A light to all people: The feast of Candlemas

Scott Harris

January 31, 2020
Stained glass depicting the Presentation in the Temple, St. Michael's Cathedral, Toronto. Detail of photo by Wojciech Dittwald. Source: Wikimedia Commons
O Sion, adorn your bridal chamber,
And welcome Christ the king.
Embrace Mary, for she is the very gate of heaven
Who brings to you the glorious king of the new light.
She remained ever a virgin, bearing in her arms her Son,
Begotten before the day-star, whom Simeon received in his arms
And declared unto all peoples that he was the Lord of life and death,
The saviour of the world.
- Procession antiphon for the Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary
The feast day celebrated on February 2 has many names: Candlemas, the Presentation of the Lord, and the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Forty days after Christmas, it marks the purification of the Virgin Mary after ritual impurity from childbirth and also the presentation of the infant Lord in the Jerusalem temple. Deacon Pedro has written this interesting blog post discussing the biblical origins and cultural traditions associated with the feast day, so I’ll try not to repeat too much of the same information, but I will offer my own reflection on the feast day and my favourite aspects of it.
Even before I became a Roman Catholic, it was one of the feast days in the Anglican Church that I looked forward to the most. Not only did it seem to mark the first signs of spring and the increasing sunlight after the darkest part of winter, but the liturgy itself is so full of the symbolism of the growing light that came into the world at Christmas, especially among "high church" Anglican parishes, which emphasize the medieval Catholic heritage of that tradition.
Admittedly, it has been more difficult – in Toronto at least – to find Roman Catholic churches that acknowledge Candlemas in a similar way, although it is part of the rich patrimony of Catholicism. Feasts that aren’t days of obligation are usually ignored by a lot of Catholics today, unless they happen to fall on a Sunday, like Candlemas does this year.
The focus of this feast in the present-day has shifted away from being a Marian feast of the purification of Our Lady from childbirth, and more towards emphasizing the presentation of the infant Christ to Simeon in the Temple, although the two themes are tightly intertwined.
Manuscript image of the Presentation in the Temple with the beginning of the "Nunc Dimittis" below. From Les Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry. Source: Wikimedia Commons
In the Gospel reading, we hear the Nunc Dimittis, also called the “Song of Simeon”, in which a devout man sees the infant Christ and proclaims that he has seen the salvation of the world.
“Now, Master, you may let your servant go
in peace, according to your word,
for 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.”
This passage from Luke 2:29-32 is prayed daily in the Liturgy of the Hours as a canticle at Compline (night prayer), and is also familiar to Anglicans as a canticle at Evensong. Like the Magnificat, which is the Song of Our Lady used as a canticle at Vespers, the Nunc Dimittis is such an important statement of faith taken from scripture that it is part of the daily prayer life of the Catholic Church and other Christian Churches. The Feast of Candlemas celebrates the occasion in which those words were spoken by Simeon, recognizing the baby brought to the Temple by humble parents as the Messiah.
As Christ is “lumen ad revelationem gentium,” the light of revelation to all people, candles are blessed to symbolize the light of Christ. Churches used to bless all of the candles they would use in the year and distribute blessed candles to the faithful for them to burn at home. There would also be a procession in which the congregation joined in, carrying lighted candles. The practice of blessing taper candles at Mass for the people to take home has survived into modern times, allowing us to symbolically take the light of Christ out from the church and into our daily lives.
Candlemas celebrates the role of Our Lady in bringing forth the light of Christ into the world, as she is the gate between Heaven and Earth through which God takes on mortal flesh. Her purification from the period of the ritual impurity of childbirth, observed under the Levitical law, brings her to the Temple, where her infant son is presented to God and recognized by Simeon as the salvation of the world. Let us try to be like Simeon, recognizing the light of Christ and carrying his light with us into the world.
All prophets hail thee, from of old announcing,
By the inbreathèd Spirit of the Father,
God’s Mother, bringing prophecies to fullness,
Mary the maiden.
- from a hymn translated from the Sarum Breviary for the Vespers of the Feast of the Purification of the BVM