Candlemas is one of my favorite times of the year. It takes place on February 2nd and commemorates the presentation of Jesus as a newborn in the temple. It is situated about half way between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. Even though it is still dark and cold outside, it is a time of hope. With each passing day, the light grows brighter and we are one step closer to spring. I am someone who has struggled with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) for most of my life. I am heavily impacted by the seasons and often feel somewhat depressed in the winter. The lowest part of the year for me starts in late November and ends in February. In February there is a sense of hope that this winter is coming to an end. We begin to see buds forming on trees, and gorgeous snowdrop flowers herald the forthcoming spring. There are times when I open my window and I can hear the faint trills of birdsong. In this post, we are going to explore Candlemas and how we can prepare for the season ahead!
Presentation, Purification, and Prophecy
Let us for a moment look at the Gospel of Luke chapter 2, verses 22 through 38. Scripture tells us that this was a time of purification. As practicing Jews, Jesus and Mary had to adhere to the law of Moses and follow the required rituals as spoken about in Leviticus 12. After giving birth, Mary would have been considered ritually unclean for seven days and then she would undergo thirty-three days of ritual purification. On the fortieth day after the birth, she and Joseph would go to the temple to present Jesus to the Lord.
The Gospel of Luke tells us: “When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord…and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, ‘a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons’” (Luke 2:22, 24). Due to the fact that Mary and Joseph were poor, they could offer either two turtledoves or two young pigeons; one would be used for the burnt offering and the other for the sin offering. Afterwards, the priest would make atonement for the young mother and she would be ritually clean.
Interestingly enough, this is not only a time of purification and presentation; it is a time of prophecy. Joseph and Mary brought Jesus to Simeon who is described as being “righteous and devout” and that he “look[ed] forward to the consolation of Israel” (Luke 2:25). We also see the key role that the Holy Spirit plays in this event. Scripture tell us that the Holy Spirit told Simeon that “he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah” (Luke 2:26).
The older man takes the newborn Jesus in his arms and praises God: “‘Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel’” (Luke 2:29-32). This is a prayer that is said by many Christians. In my tradition, I pray this specific prayer in the evenings and I am always overwhelmed by the beauty of it.
The thing is that Simeon has been “guided by the [Holy] Spirit” this whole time. He now pronounces a prophecy of Jesus’s future: “‘This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul, too” (Luke 2:34-5).
As I read this passage, I cannot help but focus on the people involved in this event. What did they think about this troubling prophecy? How did they feel? Mary is holding this newborn in her arms. This is supposed to be a happy occasion. What thoughts must have been going through her mind?
The History and Traditions of Candlemas
The feast day of Candlemas or the Presentation of the Lord has its origins in the fourth century. It was celebrated in and around Jerusalem in 350. There is an account of Egeria, a Christian pilgrim, celebrating the feast day in 380:
“But certainly the Feast of the Purification is celebrated here with the greatest honour. On this day there is a procession to the Anastasis; all go in procession, and all things are done in order with great joy, just as at Easter. All the priests preach, and also the bishop, always treating of that passage of the Gospel where, on the fortieth day, Joseph and Mary brought the Lord into the Temple, and Simeon and Anna the prophetess, the daughter of Famuhel, saw Him, and of the words which they said when they saw the Lord, and of the offerings which the parents presented. And when all things have been celebrated in order as is customary, the sacrament is administered, and so the people are dismissed.”
Around the year 542, Emperor Justinian mandated that the feast day be celebrated “as an act of thanksgiving for the ending of the plague.” After that, the tradition of celebrating that feast disseminated throughout the eastern empire. According to Matthew R. Mauriello, Candlemas was then referred to as “Hypapante” or “Meeting,” in reference to the meeting of Jesus and Mary with Simeon and the prophetess, Anna.1
As Candlemas was practiced throughout western Christianity, this feast day became synonymous with the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The name “Candlemas” or “Candle mass” became prevalent when the feast was spread to England. The tradition is that the candles were blessed and held in procession before the mass took place.1
Preparing for Lent
Candlemas is traditionally a time where people bring their candles to the church to have them blessed. This is something that I have done in the past and it is a beautiful tradition. Even though this is one feast day in a liturgical calendar, I spend days contemplating about the mysteries behind the Presentation of Jesus and the Purification of Mary. I look for kernels of wisdom to ruminate about or incorporate into my life. I like to light candles and think about Jesus who is the light of the world. Most importantly, during this time I start to look ahead. I think of the forthcoming liturgical season that is not far off: Lent. In what ways can I start preparing for Lent right now? What can I give up for Lent? If I am not giving anything up, what am I taking on? This time is a time to plan and prepare. Are you ready for Lent?
- Mauriello, Matthew R. “Candlemas Day, Liturgical History.” University of Dayton, n.d. https://udayton.edu/imri/mary/c/candlemas-day-liturgical-history.php