Most Catholics will walk into a candlelight procession this weekend and be completely surprised by it. The Catholic Church blesses and lights candles every year on February 2nd. But because it rarely falls on a Sunday, this important feast has been virtually forgotten. What exactly are we celebrating?
You probably know the Feast of the Presentation as the Fourth Joyful Mystery of the Rosary. It commemorates the moment when Mary and Joseph brought baby Jesus to the Temple. He as greeted there by Simeon and Anna. You can read about it in Luke 2:22-40. The law required the purification of a mother 40 days after the birth of a male child (Leviticus 12:1-8). It also stipulated that the first-born belonged to the priests. A firstborn cow, sheep or goat would be sacrificed to God by the priest. God's law forbid the sacrifice of children and instead specified that the child be ransomed by a payment of money (see Exodus 13:11-16, Numbers 18:13-16). It is a reference to the 10th plague in Egypt, the death of the firstborn, that finally convinced Pharaoh to free the Israelites. We are also reminded of the sacrifice of Issac by Abraham.
St. Luke loves the Temple (his Gospel begins and ends in the Temple, and his symbol is the Ox, a sacrificial animal). The way he writes this moment, Jesus isn’t being redeemed but rather presented. The unseen God has been worshipped here for centuries. Now God himself, in the person of Jesus, is visiting his own temple. He comes in humble form as a little baby. However, his visit does not go unseen. Simeon and Anna are symbols of the whole Old Testament. They have grown old waiting for God’s promises to be fulfilled. And they have not been disappointed. Simeon declares: “My eyes have seen thy salvation which thou hast prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to thy people Israel.” Remember how back at the beginning of Advent we were told to watch? Well these two old people are the only ones still watching. And they are rewarded with a vision of the Savior and Lord that all the people are waiting for.
A Light! That reminds us of Christmas and candles. So traditionally this feast is celebrated with a blessing and procession of candles, giving it its old English name of Candlemas. And that's probably why the blessing of throats for St. Blasé's feast day make use of blest candles (his feast is February 3rd). Apparently some old traditions connect this feast with its more popular name as Groundhog Day. It's also traditionally the day after which Christmas decorations must be removed. Why does this feast matter?
A Sparkler Send-off for the Christmas Season
A year ago I attended a cousin’s wedding. As the reception wore on, I got tired and planned to leave. People were telling me: “The sparkler sendoff is coming.” I didn’t know what they were talking about. The next day I saw a printed copy of the schedule. There, in black and white, was clearly listed: Sparkler Send Off. It was scheduled for just 15 minutes after I had left. The guests had all lit sparklers and the couple had walked through them on their way out to the car. The pictures on Facebook made it look pretty cool. I was sorry I missed it.
Have you noticed how the Christmas season ends strangely? Christmas music disappears from the radio basically on Christmas day. Some folks even throw out their trees that day. Most of us celebrate through New Years and then it’s back to work again. The Church keeps up her decorations until the Baptism of the Lord, but it feels out of place, as though Christmas is bleeding into Ordinary Time. Christmas needs a better ending. And this is why our ancestors celebrated Candlemas. We light candles one last time and celebrate the Light of the World being presented in the temple. It is a sparkler send-off for the Christmas season.
There are several things I love about this feast. First, it reminds us to never stop watching for Jesus. We lit one candle after another on the Advent wreath to prepare our hearts for the Light of Christ. God’s light has continued to grow brighter and brighter in the Christmas season. His light should fill our hearts, our homes, and our church. We should carry the light of Christ out into our dark world.
The next time that Mass will start with a procession will be the blessing and procession of palms on Palm Sunday. Then we will process with lit candles at the Easter Vigil. We spent the four(ish) weeks of Advent preparing for Christ. Now we have spent 40 days celebrating Christmas. This is similar to the way we will spend 40 days in Lenten fasting, followed by 50 days of Easter feasting. Candlemas is guaranteed to happen before Lent begins. It calls us back to Christmas, and forward to Easter. And frankly, it's just plain cool. Who doesn't like another excuse to party?
A Suggested Timeline for Your Christmas Celebrations Next Year
I’ll let you in on a little secret: I’ve been writing a book of meditations for the Advent and Christmas season. The book begins with the First Sunday of Advent and runs until February 2nd. The more I’ve worked on this book, the more convinced I am of the value of the Feast of the Presentation as a capstone to Christmas. I encourage you to plan for it in to your family’s celebrations. Here is a suggested timeline for Christmas next year:
- November 29, 1st Sunday of Advent: Light the first candle on your Advent wreath.
- December 6 (Sunday): Surprise! Treats for St. Nicholas Day!
- December 8 (Tuesday, holy day): Put up your Crèche (manger scene).
- Before December 17: Put up your Christmas tree. Decorate it, but don’t plug the lights in. Wait until the Light of the World is born.
- After attending Christmas Mass, put the Baby Jesus in the crèche and light up your Christmas tree. Change the candles in your Advent wreath to white.
- January 1 (holy day): Octave Day of Christmas; start the New Year with Mary.
- January 6 (Wednesday): Epiphany. Have a family party to bless your home with blest chalk. Afterwards you can take down the tree (if you want to) and the decorations but don’t take down the Advent wreath or the crèche.
- February 2: Feast of the Presentation. Have one last Christmas party! Light the candles on your wreath and have a family Candlemas procession to the crèche. Sing Christmas carols. Then put away any remaining Christmas decorations.
- PS: Buy your new purple-and-pink Advent candles after Christmas when they are on sale, and store them with your wreath so it's easy to get started next year.
The Ritual of the Blessing of Candles
Here's what happens at the Mass. The people should all be holding candles, which are then lit just before Mass begins. The people may gather in the back of church or in a gathering space where they can process into the church. After starting Mass with the sign of the cross and the greeting, the priest begins:
Dear brothers and sisters, forty days have passed since we celebrated the joyful feast of the Nativity of the Lord. Today is the blessed day when Jesus was presented in the Temple by Mary and Joseph. Outwardly he was fulfilling the Law, but in reality he was coming to meet his believing people. Prompted by the Holy Spirit, Simeon and Anna came to the Temple. Enlightened by the same Spirit, they recognized the Lord and confessed him with exultation. So let us also, gathered together by the Holy Spirit, proceed to the house of God to encounter Christ. There we shall find him and recognize him in the breaking of the bread, until he comes again, revealed in glory.
Then he blesses the candles:
Let us pray. O God, source and origin of all light, who on this day showed to the just man Simeon the Light for revelation to the Gentiles, we humbly ask that, in answer to your people’s prayers, you may be pleased to sanctify with your blessing ✠ these candles, which we are eager to carry in praise of your name, so that, treading the path of virtue, we may reach that light which never fails. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.
The priest says: Let us go in peace to meet the Lord.
Or he may say: Let us go forth in peace.
And the people respond: In the name of Christ. Amen.