February 2nd falls 40 days after Christmas, the celebration of the birth of Jesus. It is a significant date in the Catholic Church for two reasons. First, it was the day on which the purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary took place. Second, it is also the day on which Mary and Joseph brought Jesus to the Temple to consecrate Him to the Lord in accordance with God’s command: “Consecrate to me all the first-born; whatever is the first to open the womb among the people of Israel, both of man and of beast, is mine” (Ex 13:1). We celebrate these events on February 2nd, the Feast of Candlemas, which is also commonly referred to as the Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary or The Feast of the Presentation of the Lord.
Purification of Mary
According to Jewish tradition, the mother of a male child is considered ‘unclean’ for 40 days from the day her son is born; she is not allowed to touch anything that is sacred nor come into the sanctuary (of the temple or synagogue) until her days of purification have been completed. In the Book of Leviticus, we read, “When the days of her purifying are completed, she shall bring to the priest at the door of the tent of meeting a lamb a year old for a burnt offering, and a young pigeon or a turtledove for a sin offering, and he shall offer it before the LORD, and make atonement for her; then she shall be clean from the flow of her blood. … And if she cannot afford a lamb, then she shall take two turtledoves or two young pigeons, one for a burnt offering and the other for a sin offering; and the priest shall make atonement for her, and she shall be clean (Lev 12:6-8).”
We might wonder why our Blessed Mother was not exempt from the Jewish purification laws, for unlike us she was conceived without sin; she was most pure and conceived Jesus in a miraculous manner through the power of the Holy Spirit. Like St. Bernard, we might ask, “Don’t you think that Our Lady could have complained and said, ‘What need have I of purification? Why should the authorities block my entrance into the temple when my womb has been turned into the temple of the Holy Spirit? Why can’t I go into the temple when I have brought to life the Lord of the temple? There has been nothing impure, nothing illicit, nothing to purify in this conception and this birth. This Child is the source of all purity. He has come to purify us from our sins. What then is there to purify in me when he has made me most pure in this immaculate birth?’”1
But Mary didn’t choose to respond in this way. Instead, she acted as any other faithful Jewish woman of her time would have done. “She wanted to be an example of obedience and humility. … Even though she was the Mother of God, or perhaps because of that fact, she went to the temple just like any other woman.”2 Mary did not ask for special treatment.
The Story of the Presentation of Jesus
And so, we read in the Gospel of Luke (Lk 2:22-40) that Mary and Joseph travelled to the temple in Jerusalem (approximately 9 kilometres from Bethlehem, about a 2 ½ hour journey on foot) to satisfy the Jewish ritual requirements of purification and to consecrate Jesus to the Lord. Because the Holy Family was so poor, they could only afford to bring two turtledoves (or pigeons) to offer as sacrifice.
When they entered the temple, they were met by Simeon, a righteous and devout man whose first glimpse of the Saviour was the infant Jesus resting in His Mother’s arms. This image is significant, for as St. Alphonsus writes, “Saint Simeon received a promise from God that he should not die until he had seen the Messiah born. … But he did not receive this grace except by means of Mary, for he did not see the Saviour until he saw him in the arms of Mary. Hence, whoever wishes to find Jesus, will not find him except through Mary.”3
Overcome with joy, Simeon took Jesus into his arms and, blessing God, proclaimed that he was now ready to die in peace: “…for mine eyes have seen thy salvation which thou hast prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to thy people Israel (Lk 2:29-32).”
Simeon then blessed the Holy Family, but before taking his leave he turned to Mary and prophesied, saying, “Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is spoken against (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), that thoughts out of many hearts may be revealed (Lk 2:34-35).” With these words, Simeon foretold that not everyone would believe in Jesus; some would reject Him, and His Mother, Mary, would share in Jesus’ sufferings. Yet despite the suffering and sorrow that lay ahead, Jesus’ coming was above all a reason for joy. Anna, an elderly prophetess who lived at the Temple, came up to them at that very moment, giving praise and thanks to God.
History of Candlemas
The celebration of the Presentation of Jesus – Candlemas – finds its roots in pagan history. The ancient festival of Candlemas marked the midpoint of winter – the halfway point between the shortest day of the year (the winter solstice, December 21st) and the spring equinox (March 20th). Before the coming of Christ, it was known as ‘the ‘Feast of Lights’ and [it] celebrated the increased strength of the life-giving sun as winter gave way to spring.”4 Candlemas Day was even credited with predicting the weather for the rest of the year. If the day was bright and sunny, then more winter was in store; but if it was cloudy and wet, then it meant that the worst of winter was over.5
“If Candlemas Day be fair and bright
Winter will have another fight.
If Candlemas Day brings cloud and rain,
Winter won’t come again.”6
Remnants of this superstition persist in North America, where the media still reports on whether the groundhog sees his shadow each year on February 2nd, Groundhog Day.
With the coming of Christianity, the Feast of Lights was transformed into the sacred celebration of Candlemas. This feast day symbolically reminds us that before Christ came, the world lived in sin and darkness. But by His coming, Jesus – the Light of the World – came to save all who were once lost. “I am the light of the world,” He said. “He who follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life (Jn 8:12).” The tradition of the lighting of candles took on a new meaning, and on that day, known as the Festival Day (or ‘mass’) of candles, all the candles that would be used in the church during the coming year were brought to the church to be blessed.7
Celebration of the Feast of the Presentation
The Feast of the Presentation has been celebrated since the 4th century AD in Jerusalem and is one of the oldest celebrations in the Church. In the Eastern Orthodox Church, it is one of the Twelve Great Feasts that are celebrated during the liturgical year.8 By the 6th century, its observance had spread to the west.
A distinctive feature of the Candlemas Mass is the procession with lighted candles. Pope Innocent XII (1615-1700) believed that this practice came about as an alternative to Roman paganism. “Why do we in this feast carry candles?” he asked. “Because the Gentiles dedicated the month of February to the infernal gods, and as at the beginning of it Pluto stole Proserpine, and her mother Ceres sought her in the night with lighted candles, so they, at the beginning of the month, walked about the city with lighted candles. Because the holy fathers could not extirpate the custom, they ordained that Christians should carry about candles in honor of the Blessed Virgin; and thus what was done before in the honor of Ceres is now done in honor of the Blessed Virgin.”9 Today, the procession of candles has taken on a deeper theological meaning. Fr. Francis Fernandez writes, “In today’s liturgy the procession of candles symbolizes how the life of each Christian should give light to others. Christ is the Light of the world. ‘Light’ as a word is frequently used to signify life and truth. The absence of light suggests solitude, doubt and error. Christ is the Life of the world and every person, the Light that shows the way, the Truth that saves, the Love that fulfils. … When we carry a burning candle in today’s procession, we are taking part in the light of Christ.”10
Some countries include unique cultural traditions as part of their Candlemas celebrations. In France and Belgium, for example, all of the candles in the house are lit and they celebrate by eating crêpes (which are round and golden in colour, reminding them of the sun). In Luxembourg, children go through the streets in the afternoon and evening, singing traditional songs in exchange for sweets; and in Mexico, the dressing and adoration of the Christ Child is followed by meals with tamales.
But no matter how we choose to celebrate this feast, we are invited to purify ourselves and come before the Lord, to make ourselves an offering to Him. Fr. Fernandez writes, “Our Lady wants to encourage us that we purify our hearts, that we make the offering of ourselves pleasing to God, that we find Christ in all the circumstances of our everyday existence. She wanted to go through with the required rite of purification, even though she didn’t have to do it, because she wanted us to give a high regard for the purification of our souls.”11 And so, with St. Alphonsus Liguori, we offer up the following prayer: “Today, Oh my queen, I also, in imitation of thee wish to offer my poor heart to God. … Offer me as thine to the eternal Father and to Jesus, and pray him that through the merits of his Son, and by thy favour, he may accept me, and take me for his own.”12
- Sharon van der Sloot
1 St. Bernard, Homily on the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary, III, 2. Quoted in Fr. Francis Fernandez, In Conversation with God vol. 6 (London: Scepter, 2000); 93.
2 Fernandez, In Conversation with God vol. 6, 93.
3 Ibid., 98.
4 Mandy Barrow, “Candlemas Day (the Christian festival of lights),” Project Britain Folklore Calendar – stories, sayings, customs; available from http://projectbritain.com/year/candlemas.html; Internet; accessed 25 January 2017.
5 Cf. Ibid.
7 Ibid. Today, the faithful are invited to bring candles from home to have them blessed by the priest as part of the liturgical celebration.
8 Easter is the greatest of the feasts in the Eastern Orthodox Church (as well as the Eastern Catholic Churches and the Byzantine Rite). In addition, there are Twelve Great Feasts, which include:
- The Nativity of Mary – September 8
- The Exaltation of the Cross – September 14
- The Presentation of Mary – November 21
- Christmas (The Birth of Jesus) – December 25
- The Baptism of Jesus – January 6
- The Presentation of Jesus at the Temple – February 2
- The Annunciation – March 25
- Palm Sunday – Sunday before Easter
- The Ascension of Christ – 40 days after Easter
- Pentecost – 50 days after Easter
- Transfiguration – August 6
- Dormition of Mary – August 15
9 William Shepard Walsh, Curiosities of Popular Customs and of rites, ceremonies, observances, and miscellaneous antiquities,1898; p.168. Quoted from Wikipedia, “Presentation of Jesus at the Temple,” available from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Presentation_of_Jesus_at_the_Temple; Internet; accessed 26 January 2017.
10 Fernandez, In Conversation with God vol. 6, 90.
11 Fernandez, In Conversation with God vol. 6, 95-96.
12 Ibid., 89.