbolizes. In the Gospel, the aged Simeon recites the canticle, “Now, Master, you may let your servant go in peace.” In the Roman Rite, this canticle, known as the Nunc Dimittis, is an important part of 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.”
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.) 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.
Meanwhile, at the same time as we recall with joy the Lord’s entry into his Temple: and suddenly there will come to the temple the Lord whom you seek (Malachi 3:1-4), we hear 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 points us toward our own encounter with the Risen Christ here and now.
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