The feast of the Presentation of the Lord (February 2), also known as Candlemas is one of the lesser known feasts in our church. The Gospel of the day taken from Luke, chapter 2 relays the story of Mary and Joseph taking Jesus to the temple 40 days after his birth in order to fulfill the prescriptions of the law as noted in Leviticus chapter 2. However, even more important than fulfilling the law by offering two turtle doves was their enlightening encounter with Simeon, a righteous and devout man and Anna, a prophetess. Simeon called Jesus a “light for revelation to the nations” while Anna saw Jesus as the redeemer.
The history of this feast is complex and rich. At one time it marked the end of the 40 day long Christmas Season as it sits on the cusp between the celebration of Jesus’ mysterious birth into humanity and his salvific death for humanity. Yet because February 2 most often falls on a weekday very few people even are aware of it. Nevertheless, I have very fond memories of this feast which go back all the way to my childhood.
Our family would attend early morning Mass on that day. Upon entering the church we received a thin, tall candle, one per family. After the priest said a prayer and sprinkled Holy Water we walked around the church in procession. As the oldest child I was tasked with carrying our family’s candle. My current fondness of processions probably dates back to those Candlemas celebrations when I carried the candle under the watchful eye of my parents and the envious glances of my siblings. After Mass we were encouraged to take our candle home and to care for it with reverence. The priest told us to light the candle in times of need. I distinctly remember lighting our candle when my great-grandfather was mortally ill while we prayed for his recovery. We also found some solace in this candle once he died. We even would light the candle and huddle around it during bad storms. It made us less afraid.
Many years later, when living in a Benedictine abbey we celebrated the day with even greater ceremony as the candles were bigger, the procession was longer and the psalms sung were more numerous. We started the celebration in the chapter room. After the lighting and blessing of our candles we processed through the entire cloister into the church while singing Lumen ad revelationem gentium or A light of revelation to the Nations. I can still hear the sounds, see the sights and smell the burning wax which even overpowered the copious amounts of incense used for the procession.
Memories are great yet they need to be interpreted carefully. My childhood experience of the feast reveals profound truths but maybe there was a hint of superstition which tainted the use of the candles at home. Or was it the result of a more generous and less complicated faith? My monastic memories, though revelatory of deep faith undoubtedly suffer from some liturgical romanticism.
The essence of the feast is this: year after year we are called to be the new Simeon and the new Anna who proclaim Jesus as the Light to the Nations and the Savior of the world. The candles are a tangible affirmation that Christ is indeed the Light. And the procession is not just a pretty parade rather it symbolizes and rehearses us in our calling to bring Christ’s light to the world.
As a child I always wished we could keep the candle burning throughout the liturgy and even on our way home. I did not quite know why but I thought it made sense. Today I know what I sensed then as I dream of this grand procession of all Christians leaving their respective churches on the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord with lit candle in hand, proclaiming to the world that Christ is the Light to whom we bear witness in word and deed.
At The Basilica we will bless candles for Candlemas on Sunday, January 31 during the 9:30am and 11:30am celebration of the Eucharist. You are welcome to take them while you if you attend the liturgy. Or you can come to The Basilica between 10:30-11:00am or 12:30am-1:00pm and pick them up while staying in your car. You will receive a prayer card outside the Rectory and the candles outside the school. We invite you to light these candles and say the prayer when you find yourself in any kind of need.
Blessed Feast of the Presentation of the Lord.