Candlemas: A Feast of Light, Hope and Memory

Today is the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord, where we remember the presentation of the Holy Child at the Temple in Jerusalem, performed forty days after His birth – this completed Mary’s ritual purification after childbirth and redeemed the first-born son, so that the Mosaic Law could be observed (c.f.; Leviticus 12; Exodus 13:11-16) and all righteousness fulfilled (c.f.; Matthew 3:15; Galatians 4:4-5). Our Lady too, as faithful handmaiden of the Lord, sought no exemption from the requirements of the Law, though no purification was actually required on her part; in fact, there was no need for women to journey to the Temple for purification, nor did Saint Joseph require any, and so Saint Luke presumably only mentions all these legal fulfilments together (c.f.; 2:22 – ‘their purification’) in order to arrange his material in a way that has more theological impact, and to underline the unity of the Holy Family.

What has traditionally been given most significance in this narrative though, is the Nunc Dimmitis of Saint Simeon, who, in a moment of revelation after years of waiting for the authentic fulfilment of God’s promises, recognises the Christ-child as the One in whom that fulfilment has arrived. Simeon asks that now he be allowed to depart from this world, as he has seen in Jesus its salvation, the ‘light to enlighten the Gentiles’ – he sees further than Saint Zechariah does in his Benedictus, which ends with the theme of light shining in the darkness (c.f.; Luke 1:76-79) and so lays the ground for the later insight. Simeon’s prophecy is actually what gave rise to the tradition of Groundhog Day, which is observed in North America (via an earlier tradition in Germany), as it came to be believed that February 2nd was in some way connected to the increase or decrease of sunlight.

What Simeon of course really meant (and which the folk tradition by no means denies, merely connecting the primary meaning with the deeply symbolic rhythms of nature) is that Christ would bring the light of salvation to all nations – that God’s promises were more universal than had heretofore been imagined. This enlightenment – the bringing of saving truth to the nations – has traditionally been symbolised by the blessing and lighting of candles, and this is why today’s feast is also known as Candlemas. What is interesting is just how powerful such symbols can be, and how important the commemoration of the events of salvation history, with the various symbolic acts and rituals that accompany such commemoration, is for faith; how important it is to sanctify memory by the repeated encounters with the dates of the Church’s calendar.

In a reflection on the season of Advent, Pope Benedict XVI (then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger) considers the part that this engagement of ours with the sacred calendar has in general, and the role that memory plays in the sustenance and deepening of faith:

The purpose of the Church’s year is continually to rehearse her great history of memories, to awaken the heart’s memory so that it can discern the star of hope. All the feasts in the Church’s calendar are events of remembrance and hence events of hope. These events, of such great significance for mankind, which are preserved and opened up by faith’s calendar, are intended to become personal memories of our own life history through the celebration of holy seasons by means of liturgy and custom. Our personal memories are nourished by mankind’s great memories; in turn, it is only by translating them into personal terms that these great memories are kept alive. Man’s ability to believe always depends in part on faith having become dear on the path of life, on the humanity of God having manifested itself through the humanity of men.

Seek That Which Is Above: Meditations Through The Year (1986), pp.11-12, Ignatius Press.

                In what Pope Benedict writes here we see the way in which the liturgical year helps to make the events of salvation history combine with our own personal history, so that the way we see our lives is coloured by those sacred events and our hopes gradually become aligned with the hopes of people like Simeon, Zechariah and Our Lady. Commemoration of these holy events, year by year, is indeed a way of nourishing our souls, and is so because of our internalising them, by ‘faith having become dear on the path of life.’ Just as we use sacramentals to bless and sanctify the ordinary acts of our day and thus remind us of the greater context in which we live, the observance of the sacred calendar by means of rituals like that of the lighting and procession at Candlemas brings the events of our daily lives into a grander narrative, so that our hopes become transfigured, more oriented to our ultimate ends.

Referring directly to the feast of Candlemas in another address, Pope Benedict first laments the fact that such an ancient festival, which used to have deep roots in rural communities, has become to a certain extent forgotten in our time. In considering the biblical roots of the feast though, he again connects its theme with hope – that in the meeting with Saint Simeon at the Temple, we see not only a particular encounter, but the transition from the Old Covenant, which was limited to one people in a certain place and time, into the New, where the Church shares the light of Christ to all nations. He then goes on to connect this universal hope to the theme of light which is so vividly celebrated at Candlemas:

This brings us to a second aspect of this day which the liturgy illuminates. It takes up the words of Simeon when he calls this Child “a light to enlighten the Gentiles.” Accordingly this day was made a feast of candles. The warm candlelight is meant to be a tangible reminder of that greater light which, for and beyond all time, radiates from the figure of Jesus. In Rome this candle-lit procession supplanted a rowdy, dissolute carnival, the so-called Amburbale, which had survived from paganism right into Christian times. The pagan procession had magical features: it was supposed to effect the purification of the city and the repelling of evil powers. To remind people of this, the Christian procession was originally celebrated in black vestments and then in purple – until the Council’s reform. Thus the element of encounter, again, was evident in this procession: the pagan world’s wild cry for purification, liberation, deliverance from dark powers, meets the “light to enlighten the Gentiles”, the mild and humble light of Jesus Christ. The failing (and yet still active) aeon of a foul, chaotic, enslaved and enslaving world encounters the purifying power of the Christian message…

…The candle-lit procession in black garments, the symbolic encounter between chaos and light which it represents, should remind us of this truth and give us courage to see the supernatural, not as a waste of time, distracting us from the business of ameliorating the world, but as the only way in which meaning can be brought to bear on the chaotic side of life.

ibid, pp.26-27.

                The particular hope we remember in this feast is hope in the light of Christ – what we celebrate at Candlemas is that the desire for deliverance felt by all peoples is made available in and through the Child presented at the Temple to Simeon, and that He, the very logos of creation, can alone truly provide right order and integrity to our lives again, connecting us to a deeper truth and greater context so that we can be freed from the chaos and evil in the world. What Pope Benedict mentions regarding the surviving pagan festivals could equally be applied to our own time – there is still a desire to be delivered from the darkness, and yet still we look in all the wrong places. It is only the light of Christ which truly liberates and purifies, and yet we remain mired in other things.

The tradition of lighting candles at Candlemas thus remains a powerful reminder of what is offered to us in the revelation of Our Lord Jesus Christ. In Him there is freedom from real darkness – from a ‘chaotic, enslaved and enslaving world’ – and He is the way to a life that can be lived in harmony with the will of God, which, as it is the will ordained for all of creation, will bring us into right relation with all things. This reordering of self to God is the only way that we can find peace within our own selves, or with others, and it can only come about by surrendering our rebellious wills to Him. The chaos in the world around us is not a separate thing from the chaos which exists within us – they are profoundly interconnected, and the only way the world can be brought to balance is if we are made so first (c.f.; Matthew 6:33). For the promise that Simeon saw (and which we, by remembrance, marry with our own hopes) to be fully realised, we must let that light of Christ in, and let it work through us unto our neighbour.

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