Our Christmas tree and the Jesse Tree were packed away on the 12th Day of Christmas, 6 January, our traditional tree packing day. But this year, I kept up the Nativity scene. Tomorrow is the official last day of Christmastide, old Calendar style, so tomorrow away they go till Advent 2011, ten months way.
Tomorrow, 2 February, is the Feast of the Purification, also known as the Feast of the Presentation, also known as Candlemas.
It’s the Feast of the Purification because it marks forty days since we celebrated Christmas. Forty days after the birth of her son, as the law prescribed, Mary went up to Jerusalem with Joseph and Jesus to make an offering at the Temple. They were poor – we know this, because we’re told they offered a pair of turtledoves, which is the offering prescribed for a poor couple.
It is also the Feast of the Presentation; Jesus’ first visit to the Temple. The law said that whatever was firstborn of all animals belonged to God. The term we translate as firstborn doesn’t mean the first child of many, it means the male child that opens the womb – we use the term in a similar way when ask a new mother if this is her first baby. Every first born needed to be consecrated to the Lord, but could be redeemed rather than sacrificed. Every human first born male had to be redeemed.
So Mary and Joseph brought Jesus to be redeemed, according to the law. And there was an elderly man in the temple who had been waiting for this moment all his life. He had been promised by the Holy Spirit that he would live to see the ‘consolation of Jerusalem’.
He took the baby in his arms and he said:
“Sovereign Lord, as you have promised,
you now dismiss your servant in peace.
For my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the sight of all people,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel.”
It is from that hymn of praise, that joyful song of acceptance, that we get the third name for this feast: Candlemas – the feast of the Light of the World.
The prophet Anna, an elderly widow who never left the temple, also recognised the baby, and told everyone that he was the expected King.
These two are described by St. Methodius (b. 826) in symbolic terms. He wrote that by
the old man was represented the people of lsrael, and the law now waxing old; whilst the widow represents the Church of the Gentiles, which had been up to this point a widow –the old man, indeed, as personating the law, seeks dismissal; but the widow, as personating the Church, brought her joyous confession of faith and spake of Him to all that looked for redemption in Jerusalem…
The tradition on this day is to bless candles that will be used in the church during the year, and in many parts of the world this is followed by a procession.
The mystery of today’s ceremony has frequently been explained by liturgists, dating from the 7th century. According to Ivo of Chartres, the wax, which is formed from the juice of flowers by the bee, always considered as the emblem of virginity, signifies the virginal flesh of the Divine Infant, who diminished not, either by His conception or His birth, the spotless purity of His Blessed Mother. The same holy bishop would have us see, in the flame of our Candle, a symbol of Jesus who came to enlighten our darkness. St. Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury, speaking on the same mystery, bids us consider three things in the blessed Candle: the wax, the wick, and the flame. The wax, he says, which is the production of the virginal bee, is the Flesh of our Lord; the wick, which is within, is His Soul; the flame, which burns on top, is His divinity.
The Golden Legend, by Jacobus de Voragine, A.D. 1275, gives us another level of symbolism:
…if we will appear in this feast tofore the face of God, pure and clean and acceptable, we ought to have in us three things which be signified by the candle burning: that is good deeds, true faith, with good works. And like as the candle without burning is dead, right so faith is dead without works as Saint James saith, for to believe in God without obeying his commandments profiteth nothing. And therefore saith Saint Gregory: The good work ought to show withoutforth that thy intention abide good withinforth the heart, without seeking within any vain glory to be allowed and praised. And by the fire is understood charity, of which God saith: I am come to put fire in the earth, and whom I will, I will burn.
It is the custom in Europe and the United States to bring candles from home to be blessed – at least 51% beeswax candles to be used for devotional purposes. I didn’t know about that custom till I started researching for this article – but next year, I’ll make sure I have some ready to take up to Mass for a blessing.